Just over a month ago, NFL fans were preparing for an Eastern Illinois quarterback showdown between Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo on Oct. 11. My, how things have changed.
Since the beginning of September, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had his four-game suspension vacated, and Romo broke his collarbone in the Dallas Cowboys’ second game of the season. A matchup showcasing Brady and Cowboys backup quarterback Brandon Weeden is expected to be far, far less competitive.
There’s still plenty to watch in Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Cowboys, however. Check out six things to watch:
MALCOLM BUTLER VS. TERRANCE WILLIAMS
Malcolm Butler has given up big plays in his first three games as the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback, and that must come to an end Sunday against the Cowboys. With Dez Bryant still nursing a broken foot, Terrence Williams has taken over as the Cowboys’ X receiver. Butler should be able to shut down Williams, and must do so to prove he can hold up as the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback.
Butler understandably struggled against Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Antonio Brown in Week 1, then took chances and gave up touchdowns to the Buffalo Bills’ Robert Woods and Jacksonville Jaguars’ Allen Hurns. Butler can’t give up a touchdown every week, and this should be the game that streak comes to an end. Shutting down Williams could also give Butler a confidence boost as he prepares for tougher matchups down the line.
PATRIOTS’ RUN DEFENSE WILL BE CHALLENGED
Since Weeden is under center, and the Patriots’ run defense is allowing a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry, the Cowboys are expected to try to run the ball down New England’s throat.
The Patriots were able to limit the Jaguars to just 2.8 yards per carry in Week 3, but the Cowboys’ rushing attack, featuring Dallas’ elite offensive line, should be a much bigger challenge for the Patriots’ front seven.
The Patriots will likely stack the line against the Cowboys, forcing Weeden to try to beat them through the air. That only works if the Patriots’ front seven can actually stop Joseph Randle and the Cowboys’ running game, however. This is a good litmus test for the Patriots. If they can hold the Cowboys to under 4 yards per carry, they should be fine this season. If they can’t, and if their main focus is on stopping the rushing attack, it could be an issue all season.
JAMIE COLLINS IS A DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE
Linebacker Jamie Collins has 20-1 odds to win defensive player of the year, and while I’m not yet convinced he’s the Patriots’ best defender, I expect him to continue his torrid pace in this game.
Collins had 3 1/2 sacks on the season with two forced fumbles and 22 tackles. The biggest difference in his game this season is his ability to finish sacks. He’s nearly impossible to stop when blitzing up the middle, and despite the Cowboys’ impressive offensive line, he should get some pressure on Weeden.
WILL DION LEWIS CONTINUE TO OUTPACE LEGARRETTE BLOUNT?
Dion Lewis has been the Patriots’ starting running back this season, both in early downs and as a pass-catcher. Blount received 38 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps in Week 3 against the Jaguars, but most of that was in mop-up duty when the Patriots had a big lead.
I expect much of the same against the Cowboys, with Lewis receiving most of the early opportunities and for Blount to come in as a clock-killing back at the end of the game.
RYAN WENDELL’S USAGE
Patriots interior offensive lineman Ryan Wendell returned to practice this week after missing over two weeks with an illness. He even began Thursday’s practice as the Patriots’ center in the first-team offense. If Wendell plays this week, that could further shake up the Patriots’ offensive line rotation, which has seen Josh Kline, Shaq Mason, Tre’ Jackson and Marcus Cannon take snaps at guard.
Undrafted rookie center David Andrews has played every Patriots offensive snap at center this season, but that could change if Wendell is active. The biggest question is whether the Patriots would be willing to rotate their centers, as well as their guards and tackles.
CAN THE COWBOYS FORCE TOM BRADY TO HOLD ONTO THE BALL?
The key to beating the Patriots is to force quarterback Tom Brady to hold onto the ball for over two seconds and actually receive some pressure. The Steelers, Bills and Jaguars all have failed to do this, which is why Brady has only been sacked six times and hit a league-low 15.
The Patriots’ offense is such a well-oiled machine, however, that it’s nearly impossible to cover Brady’s targets without the risk of allowing a big play. The Cowboys’ secondary will have to be nearly perfect to even slow down Brady and the Patriots’ passing attack, and that seems unlikely, which is why I have New England pegged to win big for the fourth consecutive game.
Thumbnail photo via Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports Images
Thumbnail photo via Aug 22, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New England Patriots strong safety Malcolm Butler (21) warms up prior to a preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
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