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Scouting report

Cowboys at Patriots

By Jim McBride
Globe Staff / October 16, 2011

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Today, 4:15 p.m., Channel 25 (Line: Patriots by 6 1/2)

When the Patriots run

Offensive balance is huge in the NFL, and right now the Patriots have found it, thanks to solid play from their interior linemen and the consistent performance of the underrated BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The man they call the Law Firm continues to churn out yards and is coming off the best outing of his career. The 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound muscular back shows excellent vision, deceptive burst, and impressive strength (did you see him carry 305-pound Sione Pouha into the end zone last week?). Stevan Ridley provides enthusiasm and fresh legs. Ridley finds creases quickly and slides through them with quickness and power. He’s not a burner but runs with good pad level and will make yards after contact. The adorable Danny Woodhead has excellent instincts, vision, and toughness. The interior three of center Dan Connolly (he looks rather comfortable in his new spot), left guard Logan Mankins (the Surly One continues to knock foes senseless), and right guard Brian Waters (powerful and agile athlete excels on the move) are playing at a high level. Dallas’s Jay Ratliff (6-4, 287) lacks ideal size for a nose tackle but is an excellent athlete with good power. He will win his share of one-on-one battles. Inside linebackers Bradie James and Sean Lee share many of the same qualities. Both are intelligent, have strong hands, shed blocks quickly, and deliver big hits. This is a formidable twosome. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh will step up and lower the boom.

Edge: Cowboys

When the Patriots pass

“Protection’’ is the buzzword today, as New England must find a way to keep destructive linebacker DeMarcus Ware out of Tom Brady’s face. Ware, who lines up everywhere, is the game’s best pass rusher. The 6-foot-4-inch, 260-pounder (you’ll swear he’s bigger) has tremendous burst off the edge (but he won’t always come off the edge) and uses his high motor and strong hands to push blockers and collapse the pocket. Brady must find Ware before the snap and adjust accordingly. Double-teams are mandatory. Brady must get rid of the ball quickly, and he has the weapons to accomplish just that. The incomparable Wes Welker gets off the line quickly and runs excellent routes. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski (he’ll have to block plenty) and Aaron Hernandez also have the knack for finding soft spots quickly and are demons down the seam. When the safeties cheat up, Brady will look to Deion Branch (a lot) and Chad Ochocinco (not so much) to move the chains. A terrific athlete who explodes in and out of cuts, Branch has reliable hands, and more important, Brady trusts him. Ochocinco has physical tools but Brady still doesn’t have the confidence to throw to him in clutch situations. Dallas has a solid trio of corners in Terence Newman (excellent speed and mirror skills), Mike Jenkins (quick, agile, strong), and Orlando Scandrick (explosive, aggressive).

Edge: Patriots

When the Cowboys run

The ultra-talented yet ultra-brittle Felix Jones leads a Dallas ground game that can best be described as anemic. The 5-foot-10-inch, 217-pound Jones has excellent vision, balance, and patience. He has good initial burst and impressive acceleration in the open field. Jones lacks power and bulk; he won’t break many tackles and he will wear down. Myriad injuries (the latest is a shoulder) have taken their toll on Jones, who rarely flashes the explosiveness he showed consistently in college. Tashard Choice (5-10, 218) runs with a fire in his belly. Choice has good vision and will consistently make yards after contact. While his physical style leads to more yards, it has also led to a lot of nagging injuries. Rookie DeMarco Murray (6-0, 227) has decent size but is neither quick nor fast and his upright running style leaves him vulnerable to big hits. Center Phil Costa (6-3, 314) is big and powerful but he lacks athleticism and rarely gets to the linebackers. Right guard Kyle Kosier (6-5, 305) has all the qualities you look for in an offensive lineman: quick feet, strong hands, and an ornery disposition. Left guard Bill Nagy (6-3, 302) is strong but inconsistent. Patriot tackles Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, and Albert Haynesworth have the size, strength, and athleticism to dominate the interior. The trio will occupy their blocks and allow the linebackers (particularly Brandon Spikes) the space to find the ball.

Edge: Patriots

When the Cowboys pass

The Cowboys have a plethora of weapons in the passing game, and Tony Romo loves to sling it. Romo (6 feet 2 inches, 228 pounds) doesn’t have ideal size for an NFL quarterback but makes up for it with athleticism and a big arm. Romo has quick feet, moves well in the pocket, and throws gorgeous spirals. He puts a nice touch on screens, can fire lasers across the middle, and his accuracy doesn’t suffer much on the deep ball. Decision-making and overconfidence have always been Romo’s biggest problems. He’s always eager to make the big play and often ends up throwing a pick-6. Steady, dependable tight end Jason Witten is Romo’s safety valve. Outside burners Dez Bryant and Miles Austin provide the wow factor. The 6-2, 218-pound Bryant is an impressive physical specimen. He explodes off the line and can maintain his speed down the field. He has terrific hands and body control. He will fight for every ball and is a beast after the catch. His maturity and practice habits have been questioned but the man always shows up on game days. Austin has elite speed (though he is dealing with a balky hamstring) and will stretch the field consistently. New England’s struggling corners (who knew Kyle Arrington would be the best cover guy?) will need plenty of help from the struggling corners (James Sanders, you are missed) to slow the vertical attack.

Edge: Cowboys

Cowboys' key player

Jason Witten

An argument can be made that this 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pounder is the NFL’s most complete tight end. He has 7,333 yards and 37 career touchdown catches, but his most impressive stat? Of his 644 career receptions, 359 have resulted in first downs.

How he beats you: With quickness and strength. Witten gets off the line in a flash (think Wes Welker, only bigger), finds soft spots, catches everything, and makes a ton of yards after the catch.

How to shut him down: With extra help and lots of contact. New England’s ends have to bump him before the outside linebackers mug him. The safeties have to provide the final shots.

Cowboys' keys to victory

1. Ball security: Tony Romo has to take what the defense gives him (and that’ll be plenty). Don’t take unnecessary risks by forcing throws that just aren’t there.

2. Nickel and dime ’em: Dallas is stout against the run, but if you neglect to bolster the secondary with extra bodies, Tom Brady won’t need a running back to beat you.

3. Balance sheet: Use Felix Jones and Tashard Choice to wear down the defense and the clock. It will help prevent Romo INTs and Brady TDs.

Patriots' keys to victory

1. Grinding halt: Stop the run first and make Tony Romo beat you with his arm and his head. The more times he has the ball in his hands, the more likely he is to turn it over.

2. Fifty-fifty: This balanced offense thing is working out pretty good. So spread the wealth among the backs. If nothing else, it will keep DeMarcus Ware off Tom Brady for half the snaps.

3. Slot machine: The Cowboys vowed to make Wes Welker work. Target the mighty mite early and see if the guys with the stars on their helmets can back up their words.

Prediction

Patriots 31, Cowboys 28

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