Patriots

4 Cowboys players to watch against the Patriots

The Patriots might have to use the "Tom Brady" model to slow down Dak Prescott, while Mac Jones has to be especially careful around one of his old teammates.

Dak Prescott Cowboys Patriots
Dak Prescott. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
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The last time the Patriots played the Dallas Cowboys (2019), things were quite different in Foxborough.

Tom Brady and Stephon Gilmore were still here. The team was coming off its sixth Super Bowl win rather than a year in which they just missed the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. They still had a top-10 scoring offense, and their defense was the best in the league. New England had actually won a few home games up to that point.

None of those things are true now. But the Patriots hope the end result from that season will be the same in 2021: a hard-fought win at home over a good football team.

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A victory over the 4-1 Dallas Cowboys could do more than just bring New England’s record back up to .500. It could reassure the Patriots and their fans that this team might have some real playoff aspirations.

The Cowboys, after all, have some stellar talent on both sides of the ball, and proving they can keep those high-caliber players in check will show the Patriots can hang with anybody when they’re playing up to their potential.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Blake Jarwin in the first half of a game against the Carolina Panthers in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins) – The Associated Press

Dak Prescott

Prescott is no worst than a top-five quarterback in football right now, which is a marvel considering the horrific leg injury he had to recover from last season.

The Cowboys signal-caller ranks second in passer rating (116.9) behind only Russell Wilson and sits third among qualified passers in completion percentage (73.9), three spots ahead of Mac Jones (71.1).

Though he hasn’t been quite as prolific yardage-wise since Week 1 (403 passing yards against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers), his efficiency and point production has been no less impressive.

Aside from a substandard game against the Chargers in Week 2, Prescott has thrown for three or more touchdowns in every game this year and boasts a stellar 13 touchdown passes against just three interceptions.

He’s that brand of elite quarterback that takes care of the football but also isn’t afraid to trust his arm — he throws balls into tight windows at a top-10 rate among NFL quarterbacks (according to NextGen Stats) but only has five turnover-worthy throws so far this season, per Pro Football Focus.

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“We’ve got to keep ’em off the board, try to get stops, try to make Dak (Prescott) read some defenses and hold the ball a little bit longer so we can get to him,” Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon said on Wednesday. “All 11 guys got to be on point this week.”

New England had some success in forcing Tom Brady to hold the football against Tampa Bay by disguising coverages and kept the explosive Bucs passing game largely in check by keeping the Hall-of-Fame quarterback guessing.

Look for the Patriots to do something similar with Prescott.

Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (7) runs upfield past New York Giants wide receiver C.J. Board (18) after Digg’s interception in the second half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (Photo by Matt Strasen/AP Images for Panini)

Trevon Diggs

For a quarterback often praised for this quick decision-making and accuracy, Jones has put the ball in harm’s way more often than you’d like (though that’s expected to the point given his inexperience).

Jones is tied with Sam Darnold and Jared Goff for sixth in the NFL with eight turnover-worthy throws according to PFF. Five of those passes have ended up in the hands of opponents.

He’ll need to be wary of his old Alabama teammate Trevon Diggs, or that number could grow on Sunday.

The explosive second-year cornerback is breaking out in a big way for Dallas, swiping the early NFL interception lead with six and breaking up four more passes along the way.

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He also has allowed a completion percentage of just 48.7 and a passer rating of 38.9 when targeted and hasn’t given up a receiving touchdown yet in 2021 despite being targeted more times (39) than all but one cornerback in the league, his teammate Anthony Brown (44).

Though Jones has said he “can’t be afraid of” his ex-Crimson Tide teammate, he knows he can’t afford to be careless with him.

“You just have to know where he’s at because you have to respect him,” Jones said. “Respect his game, respect his knowledge, and respect everybody on their defense and their coaching staff because they do a good job in preparation; it’s showing up on the tape.”

The Cowboys will trust Diggs and Brown to play in single coverage a lot — both are top-five among cornerbacks in man coverage snaps so far this year.

Whatever Jones or the Patriots say, going after Brown with whatever receiver is matched up on that side will be a safer bet than testing Diggs on Sunday.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons (11) works against New York Giants guard Wes Martin (63) during the second half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

Micah Parsons

There might not be a more exciting rookie defensive player than Parsons.

The physical-freak linebacker’s 4.3 speed wasn’t just a Combine fluke; it shows up on the field with sideline-to-sideline range and terrifying closing speed as a pass-rusher.

For perspective, Parsons, an inside linebacker, leads the Cowboys in pressures with 21 and is tied for the team lead in sacks with three.

Parsons still has some work to do in coverage — he’s allowing a 97.6 passer rating when targeted this year — and he misses quite a few tackles as well. But there’s no denying he’s a weapon, whether he’s used as a blitzer or if he’s pursuing quarterbacks who try to escape the pocket.

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The Cowboys don’t blitz a ton and struggle at times to produce pressure with four linemen with star DeMarcus Lawrence out of the lineup for a good portion of the season. So Parsons will likely continue to be a big part of Dallas’s pass rush against the Patriots.

What’s more, Parsons has lined up all over the Cowboys defensive front-seven, including several games where he has played outside linebacker more than inside.

Given the Patriots’ injury and COVID issues on the offensive line, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Dallas try to set up mismatches with the electric young linebacker on a backup tackle.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs for a touchdown against the New York Giants during an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Ezekiel Elliott

The Pro Bowl running back didn’t do much in the first two weeks of the season, leading to speculation that he might be starting to decline at just 26 years old.

So much for all that.

Elliott’s last three games: 95 yards and two rushing touchdowns against Philadelphia; 143 yards and one TD against the Carolina Panthers; and 110 yards and a TD against the New York Giants.

He ranks behind just Derrick Henry in runs of 10 or more yards, is tied for second with Kareem Hunt and James Conner (behind Henry again) with five rushing touchdowns, and is third behind Henry and Cleveland’s Nick Chubb in rushing yards (452).

Give the Patriots credit for bottling up the Texans’ (admittedly anemic) rushing attack after some questions about their ability to control opposing teams’ ground games. But this week will be a much tougher challenge against a much better offensive line and a much better running back.

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The Cowboys have no qualms about feeding Elliott the football, giving him more than 20 carries the last two weeks. So New England will need to strap up once again and stop the All-Pro back from eating up chunks of yardage and helping set up Dallas’s play-action.

The defense obviously can’t afford to forget about Amari Cooper (318 yards receiving) and CeeDee Lamb (348 yards), who have accounted for almost half of Prescott’s 1,368 yards passing together and are both dangerous down the field.

But if Elliott goes wild on the ground, the Patriots probably don’t win this game.

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