A few key matchups for Sunday's Cowboys-Patriots game:
Since 2007, no receiver in the NFL has had more receptions than the Patriots' Wes Welker, who has racked up 477 catches. Welker is not the fastest receiver; when he came out of Texas Tech, his time in the 40-yard dash was 4.61 seconds on pro day in Lubbock. Where Welker hurts you the most is with his ability as a crafty route-runner to break a defense down. When you study the Patriots on film, he is always in motion. Rarely do you see him stationary in the formation. Welker has a tremendous ability to read defenses on the move and plot his route as the coverage develops.
With Welker, it’s more about the quickness than speed. Last week against the Jets when matched up against Darrelle Revis, Welker struggled because Revis was able to get his hands on him off the snap and mirror his route. Welker had a difficult time with Revis because the cornerback could match Welker’s quickness. Welker couldn't outrun Revis, so gaining separation was difficult. The Cowboys will match nickel corner Orlando Scandrick on Welker out of the slot and maybe Terence Newman, who saw action at the position against the Detroit Lions two weeks ago. Scandrick can match Welker’s quickness, and mentally he will be prepared for the types of routes that Welker likes to run from certain spots in the formation.
Scandrick's conditioning to play an entire game is a concern. Because of how the Patriots like to attack, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will use his nickel-and-dime packages quite a bit. In watching Scandrick work on the side before he was cleared to go back to practice, his movement and explosiveness were good. I look for Scandrick to try to play Welker in the same fashion that Revis did. Ryan spoke of trying to disrupt routes to hurt the timing of the Patriots' offense. Look for the Cowboys be as physical as they can in that 5-yard zone.
Another week, another big-team defensive tackle the Cowboys guards have to deal with in Vince Wilfork. Two weeks ago, Nagy and Kosier were matched up against the Lions' Ndamukong Suh, and for the most part they were outstanding handling him. Wilfork is the best player on the Patriots' defense. He plays with tremendous power and surge. He is 320 pounds and is a space-eating tackle who tries to take on blockers, allowing linebackers to make the plays. He is a tough man to move one-on-one in the running game, and as he is playing with his hands, he is reading the blocks and working toward the ball.
Against Oakland, when Darren McFadden tried to work the ball just off the edge past the tackle box and from the three-technique, Wilfork fought off the block of the guard and was able to tackle McFadden for a gain of 1 yard. Wilfork can hurt you the most with his power to get push in the front pocket. When you play against Suh, he is attacking you with pass-rush moves and power. Wilfork is more about the power than the moves.
The defensive tackle opposite Wilfork is Albert Haynesworth, who like Wilfork can get push in the middle but in passing situations. The Patriots like to sub in Kyle Love, who is lighter and gets off the ball much quicker than Haynesworth. Look for center Phil Costa to again offer assistance if needed, much like he did against the Lions. The Cowboys' plan should not allow Wilfork to be single-blocked that often.
* Cowboys DC Rob Ryan vs. Patriots QB Tom Brady:
The last time Tom Brady faced a Rob Ryan-led defense, he lost 34-14. When we visited Ryan for his Friday media gathering, Ryan spoke of Brady’s ability to prepare for a game each week. No one on this Cowboys staff knows the Patriots' signal-caller better than Ryan, who was a coach on that staff for four years. On a daily basis, Ryan was able to see scheme-wise what Brady ate alive when thrown his way.
Ryan spoke of how the Patriots keep throwing formations at the defense to get an idea of how they will play them. Once they understand their opponent's adjustments or scheme, Brady goes to work. Ryan doesn’t have to deal with a big down-the-field threat like a Randy Moss, but he does have to plan for one of the most accurate quarterbacks in NFL history.
Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will challenge this Cowboys' secondary. How Ryan matches fronts and coverages will be key in slowing down the Patriots' attack. Look for Ryan to try to attack Brady by twisting his front on passing downs.
The one area where the Pats' offensive line struggled was its ability to handle front movement. The Patriots are also starting a rookie right tackle in Nate Solder, who has been decent in the running game but has struggled on the edge. Ryan has done a good job of attacking offensive weaknesses, and this is one area where he can take charge.