New England Patriots

L-R Mac Jones, Trevon Diggs (via Getty Images and USA Today)

For the second time in three weeks, the Patriots will host one of the NFL’s elite offenses when the Dallas Cowboys come to town on Sunday. Luckily for the Patriots, some of what they used in Week 4 against Tampa should be applicable again in this game.

Like the Bucs, the Cowboys offensive attack centers around their MVP-caliber quarterback in Dak Prescott.  Prescott is surrounded by one of the best collections of skill players in the league, with Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, and Dalton Schultz making up the core of the group. As has been the case over the last few years, Dallas has one of the best offensive lines in the league.

When the Cowboys’ defense is on the field big plays are bound to happen – one way or the other. They have 10 interceptions through five games – with a league-high six belonging to second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs. However, when they don’t pick the ball off they’ve struggled. Opponents have thrown for 311 yards per game on Dallas this season. That ranks 31st in the NFL ahead of only the Bucs.

The Patriots kept things close with the Bucs in Week 4, and there’s no reason to think they can’t do the same against a similarly-built Dallas team. To do so, they’ll need to win in some crucial spots on the field. Here’s a closer look in this week’s Key Matchups…

  • When New England has the ball: Mac Jones vs. Trevon Diggs

    Jones and Diggs were teammates for two years at Alabama. On Wednesday, Jones recalled facing Diggs in practice back in Tuscaloosa.

    “He’s a great player, and I got a chance to practice against him a lot at Alabama, and he has a really good feel for the game. He’s very instinctual, very smart, fast, quick, explosive, strong, so he does it all really well,” Jones recalled. “He definitely made plays [in practice], and we had a lot of good players.”

    Asked if Diggs is a player to avoid, Jones replied “Obviously, you can’t be afraid of anybody or anything like that. You just have to know where he’s at because you have to respect him, respect his game, respect his knowledge.”

    At the same time, respecting Diggs may mean not throwing his way. Jones will need to keeps tabs on him on a play-to-play basis, because the best way to move the ball against Dallas is to target their other defensive backs. So while this matchup is Jones vs. Diggs, it’s also about the Patriots’ secondary and tertiary pass catching options (assuming Diggs takes Nelson Agholor or Jakobi Meyers) against the rest of the Cowboys’ secondary.

    Of course, this all hinges on Diggs actually playing on Sunday. The 24-year-old missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with an ankle injury.

  • When Dallas has the ball: Kyle Dugger vs. Dalton Schultz

    Like they did against Tampa, expect the Patriots to drop heavily into coverage in this game and dare Dallas to run the ball and keep it out of Dak Prescott’s hands. When the Cowboys do elect to throw against that sort of defense, Dalton Schultz will likely be targeted early and often.

    That’s been the case this year, as the fourth-year tight end has emerged as a real focal point of Kellen Moore’s offensive plan. Schultz leads the team with 26 catches on the season, and ranks top five in the NFL among tight ends in most major statistical categories.

    [They’ve] got a couple of great receivers, but all that being said, Schultz is really the receiving leader, which is pretty remarkable considering the guys that Prescott is throwing to,” Bill Belichick noted on Wednesday.

    Devin McCourty expanded a little further, explaining “he’s like a security guy for them. Obviously he gets a lot of targets, but I think his ability to just get open – not that everything is like a two-yard route – but I think his ability to be savvy and how he runs routes, how he reads the defense, how he gets in holes in zone, how he sets guys up in man-to-man, he does a really good job of just being in a spot that Dak knows at any moment he can get the ball to him.”

    The Patriots have two prototypical tight end stoppers in their secondary in Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger. Using the Tampa game plan as a model, expect them both to get a turn covering Schultz, but Dugger to be used in that role the majority of the time. If they can keep Schultz locked down underneath and on the boundary, the Patriots will be able to force Dak into making some less-than-comfortable throws.

  • Bonus: Matt Judon vs. Terence Steele

    Playing with extra defensive backs and dropping them all into coverage means the Patriots’ defense will have to be able to pressure Dak with just three or four rushers. That will be a team effort, as players have stressed this week, but all eyes in the pass rush will likely stay on Matt Judon.

    Through five games, Judon is half a sack of the league lead. Judon has at least one sack in four straight games, and has hit the opposing quarterback in every game the Patriots have played this season.

    The Patriots have played Judon off both the left and right edges this season, so either Cowboys tackle could fit as the other side of this matchup when it comes to the passing game. So why use right tackle Terence Steele?

    When the Cowboys have run outside to the left this season, they’ve averaged 4.37 yards per carry. That’s middle of the pack compared to the rest of the league. However, when they go off right tackle they’re one of the best teams in football, with that average jumping up to 7.98 yards per carry.

    That’s a tendency the Patriots should pick up on. Winning on the right side against the run will be significant in this game, so whoever lines up across from Steele for the Patriots – whether it’s Judon or somebody else – will have their hands full both against the run and pass.