Cowboys-Patriots Preview: Pats are going to need to score big to pull off upset

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Perry: Mac Jones and the offense better be ready to keep up vs. Dallas originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It may sound like hyperbole. It's not. Dak Prescott is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. By almost any measure. Traditional statistics. Advanced statistics. Eye test. Whatever.

His team is one of the best in the league at 4-1, and he's second in the NFL in quarterback rating (116.9). He's second in completion percentage (73.9), third in touchdowns (13) and ninth in yards per attempt (8.3). He's first in third-down rating (130.1).

Prescott is getting rid of the football, on average, in 2.52 seconds -- the sixth-quickest release time in the league, per Pro Football Focus. His offense is third-best in the NFL in schedule-adjusted expected points added, according to Five Thirty Eight, and fifth in passing EPA. On passes that travel 20 yards or more down the field, he ranks fourth in adjusted completion percentage, per Pro Football Focus. He's fourth in terms of his yards per attempt on short attempts thrown within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Perry: Time for the Pats to do more of what's working and less of what's not

Prescott can still hurt defenses while on the move. He ran for 35 yards against Carolina two weeks ago, and he's throwing on the run more often lately, according to Next Gen Stats. But where he's most dangerous is from the pocket.

"He's a mobile guy, but to me, you watch him, he's a drop-back passer," Devin McCourty said this week. "He's gonna throw the ball all around the field if you let him. If you don't get any pressure and you're not mixing coverages, he can come out and see what you're in, it's going to be a long day.

"He'll pick you apart up and down the field. The added bonus for him is the ability to stay alive (with his legs). He's not just athletic. He's a strong guy ... I would say [he's] an athletic, bigger, stronger guy that can do anything he wants by just sitting in the pocket, reading coverages, and getting the ball [out]."

So what do the Patriots do with him?

Though the Patriots haven't been afraid to blitz through five games, they may want to be selective in how often they decide to bring pressure. He often sniffs it out ahead of time and avoids it before it becomes a problem. No quarterback has been blitzed more often, per Sharp Football, but only seven quarterbacks have been pressured less often.

Against the Giants last week, Prescott was blitzed on over 40 percent of his dropbacks and threw three touchdown passes when blitzed. It was the third time he'd accomplished that feat this season. The only other quarterback to do it once in 2021? Tom Brady against the Cowboys in Week 1.

Based on Prescott's willingness to throw it anywhere, based on the number of receiving options he has, Bill Belichick knows it'll be a challenge to slow him down.

"If they’re open (he'll throw short)," Belichick said this week. "If they’re open down the field, he’ll throw it down the field. He’ll throw it to everybody. Whoever’s open, and, a lot of times, he’s got two or three guys to choose from. It’s a hard group to cover. [CeeDee] Lamb’s a very explosive player. [Amari] Cooper’s a really good route runner. Obviously, the backs are a problem when they get the ball. Tight ends are the leading receivers, so take your pick. And he can run too, so there’s a sixth receiver there."

The plan for Belichick and his defense could ultimately look pretty similar to what they showed the last time they were at Gillette Stadium. Going against a quarterback who makes you defend the whole field, against a quarterback who feasts against the blitz, against a receiving group with multiple explosive options and a reliable pass-catching tight end? Why not turn to the Tom Brady Plan?

Against the Bucs, the Patriots blitzed on eight of Brady's 45 dropbacks. Oftentimes they rushed three or four. They dropped numbers into coverage to flood the field with blue jerseys, and muddied reads in the middle of the field.

As was the case with Brady, disguise will have to be part of New England's approach against Prescott. Even when the Patriots only rushed three or four against Tampa Bay, they didn't telegraph their rush plan. The goal was to make Brady hesitate, and when he held onto the ball for more than 2.5 seconds (19 dropbacks), he had a lower quarterback rating, he was pressured more than twice as often and he took his only sack of the night.

Prescott is more explosive down the field when he holds onto the ball longer than 2.5 seconds this season (9.8 yards per attempt versus 7.1), but he's also more likely to put it in harm's way. He has four turnover-worthy plays on snaps lasting longer than 2.5 seconds this season, according to PFF, compared to just one when he gets rid of the football before hitting that 2.5-second mark.

The team that did the best job of bottling up Prescott and the Cowboys this season was the Chargers in Week 2. Dallas scored just 20 points as Prescott threw a pick and took a sack when holding onto the ball for more than 2.5 seconds, checking in with a rating of 72.9 in those moments. When throwing more quickly, his rating was more than 20 points better that day (95.3). The Chargers blitzed Prescott just five times.

The Patriots can still play man-to-man and drop numbers into coverage, just as they did against Tampa Bay. By the sounds of it JC Jackson will likely see CeeDee Lamb -- perhaps a more dynamic athlete than teammate Amari Cooper -- in coverage.

He gotta deal with me, too. I mean, he's pretty good, but he's gotta deal with my strengths too. That's how I look at it.

JC Jackson on the matchup with Cowboys' WR CeeDee Lamb

"He gotta deal with me, too," Jackson said Thursday when asked about Lamb's strengths as a receiver. "I mean, he's pretty good, but he's gotta deal with my strengths too. That's how I look at it."

That would leave Jalen Mills, who has been limited in practice this week with a hamstring issue, for Cooper. And tight end Dalton Schultz could be assigned to Adrian Phillips or Kyle Dugger.

Then there's the running game the Patriots will have to account for. With the two-headed monster of Zeke Elliott and Tony Pollard, the Cowboys are third in the league in yards per carry (5.3) and only behind Cleveland in rush yards per game (172.8).

Elliott (ribs) and left tackle Tyron Smith (neck) have been limited in practice this week, but the Patriots will have their work cut out for them in dealing with the physicality of a run game that has used both gap and zone concepts in order to try to plow over opponents on average over 32 times per game.

The Patriots have long been a defense that wants to take away what an opponent does best. Unfortunately for them, this week, there are no easy answers in that regard.

Prediction: Cowboys 27, Patriots 24

X-FACTOR: TE Jonnu Smith

Hunter Henry couldn't have sounded more confident in the fact that fellow Patriots tight end Jonnu Smith is about to fill up the stat sheet.

"He's going to come on," Henry said Thursday, "I'm excited to see him break out."

Now would be as good a time as ever. If the Patriots are going to keep pace with one of the best offenses in football, they're going to need Smith to be the dynamic playmaker he was expected to be when he signed in the offseason.

There could be openings for him against Dallas.

The Cowboys are a middle-of-the-pack defense when it comes to yards allowed to tight ends (18th in the NFL in yards per target), and they're one of the worst in football at defending the position, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric (31st).

None of Dallas' top-three linebackers -- Keanu Neal (56th), Leighton Vander Esch (68th), Micah Parsons (71st) -- rank within PFF's top 50 in terms of coverage grade. And safety Jayron Kearse, who has been asked to check tight ends in coverage quite a bit this season, is allowing a quarterback rating of 119.1 when targeted.

The question is, will the Patriots feel confident putting Smith to work in the passing game?

Against the Texans, in a game when New England trailed for the majority of the afternoon and needed to throw, Smith played 40 snaps but ran just six routes as a receiving option. (He was targeted twice and caught both for 27 yards.) That was the fewest number of routes run by Smith since Week 14 of 2018.

Smith has 15 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown through five weeks, giving him an average of 23.0 receiving yards per game. That would be his lowest per-game average since 2018 (19.8). He's on pace for his lowest yards-per-target figure of his career (5.0).

The reality is that New England's 12-personnel package -- one back, two tight ends -- has not been its most productive grouping. The 45 percent success rate with "12" ranks below Belichick's 11 personnel and 21 personnel packages. The Patriots also have just a 44 percent success rate when running the football with two tight ends on the field. And the team is averaging just 6.3 yards per pass attempt with "12," which ranks 22nd in the NFL, despite quarterback Mac Jones' affinity for attacking the short and intermediate areas of the field between the numbers. High-priced tight ends, it would seem, would thrive in this offense.

"If you're developing a young quarterback," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said this week, "the best throws are right in front of you."

Yet Smith was used primarily as a run blocker (29 snaps) in Houston. Why? The Patriots are looking for ways to become more efficient offensively no matter the personnel -- they're 26th in points this season -- and Smith has had several instances of drops or double-catches over the course of the year. Those moments may make Josh McDaniels feel more comfortable with Henry and three wideouts on the field rather than pairing Henry and Smith together in passing situations. The Patriots have used 11 personnel 55 percent of the time, while 12 personnel has been used on just 24 percent of offensive snaps.

The Patriots could help themselves and their ability to throw out of "12" if their running game was more productive in those situations. A productive running game with two tight ends on the field could force defenses to answer that offensive package by swapping out a defensive back for a run-stuffing linebacker. If the Patriots can get bigger, slower defenders on the field when they trot out Smith and Henry, that would theoretically give them an advantage in the passing game. But over the last two weeks, out of "12," the Patriots are averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. They'll have to bump those numbers up to get the defensive response they're looking for.

When Smith was signed by the Patriots, NFL evaluators told NBC Sports Boston he was a talented dual-threat player. He was considered an athletic after-the-catch creator as well as an impactful blocker. With the Patriots struggling to run the football outside the tackles, and with an explosive passing attack coming to town, they could use both this weekend.

Number to Know: 8.9

That's Jones' turnover-worthy play percentage on play-action passes this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Carrying out a run fake -- at times turning his back to opposing defenses -- has tended to lead to some dangerous moments for the rookie quarterback.

But that presents a sizable Catch-22 for the Patriots this weekend. The Patriots are generally a better and more explosive passing attack when using play action. Jones' yards-per-attempt figure is 1.6 yards better when using play action compared to when he isn't. His completion percentage is 8.1 points better. On a day when the Patriots passing game may need to pull every lever to be able to match points with Prescott and the Cowboys, play-action passes may be one way to go.

But ...

The Cowboys are second in football in takeaways (12) and first in interceptions (10) this season. Jones' teammate at Alabama Trevon Diggs has six picks all his own. Diggs can be had in coverage -- he averages 8.9 yards allowed per target, per Sports Info Solutions -- but when he gets his hands near the football, it seems to result in bad outcomes for offenses.

"He’s a great player," Jones said of Diggs this week, "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. I’m really proud of how he’s been playing, and it’s going to be fun to get a chance to be on the field with him again."

It might be risky, but in order to score with the Cowboys, the Patriots may have to test Diggs and the rest of the Dallas defense with some play-action shots. How they fare in that regard could dictate Sunday's outcome.