BOSTON (CBS) – The 2-2 Dallas Cowboys come into Gillette Stadium on Sunday for their first meeting with the New England Patriots in four years.
Dallas is fresh off their bye week, and with a little better play from quarterback Tony Romo, could be look at a 4-0 record. Instead, they come in needing a win, with the NFC East wide open at the moment. While Romo has his inefficiencies, he also had a good amount of weapons at his disposal.
But Romo and his receiving corp is not the biggest threat to the Patriots on Sunday.
The Cowboys DeMarcus Ware could be the best defensive player the Patriots have faced this season (Sorry Revis fans). The All Pro linebacker will be peppering Tom Brady all afternoon in Foxboro unless the offensive line, who gave up four sacks against the Jets last Sunday, can keep him at bay.
“He can get after a quarterback as good as anyone we play,” Brady said Wednesday. “If he gets going early, he’s going to be a problem all day, so we’ve got to make sure we really account for him on every play.”
The problem with Ware is not just the five sacks he has already racked up, but the inability to predict where he’ll be on the field.
“They move him around,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Ware. “It’s hard to call a play and say, ‘Well, he’s going to be here, this is how we’re going to deal (with) him.’
Gresh & Zo Whiteboard: Where is Ware?
“You’re not ever sure exactly where he’s going to be, depending on the call they have and what adjustments they make within that call to what you’re doing,” Belichick added. “That’s a big challenge. He’s a heck of a football player. He’s really fast, explosive… He comes up the middle. He comes outside. He’s a tough matchup problem wherever he is on the field.”
“(He) is one of the best players in the league,” Mankins said. “He’s a defensive end, outside linebacker guy that really gets after the quarterback. He’s got a ton of sacks in his career already and he wreaks a lot of havoc up there. He makes a lot of plays. He makes it tough on the line. He’s a special player.”
Ware does not get too many tackles because he is mostly gunning for the quarterback, but his monstrous presence draws enough attention to spring other players. Look at second-year linebacker Sean Lee, whose 35 tackles are already more than he had in 14 games last season, and was just named NFC Player of the Month for September.
“The tackles and tight ends know they’re up for a challenge,” Brady said. “As a quarterback, you don’t just drop back there and hold (the ball) and see how long you can hold it all day because, eventually, they’re going to get there.”
And that is exactly what Rob Ryan and the Cowboys defense is planning.
“I would say pretty much it’s the kitchen sink, to put it lightly,” defensive end Kenyon Coleman said of what the Cowboys will be throwing Brady’s way.
“We have to,” Ware said of getting in Brady’s face. “We have to get some pressure on him because the teams that have had success on them have been able to get pressure on him up front.”
The Pats offense has scored 30 or more points since week nine of last year. Fittingly, that 30-14 loss came against the Cleveland Browns with Ryan at the defensive helm.
He is now in Dallas and giving his players the tools and confidence for Sunday’s game. Imagine if the Browns had a player like Ware last November
Dez Bryant vs. Devin McCourty
The Patriots will once again be pitted against a big and strong receiver in Dez Bryant. In his second NFL season, Bryant has 10 receptions for 171 yards and three touchdowns. Two of his scores came in Dallas’ last game against the Detroit Lions.
Once again, it will be up to second-year corner Devin McCourty to shut down a bigger receiver.
“I think this biggest thing that jumps out is his athletic ability,” McCourty said of Bryant. “He’s able to play [anywhere] on the field. He can go deep. When he catches the ball short, he’s able to break tackles. I think he’s really, even if you watch on his punt returns, when he gets the ball in his hands he can go the distance. Good speed and good strength. He’s a guy even when he catches the ball short we really have to rally to him and gang tackle him and try to get him on the ground as soon as possible.”
“He’s like a tight end,” Belichick said of Bryant. “He’s big, he’s strong, he’s got good speed, returns kicks, so he can do a lot of things.”
At 6-2, 218 lbs, Bryant is not as big as Brandon Marshall or Vincent Jackson. He is closer to Buffalo’s Steven Johnson, who had eight catches for 94 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots only loss of the season.
Read: Patriots-Cowboys Preview
Luckily, McCourty has the experience going against big receivers. Though it hasn’t been a great start to the season, all the practice should eventually add up.
“Going against different guys this season who have been those bigger-type of receivers, you can use some of what they did against us and how they played,” said McCourty. “I think the biggest thing is just the physical nature of the bigger receivers – most of the time they’re bigger than the corners they’re facing so they try to use that to their advantage.”
And he will have some help from Safety Patrick Chung, who will be looking to stop the Dallas air attack.
“He’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong, he knows how to go up there and get the ball, he’s good after the catch. He’s a beast,” Chung said of Bryant. “We’ve got to find a way to stop him. They definitely have threats out there and they definitely have a good quarterback to get them the ball.”
“It seems like we have one every week or more than one in some cases,” said Belichick.
That will be the case once again, with Miles Austin set to return to the Cowboys. Toss in tight end Jason Witten, who the Patriots called a “different animal” this week, it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys have struggled so much on offense.
But then there is Tony Romo.
Making Tony Romo work means making Tony Romo make mistakes.
The Detroit Lions applied the pressure two weeks ago, and they were able to come back from a 27-3 deficit thanks to two pick-6s and another interception to set up a Calvin Johnson TD. He also threw a pick late in the Cowboys opener against the Jets, setting up the eventual game-winning field goal.
The Cowboys led by 14 points in the fourth quarter of the loss.
But Dallas gets a healthy Romo back, with a week’s rest on his cracked ribs. Owner Jerry Jones said he had faith in Romo two weeks ago, because frankly, you never know what Romo is going to show up.
It’s very similar to his play on the field. Wild and erratic, but at some times dangerous.
“He’s an elusive quarterback. He’s wild,” said Andre Carter, who saw Romo twice a year while with the Redskins. “He takes chances, but for the most part he’s been successful. Like any quarterback that likes to scramble, it’s always important to keep him in the pocket. He has that comeback kid mentality, especially when it comes down the wire in the fourth quarter.”
“He’s very mobile. He moves around a lot. No play is really ever dead with Romo – even when guys get to him, he’s able to escape,” said McCourty. “I think the biggest thing is once he escapes, he’s not always looking to just take off and run. A lot of times he gets outside [and] he’s still trying to throw the ball down the field.”
“He has the ability, to really, no matter which side he is on — left or right — he can turn his shoulders and get the ball vertical,” he added. “So in the secondary, we have to stay on our guys and stay ready no matter what he does back there.”
“He’s not a guy that’s going to take a lot of sacks,” said Belichick. “(He) gets it out quick, uses all of his skill players, is smart in terms of running run-pass checks. They do some things based on one look the defense gives they’ll do one thing, if they get another look, they’ll do something else. He obviously handles that pretty well.”
The key to rattling Romo will be to apply the pressure. The Patriots defense got to Mark Sanchez twice last week, and hit him five more times. It’s not the pressure normal NFL teams apply, but it’s a start for the Patriots. Getting contributions from their pair of former Redskins, Carter and Albert Haynesworth, will be a big part of getting in Romo’s head.
Romo can either win it for the Cowboys, or win it for the Patriots. It all depends what the Pats throw at him (or he throws to them).
Tune in to the Patriots-Cowboys game Sunday at 4:15 pm on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Get your Patriots Sunday started with Patriots Gameday at 11:30am on WBZ-TV and The Sports Hub’s pregame coverage, beginning at 1:00 pm. After the game tune in to the Postgame show on 98.5, and to Patriots Fifth Quarter on MY TV38.