After escaping East Rutherford with a close win over the Jets on Sunday afternoon, the road isn’t going to get any easier for the 1-2 Patriots.
New England must now head back on the road to take on the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on Sunday in a Week 4 showdown. Dallas boasts one of the most balanced rosters in the league, and is looking to right the ship after a surprising loss to the lowly Cardinals in Week 3.
Here are four matchups to watch if the Patriots expect to leave Texas with a .500 record.
Micah Parsons vs. the Patriots’ O-line
Bill Belichick wants to get one thing straight.
Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons is not Lawrence Taylor.
“I would just say that I wouldn’t put anybody ahead of Lawrence Taylor – period,” Belichick noted on Wednesday. “I saw that guy every day for over a decade. He tilted the field for a decade. So until somebody does that – and there’s a lot of great players that have been in this league and I’m not taking anything away from anyone else and there are a lot of great players that are currently in this league – but I’m personally not putting anybody ahead of Lawrence Taylor. Not yet.”
He may not be L.T., but Parsons has already established himself as arguably the most disruptive defensive player in the league since arriving in the NFL in 2021.
In just three games, Parsons has recorded four sacks and an incredible 20 quarterback pressures. And given the state of New England’s O-line, the Cowboys star pass rusher could be licking his chops.
Even though Mac Jones was not sacked in Week 3 against the Jets, he was still facing pressure in more than a third of his dropbacks. New England’s interior O-line needs a stronger showing beyond David Andrews, although Cole Strange might be limited against Dallas due to his lingering knee issue.
Trent Brown might be the most important player on the field for New England on Sunday given his expected reps against Parsons.
Against New York, Brown showcased why he’s one of the best tackles in the game when he’s locked in. He allowed zero pressures against the Jets in 30 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (PFF).
As noted by Chad Graff of The Athletic, Brown is currently the top-rated tackle by Pro Football Focus, allowing just two pressures on 88 dropbacks.
Still, trying to slow down a one-man wrecking crew in Parsons might stand as Brown’s most daunting challenge all season.
Christian Gonzalez vs. CeeDee Lamb
Gonzalez, the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in September, has passed just about every test thrown his way as one of New England’s starting boundary corners in 2023.
Through his first three games in the NFL ranks, Gonzalez has succeeded in slowing down (or downright neutralizing) top wideouts in A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, and Garrett Wilson.
Despite New England’s 1-2 record, the Patriots’ defense has yet to relinquish a 100-yard receiving game, even with the Murderer’s Row of talented pass-catchers that they’ve battled.
Gonzalez (one interception, one sack, three pass deflections, 16 tackles) has played an essential role in New England’s efforts of not getting beat through the air. According to NFL’s NextGenStats, Gonzalez has only allowed his opponents to get open in man coverage 23.1 percent of the time.
Week 4 will present yet another difficult matchup for Gonzalez, as he will likely get the lion’s share of snaps against Cowboys wideout CeeDee Lamb in coverage.
Lamb (19 catches, 273 yards) is one of the focal points of the Cowboys’ offense, with the former Oklahoma product torching the Patriots in his last meeting in Oct. 2021 (nine receptions, 149 yards, two touchdowns in a 35-29 Dallas win).
With both Marcus Jones and Jack Jones still on IR (and Jonathan Jones still working his way back from an ankle injury), New England’s cornerback depth is thin entering Week 4.
Gonzalez must be up to the task when it comes to slowing down Lamb, given the dearth of reinforcements behind him.
Rhamondre Stevenson, Ezekiel Elliott vs. Cowboys’ run defense
The Patriots’ stagnant run game was one of the more perplexing shortcomings on New England’s roster through the first two weeks of the 2023 season.
A 1-2 punch of Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott was expected to be the focal point of New England’s offensive personnel, but the team entered Week 3 against the Jets averaging just 82 rushing yards per game — 27th in the NFL.
Last Sunday was a step in the right direction for New England, with New England gaining 157 yards on the ground against the Jets — headlined by a breakout performance from Elliott (80 yards on 16 attempts).
Elliott, set to face the Cowboys for the first time in his career, will look to do some damage against a Dallas defense that coughed up 222 yards on the ground against the Cardinals last week.
A repeat performance from Elliott will be welcomed, but New England needs Stevenson to assert himself as the team’s lead back on Sunday. The 25 year old was New England’s most valuable offensive player in 2022, recording 1,040 yards and five touchdowns on the ground while also catching 69 passes on 88 targets for 421 yards and another score.
Through three games in 2023, Stevenson has yet to showcase his trademark explosive skillset, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. Even with 59 yards against the Jets, he only averaged 3.1 yards per carry at MetLife Stadium.
Mac Jones vs. the deep ball
All things considered, Mac Jones has held his own this season when it comes to getting the ball out against pressure and completing passes in short-yardage situations.
But New England’s lack of big-play capabilities has routinely hindered this team through three games. The Patriots are currently dead last in the NFL in plays of 20-plus yards, with just three on the year.
It’s not necessarily that Jones and the Patriots are shirking away from the deep ball either. Referencing NextGenStats, Patriots.com’s Evan Lazar noted that Jones leads the NFL with 16 pass attempts over 20+ air yards. However, he ranks 32nd out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks in completion rate (2-for-16).
More snaps for Demario Douglas (17 in Week 3 vs. New York) could give Jones more options when it comes to targets capable of separating from defensive backs, especially given JuJu Smith-Schuster’s struggles this season.
But Bill O’Brien and the Patriots’ coaching staff might dial up some more play-action in Week 4 in order to create more big-play opportunities, as was the case on Pharaoh Brown’s 58-yard score against the Jets last weekend.
Despite their success with Brown in Week 3, the Patriots haven’t exactly embraced play-action so far this season
Phil Perry of NBC Sports Boston noted on Thursday that the Patriots rank 29th in the NFL in play-action rate (14.8 percent), even though Jones has a rating of 132.3 on play-action passes this year.
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