After their win over the Jets, the Patriots host the banged-up Dallas Cowboys in Week 6.
Dallas’ early bye week gave them a chance to rest key players with early-season injuries, such as quarterback Tony Romo, receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, and defensive back Orlando Scandrick. All four are expected to be on the field Sunday, and Dallas will bring a rested team that’s had two weeks to prepare.
Here are three areas to watch for:
* Romo has been a lightning rod for controversy this season, playing the role of both hero and goat in Dallas through four games. Hype and hyperbole aside, Romo has been largely accurate and efficient this season. He ranks in the top 10 in completion percentage (65.1 pct, eighth in NFL) and yards per pass attempt (8.4, sixth in NFL) among qualified quarterbacks. However, Romo’s rank falls in a few impact areas for quarterbacks. Turnover differential and third-down pass conversion percentage are two fairly solid indicators of a quarterback’s ability to run an offense. Romo’s +2 TD-Int differential is tied for 15th in the league, behind quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez and Matt Cassel, while he has 14 passing first downs on 41 third-down dropbacks (34.1 pct, 17th in NFL). Romo has simply been inconsistent in his ability to put points on the board and move the chains, a welcome sign for the Patriots' defense. New England is the second-worst defense in the NFL according to Total QBR allowed (67.5). The rest of the bottom five? Not exactly elite company, with the Dolphins (0-4 record), Cardinals (1-4), Colts (0-5) and Rams (0-4). A bad day from Romo could help the Patriots' defense build on the momentum from last week, when they held the Jets to 3-of-11 on third down.
* The Cowboys have a much-improved defense over their 2010 unit. The Cowboys lead the league in overall rush defense (3.1 yards/rush) and rush defense inside the tackles (2.7 yards/rush). Second-year linebacker Sean Lee is emerging as a run-stopping presence, tied for ninth among linebackers with 3.5 tackles for loss. On the whole, Dallas’ front seven doesn’t necessarily get into the backfield to make plays, but holds the line well and plugs gaps effectively. The Cowboys' defense also limits both the rushing and passing big play. The Cowboys are the only team in the NFL to not allow a run of at least 20 yards, and Dallas also is one of three teams (Pittsburgh and San Diego) to not allow a pass play longer than 36 yards. Part of this is Dallas’ ability to contain the sidelines. On throws outside the numbers, Dallas’ defense is allowing a 49.4 completion percentage (fourth in NFL) and 5.4 yards per pass attempt (third). If the Patriots can establish the run early, their best bet offensively will come using play action and taking a shot downfield. The Cowboys are one of seven teams to allow over 10 yards per play-action pass attempt, and Dallas has allowed six completions on seven play-action pass attempts (NFL-high 85.7 comp pct) at least 15 yards downfield.
* Felix Jones, DeMarco Murray and Tashard Choice comprise the rushing corps in Dallas, and the Cowboys have really struggled rushing outside the tackles while thriving on interior rushes. Jones’ cutback rushing style has yielded 4.8 yards per rush inside the tackles, 10th in the NFL among running backs with at least 25 rushes. The Patriots will have to focus on stopping the run inside the tackles, as they are likely to be without Jerod Mayo again this week and rank 26th in interior rush defense on the season. However, as a team the Cowboys rank last in the NFL on yards per rush outside the tackles (2.4). Jones in particular hasn’t been able to turn the corner effectively on rushes outside the tackles, posting a 2.8 yards-per-rush average on his 14 carries. Dallas has only one rushing touchdown on the season, a 1-yard pitch to the left, and only Dallas and the Chiefs have no rushing touchdowns inside the tackles this season.