Pats' O-line ready for everything
Cowboys' fast, blitzing defense expected to keep N.E. guessing
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When it comes to humor in the New England Patriots' locker room, there are a few places that visitors are sure to find it. Offensive tackle Matt Light is near the top of the list.
So when it was relayed to Light that the Dallas Cowboys plan to bring the "kitchen sink" against quarterback Tom Brady on Sunday, providing a pressure-packed test for the team's offensive line, it was right in his wheelhouse.
"Is this a full-fledged double-sink with a disposal?" he asked. "That's a heck of a sink. I've never caught a sink, but my wife has thrown a plate or two at me."[+] EnlargeTom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesMatt Light said the Patriots spent the week studying film and preparing for a team they're not that familiar with.
Light wasn't showing disrespect to the Cowboys, who come to Gillette Stadium with the NFL's top-ranked rush defense (61.6-yard average) and a pass defense ranked fourth (230-yard average). This is just his way; when there's a chance to keep it light, that's Light.
By 4:15 p.m. Sunday, however, Light knows the Patriots' hopes will sink if the big boys up front don't provide enough protection for Brady. That's usually the case every week, but perhaps even more so against a blitzing defense that Light and his fellow blockers say is faster than any they've faced this year. Compounding the challenge is that the Patriots aren't familiar with the Cowboys' personnel.
All of that has contributed to what Light described as a challenging week of practice.
"You're trying to understand these guys and what they do, and what they are, and who it is doing it," he said. "Especially with a team like this that we haven't faced in a while, and a team that is as explosive as they are, it's something that we really have to take a look at as far as film study.
"And what they throw at us is what they throw at us."
The Cowboys' attacking approach is sparked by outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, whom coach Bill Belichick has mentioned in the same sentence as former New York Giants great Lawrence Taylor. Ware has five sacks in four games, tying him for fourth in the NFL.
"I don't think it's any mystery that he's key to that front, but unfortunately for us, he's not the only one up there that's making a lot of plays," said Light, who has been one of the Patriots' most consistent blockers this season.
"The thing that makes him unique is that he's a threat on both sides of the ball, even in the middle depending on how they use him, and even dropping him into coverage. So it will be a big contest for us up front."
The Patriots, who rank sixth in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass play (8 in 204), could receive a boost with the return of starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. The 2010 second-team All-Pro has missed four of the first five games with a back injury, although he returned to practice this week.
If so, that could open the possibility of a similar game plan as was utilized against the Chargers, when the Patriots had three offensive tackles on about a quarter of their plays, a widening-the-line-of-scrimmage strategy targeted at neutralizing outside linebackers Shaun Phillips, Travis LaBoy and Antwan Barnes. Tight ends also could be called on to block more often.
While the Patriots have worked hard to familiarize themselves with the Cowboys this week, they know plenty about Dallas' defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan. A former assistant under Belichick from 2000 to 2003, Ryan served as Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator last year, presiding over the last unit to hold the Patriots to fewer than 30 points in the regular season.
The Browns smoked the Patriots that day, 34-14, in a game that has been revisited by players on both teams this week. Part of Ryan's strategy was to move defensive players around so Brady couldn't set the protection for the offensive line by easily identifying the middle linebacker.
"I think there are a lot of similarities as far as what they did back there in Cleveland, you see it playing over a little bit," receiver Wes Welker acknowledged. "Still, it's different players and playing to their strengths."
"We have to get open as soon as possible," added receiver Deion Branch. "They have guys like Ware and [Anthony] Spencer, and linebackers moving around. I think Coach Ryan has the right system for the right guys. For us, the front line is going to do a great job, we know it, and we just have to do our job and get open."
In describing the Cowboys' defense, Belichick called it an ever-changing unit, one that dials up different blitzes on a weekly basis. That has created a challenge in practice, because "you're not going to get them all, but you have to prepare for them all. They have a lot of variety in what they do and they disguise them well. They have good blitzers, fast guys that get there in a hurry [and] if you don't have them picked up, you won't have much time to throw the ball."
One Patriots player described the past three days as focused, with the team locking in on the challenge ahead. The Patriots obviously hope to have better results than the last time they faced a Ryan-coached defense.
"We definitely had our hands full last year in the Cleveland game, and I'm sure, like they said, we'll have a lot thrown at us this week," Light said. "That's the way they do [it], and their personnel lends to that. This is a unique group. We haven't seen anything like it this season."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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