- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Locating and blocking DeMarcus Ware. The Cowboys move their stud outside linebacker all across the formation, so the first order of business is identifying where he is, before carrying out the more difficult assignment of blocking him. Ware has five sacks in four games -- some of which have come in crunch time -- and Bill Belichick mentioned him in the same sentence as former New York Giants great Lawrence Taylor this week. Ware and Anthony Spencer are a formidable 1-2 threat at outside linebacker, so one possibility is the Patriots running more three-tackle packages, a strategy they utilized on about 25 percent of their snaps against the Chargers to devote more attention to outside linebackers Shaun Phillips, Travis LaBoy and Antwan Barnes.
Limiting Jason Witten in the middle of the field. The nine-year veteran tight end leads the Cowboys with 27 receptions, so when it comes to taking away the opposition's top threat, this is where it starts. The idea would be to force quarterback Tony Romo to go to his secondary options and see if he can avoid the big mistake. The Cowboys are minus-4 in turnover differential this season. If the Patriots do pay extra attention to Witten, they'll be asking more of their defensive backs against dangerous receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, which also bears watching.
Rising up in the red zone. The Cowboys should be able to move the ball against the Patriots, but will they be able to punch it in for touchdowns? Dallas is 5-of-15 in the red zone this season, which ties for the lowest percentage in the NFL with six other teams. No defense is giving up more yards per game than the Patriots, but Belichick has made the point that the red-zone play has been better than recent memory (opponents have 12 touchdowns in 21 trips).
Redemption for Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The last time the Patriots faced a Rob Ryan-coordinated defense was last October, when they were smoked by the Cleveland Browns 34-14. The Patriots ran a lot of two-TE sets that day with Gronkowski and Hernandez, but the Browns won more one-on-one matchups against the then-rookie tight ends. The Patriots will need more from their tight ends -- from pass-catching and run-blocking standpoints -- to reverse the result.
Sub defense on the spot. After two straight weeks in which they've been in a base defense for the majority of snaps, this matchup projects as one for more sub packages. The Cowboys lean toward the pass -- they're ranked third in the NFL in passing yards per game, 28th in average yards per rush -- so this is where the Patriots need some of their top pass-rushers (Andre Carter, Mark Anderson, Shaun Ellis and Albert Haynesworth) to make life easier for those in the secondary while remaining stout enough against the run. If healthy, the Patriots look like they have an advantage when matching up their interior defensive linemen against the middle of the Cowboys' offensive line.
Welker and/or Edelman on punt returns. Opponents have returned 10 of the 15 punts from 2010 Pro Bowler Mat McBriar, which indicates that there could be opportunities for Wes Welker and/or Julian Edelman to make a play in that area of the game. While Welker mishandled one punt last week, he also proved he's still explosive with returns of 17, 12 and 25 yards. Welker was filling in for Edelman, but with signs that Edelman is ready to return from an ankle injury, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots divide the responsibilities.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
Limiting Ware and Witten are top priorities for the Patriots on Sunday.