Plan should be full speed ahead
Patriots need to attack Cowboys
FOXBOROUGH -- Ignore the Dallas defense's No. 1 ranking. So what, the Cowboys are first in the NFC and third in the league against the run? Disregard the fact that they're the toughest in the league to score against and have held four opponents to fewer than 10 points. Cease fretting about how New England's middle-of-the-pack offense will manage Sunday night at Gillette Stadium against what Bill Belichick considers to be the fastest defense his team has faced this season.
Stop. It's hammer time.
As in, it's time for the Patriots to unleash the closest thing they have to a punishing running back, Antowain Smith. After sitting on the shelf for 2 1/2 games with a left shoulder injury and carrying just three times in his return against Cleveland Oct. 26, Smith got put to use against Denver Nov. 3, carrying a season-high 17 times, for only 55 yards. The Patriots need more from him Sunday.
You don't run sideline to sideline against defenses like Dallas's. You don't try to run from them. You run goal line to goal line. You run over them. It's difficult to chase down plays from the back side from your backside.
"They're a good defense, and they're very fast, and the best way to try to attack them is to run right at them," Smith said yesterday. "Our main thing is we have to go out there and try to get positive yards, try to eliminate the losses. If we can do that and be successful and not get frustrated, because they're going to make plays, and just get into third-and-manageable situations, we'll be all right."
If not, Tom Brady may not be all right come Monday morning. He watched Sunday as friend Drew Bledsoe endured the wrath of the second coming of the Doomsday Defense. "[Bledsoe] is a big guy and I'm not nearly as big as he is," Brady said. "So I don't know if I would have held up after a game like that."
The Bills scored 6 points last Sunday against Big D's big D, but the Bills were effective when they ran straight ahead. Of Buffalo's 25 runs (for 100 yards), 11 went between the tackles and produced 51 yards, including two 11-yard gains and another of 10 yards. The Bills ran off tackle three times for 3 yards. They gained 46 yards on 11 outside runs.
Buffalo ran 11 times behind the left side of its line, center Trey Teague, left guard Ruben Brown, and left tackle Marcus Price, and toward the right side of Dallas's defensive line, end Ebenezer Ekuban and tackle La'Roi Glover. Maybe they saw something. Maybe the Patriots have seen something.
A better sight for Patriots fans than the Cowboys corralling New England backs on toss plays would be Smith and, from time to time Kevin Faulk, picking up 3 at a pop behind center Dan Koppen, left guard Damien Woody, and left tackle Matt Light.
"The way to beat a fast defense is by wearing them down," Woody said. "Wearing them down means running the football. You've got to pound them, get them tired, and once you do that, you take away the one thing that's their advantage, and that's speed."
New England ranks 19th in the league in rushing and 25th in yards per carry, picking up about 3.6 an attempt. Dallas gives up about 3.5. Sunday night might be one of those games where you take what you can get. The Patriots will have to practice patience.
"[The Cowboys] make you earn it," Belichick said. "They don't give up a lot of easy plays. They chase down everything. You see a hole on film, looks like a guy is going to get through and have a decent play, and he gains 2 yards and all of a sudden it closes up. Or you throw a pass and it looks like there's nobody around him in the flat or over the middle or that kind of thing, looks like you're going to have a great play, and you gain 6 yards. It's hard to get down the field when it's all 2-, 3-, 4-, 1-yard gains. You have to have 20 good plays, and it's hard to put them all together like that. It's a lot easier if you could get a 30- or 40-yarder in there."
That's where your draws, screens, and reverses come in. Buffalo tried to catch Dallas with a few delayed handoffs. The Patriots love to run screens. And offensive coordinator Charlie Weis probably has a few double reverses marked in his playbook. Speed kills, but it can hurt the speedy team just as badly if used against it.
"If they're super fast, they can overpursue," said bruising fullback Fred McCrary, who is questionable with a leg injury. "Similar to Denver. But the way you beat them is not turning the ball over. They're opportunistic. We make a mistake, they're capitalizing on it."
Fooling the Cowboys may be easier written than done. Belichick said middle linebacker Dat Nguyen is as instinctive as Miami's Zach Thomas and commended the discipline of their defense.
"You have to pick your spots," Belichick said. "You have to find a few openings and try to take advantage of those. You're pawing and scratching for every yard you get. You have to convert on third down to stay on the field. You just have to do a good job of executing your plays and taking advantage of the windows that are there, and they're not very big windows."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.