Spagnola: Need To Throw Fastballs By Belichick


FRISCO, Texas – Now for the litmus test.

The Dallas Cowboys offense after five weeks ranks No. 2 in the National Football League with 439.6 yards per game.

The rushing offense also ranks No. 2 at 172.8 yards per game.

The team is No. 2 in points scored, averaging 34 a game.

Quarterback Dak Prescott has thrown 10 touchdown passes in the past three games, all victories at AT&T Stadium, and his 116.9 QB rating ranks No. 2 in the NFL.

Running back Ezekiel Elliott is the league's third leading rusher with 452 yards and is on pace over a 17-game season for 1,537 yards. His six total touchdowns lead the NFC in scoring among non-kickers.

And the Cowboys' third-down efficiency is off the charts, converting at a 51.6-percent pace, No. 2 in the NFL. Anything in the 40-percent range is considered really good.

Wish there was some trusted tangible grade for offensive line play. The Cowboys would have to be top 5, if not better.

My, this offense is humming along, as expected. At least by me.

Now enter the New England Patriots, the NFL's No. 5 defense. The Patriots give up 317.6 yards a game. The Cowboys have yet to total less than 380 in any of their previous five games.

The Patriots give up just 18.4 points a game. Only the Chargers have held the Cowboys to less than 29 points, but the 20 out in L.A. was enough to win by three.

But more imposing than all those numbers, here comes the NFL's defensive Yoda, Bill Belichick, known to short-circuit the NFL's most powerful offenses. He did so first as a defensive coordinator for the two-time Super Bowl champion New York Giants during his time there and now as the 22-year head coach of the Patriots, having won six Super Bowls during his 19-consecutive winning seasons, that second to only Tom Landry's 20.

Belichick just figures offenses out. Exhibit A: Short-circuiting the once powerful Buffalo K-Gun offense in Super Bowl XXV in the Giants' 20-19 victory, and of late, probably like Exhibit X, holding his former genius quarterback Tom Brady and Tampa Bay to just 19 points in a two-point loss, a season low for a team having scored at least 28 points in four of its six games.

Yes, this is the test for this Cowboys offense, maybe having to deal more so with Belichick than actually the Patriots personnel. And maybe as much with a haunting history, the Cowboys last winning up in Foxborough, Mass., in 1987, having now lost the last four trips up there, including two years ago in that driving rainstorm, 13-9, when Brady produced the only touchdown of the game after a New England blocked punt set him up at the Cowboys' 12-yard line.

Pencils ready, Sunday, 3:25 p.m. (CT) at Gillette Stadium.

"This game will be fun," says Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, charged with matching wits with Belichick. "It's always a challenge each and every week to hopefully put ourselves together with a really good game plan and understand adjustments may need to apply to different games, different situations. I think we're really excited about this one."

Then there is this from Dak, charged with making those adjustments at the line of scrimmage, and also with deciphering what in the heck the Patriots are doing at the snap of the ball:

"Belichick's defenses are always sound year in and year out. Always disciplined. They come out and play consistent football on that side of the ball."

So, what might Belichick do to short-circuit this Cowboys' megawatt offense? When teams this year worked to take away the run, the Cowboys have crushed them throwing the ball. And when teams have played a cautious Cover 2 defense or tried to control Dak with a variety of pressures up front, the Cowboys one-two punch of Zeke and Tony Pollard have ground them up.

Well, our _Mick Shots_ podcast teammate Everson Walls lent some insight this week to Belichick's game-plan tendencies, since the former Cowboys cornerback played for Belichick with the Giants during that 1990 Super Bowl championship season and then also in Cleveland during Belichick's first head coaching stop.

"He's going to assign every position player to work on what affects him the most, OK. He's going to give him a task," Walls said of Belichick, who is 5-0 against the Cowboys. "OK, you look at the movements. All you do is look at the movement and what comes from all the movement that we have. Find a pattern to what's going on.

"Now you look at the pass patterns themselves – maybe the running game themselves. Look at what kind of blocking schemes they use vs. what we do, not what everyone else does. … And you had to present that when you came back on a Wednesday to the entire class."

OK, Everson, then what would you be looking at with this homework assignment getting ready for this Cowboys offense?

"As a cornerback, I'm looking at the wide receivers," he said earlier in the week. "Now, if he's asking me to look at it as a safety, then I'm looking at more passing downs, like second-and-long … and third downs. At the cornerback position, all I'm looking at is what my wide receiver patterns look like, what their splits would look like, what kind of patterns they run when their splits are tight vs. when they are wide. Combos, rub routes, all that stuff."

Great insight, but OK, "Cubby." In the big scheme of things, what's Belichick liable to do against this Cowboys team since he basically said of Mike McCarthy-coached teams, "He can put the defense in a lot of stress."

"And here is the thing about Belichick, and any good coach to me," Walls says. "You want to take away what we do best, that's just it. … Just like any coach, and Belichick has shown me this, he wants to just make you do something different, OK. And if you do something different, you're just not as comfortable. But that doesn't mean you can't adapt. … He thinks he has the upper hand on you if he shuts down what you're strong at."

So, let's ask ourselves: What are the Cowboys strong at?

And the answer might be the elixir to the Cowboys' offensive success so far. The Cowboys offense so far is able to adjust to whatever you want to take away. Want to take away the run? They will throw. Take away the pass, they will run. So far, Moore's in-game adaptability and Dak's ability to adjust at the line of scrimmage have been the key to success.

"Obviously, he's the best coach in NFL history, obviously we understand that aspect of it," Moore said. "He's been a defensive guy for a very long time, a ton of respect for him. And certainly someone that, as a younger coach, you are always learning from these types of coaches who have done it for a long time and have had a ton success. You learn through this process."

Take what Belichick did against Brady and the Bucs two weeks ago. He knew better than to send a steady diet of blitzes at Brady. Heck, over his 22 years, Brady has seen every blitz imaginable. So, the Pats only blitzed him like 15 percent of the time. Instead, Belichick gave him a steady diet of linebackers dropping back and bringing up safeties, trying to disguise their schemes at the snap.

And for this game, for this Cowboys offense, and knowing Belichick keeps everything tight to the vest, what concerns you the most, Bill?

"It's just the balance of what you have to defend," Belichick said of the Cowboys offense during a midweek press conference. "It's not just runs and passes. It's passes that complement other passes. It's runs that complement other runs. Runs that complement passes.

"It's everything. It's not just one thing."

And Dak thoroughly understands what he's up against. He at least got a glimpse two years ago up there, though the elements played a big part in the Cowboys failing to score a touchdown that day.

"It's just a challenge to us to be able to adjust with them and come out left-handed if we have to," Dak said when asked what happens if Belichick knows, so to speak, you have like a right-handed offense.

Then he would go on to say, "The Patriots are a team that does what they do best and take away your fastball, right? And I think that's what you are trying to say about the left-handed punch."

And here is the beauty of what the Cowboys offense has been doing. When Dak was asked what's the Cowboys offense's fastball, in other words, what does this offense do best, he promptly said, "Depends on the game!"

Since Belichick is somewhat old school, bet he doesn't want the Cowboys running for the 200 yards they have in the past two games and of at least 198 in three of their five games, possibly relying on an assortment of linebackers to confuse the Cowboys offensive line.

OK, well, here we go. What will the Cowboys do?

Depends, right. After all, it's _this game_. Cowboys vs. Patriots. Moore vs. Belichick. Left-handed or right-handed? Or both.

Great test to see if the Cowboys game-day fastball can knock Belichick out at last.

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