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When the Patriots host the Cowboys on Sunday they will face the former Cleveland Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan who held them to just 14 points last year.
But while the Patriots may have a sense of Ryan’s strategy from viewing the tapes from last season, they have some new challenges to prepare for on Ryan’s new defense.
No. 1 on the list is controlling DeMarcus Ware, considered by many, including myself, to be the premier pass rusher in the NFL today. Ware, who has led the NFL in sacks two of the last three seasons is a force to be reckoned with.
He is able to rush the passer with speed and power, and is one of the few defensive players who has the ability to single-handedly change the outcome of a game.
Ware was drafted with the 11th overall pick by the Cowboys in 2005 out of Troy. Originally projected to be picked in the second or third round, Ware shot up the board with incredible display of speed strength and athleticism at the combine.
Some people questioned the Cowboys for picking Ware over the more impressive Shawne Merriman. At first these people seemed right. Ware only had four sacks through 14 games. But Ware’s had his coming out party against the Carolina Panthers in Week 16 of the 2005 season when he recorded three sacks and forced three fumbles.
Since then Ware has been a mainstay at the pro-bowl and on the All-Pro team. In 2008, he was the first player to have a 20-sack season since Michael Strahan did it in 2001. That same season Ware finished second in defensive MVP voting to James Harrison (despite having four more sacks than Harrison).
Over his 6-plus seasons in the league no one has more sacks than Ware (85).
When he was drafted, Bill Parcells compared Ware to Lawrence Taylor and this week Bill Belichick, the defensive coordinator for most of Taylor’s career, made similar comparisons.
Like Taylor, Ware has the ability to single-handedly affect the outcome of a game. Though he is not the fiery leader of a Lawrence Taylor or Ray Lewis, Ware lets his performance do the talking.
Last year in the season finale he sacked then Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb three times and ran a fumble in for a touchdown to help ensure a 14-13 victory. The year before against the New Orleans Saints, the Cowboys needed to win to have a chance at the playoffs. Ware sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees twice, forcing fumbles each time, including one on the Saints last drive to clinch the win.
What made this display even more impressive was that it came just one week after he was taken off the field on a cart with a neck injury. Ware opened up this season with back-to-back two sack games and is currently ranked fourth in the NFL with five sacks through four games.
Whatever scheme he is in and whoever his teammates are, Ware has been able to consistently pressure the quarterback. But what makes him even more dangerous this year is that he plays in Rob Ryan’s defensive scheme, which emphasizes movement and multiple packages.
So where in previous years he would line up on one side play after play and rush on that side throughout the game, this year he will move around at the line, rush from the left, right and up the middle allowing him to get matched up one-on-one more often.
This makes him like the No. 1 receiver that an offense puts in the slot or in the backfield to get a better matchup. While the Patriots can’t have a blocker follow Ware everywhere he goes, they certainly need to keep track of where he is and leave an extra running back or tight end in just to get a chip on him.
Though the Patriots will aim to use two blockers on Ware throughout the game, the nature of Ryan’s defense will put Ware in some one-on-one match-ups.
Last week the Pats gave up four sacks to the Jets, and two of those were from the legendary Jamaal Westerman, who hadn’t recorded a sack prior to the game.
The only other time Ware faced them, the Patriots contained him pretty well as he was held to just one sack. But in the words of Tom Brady:
“If he (Ware) gets going early he’s going to be a problem all day,” Brady said.