Cowboys Big Three receivers are tough covers

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Cowboys Big Three receivers are tough covers

FOXBORO The New England Patriots have seen their share of big receivers and pass-catching tight ends this season.

But the Dallas Cowboys?

They have the kind of three-headed receiving monster unlike anything this Patriots defense has seen all season. When talking about the Cowboys' passing attack, you have to start with tight end Jason Witten, the team's leader in receptions (27), yards (366) and Pro Bowl selections (7).

"I evaluate (Witten) as one of the all-time greats," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "There's a lot of good tight ends in the league and there's good players at every position, but he's as good as any player and I'm glad we only play him once every whatever it is -- three or four years -- that's plenty."

Dallas also has 6-foot-2 Miles Austin, who had more than 1,000 yards receiving a year ago. And rounding out their trio of talented pass-catchers, is 6-2 Dez Bryant who is . . . we'll let Pats safety Patrick Chung tell you about Bryant.

"He's good. He's big, fast, strong," Chung said of Bryant. "He knows how to go up there and get the ball. He's good after the catch. He's a beast."

New England has had mixed results this season in dealing with big-time wide-outs and tight ends. In the 38-24 win to open the season against Miami, the Patriots had lots of problems trying to contain 6-4 Brandon Marshall who had seven catches for 139 yards.

The following week, New England defeated the San Diego Chargers 35-21, despite Vincent Jackson having a huge game. The Patriots took away San Diego's top receiver at the time -- tight end Antonio Gates -- and did not allow him to make a single catch. Gates had just one ball thrown his way.

"They made it difficult for me to get off the ball," Gates said following the loss. "They made it difficult for me to make a play on a ball. Every time I looked around, there were two guys around me. They had a game plan. They wanted to take me out of the game, and that's exactly what they did."

A similar approach to defending the Cowboys, however, seems unlikely.

Trying to take out any one of their Big Three receiving targets would in all likelihood create more opportunities for the other two to make plays.

However, having seen a number of large receivers and other talented tight ends already this season, should bode well this week for the Patriots in preparation for a Dallas passing attack that's ranked third in the NFL.

"It always helps that this is not the first time we've seen it, going against different guys this season," said Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty, who leads the Pats in tackles with 39. "The biggest thing is just the physical nature of the bigger receivers. Most of the time, they're bigger than the corners they're facing. They try and use that to their advantage."

And the Patriots will try to use the momentum gained from a solid defensive performance last week against the Jets, as a springboard going into the Cowboys game.

"That's what you want, to get better from one week to the next," said Patriots defensive lineman Shaun Ellis. "I think with us and our defense, we're doing that."

What if Belichick had coached the Ravens? 'I think we would've been competitive'

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What if Belichick had coached the Ravens? 'I think we would've been competitive'

FOXBORO -- Ever wonder what might've been if Bill Belichick had remained the coach of the Browns, and later the Ravens, after they moved from Cleveland? He says he doesn't.

"I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it, no," Belichick told Baltimore reporters during a conference call on Wednesday. "I try to think ahead and make the best of the situation that I’m in, which is what I tried to do when I was in Cleveland. I took a team that wasn’t very good in 1991, prior to free agency and all of that, had a real good team in 1994. The team moved in 1995."

The decision to move the team helped undo the Browns season in 1995, and Belichick was later fired. There's little denying, though, that he left the pieces of a competitive roster behind. And he helped stock the Ravens' cupboard with valuable assets.

Five years after Belichick's tenure in Cleveland had expired, the franchise won a Super Bowl with linebacker Ray Lewis -- drafted with a pick Belichick had acquired -- as its foundational piece. 

"We made a trade that provided two first-round picks that Ozzie [Newsome] did a great job with," Belichick continued. "Ozzie and Ray Lewis were two of the cornerstones of that eventual championship team.

"I have a lot of confidence in my ability, I had a lot of confidence in the coaching staff and the players that we had at that time – 1995 wasn’t obviously a great year for us. I don’t think we need to talk about that. We all know what happened. But yeah, I think we would have been competitive if I had been the head coach there. I think we would have been competitive. We had a good team, we had a good staff, and we had a lot of good players.

"Ozzie did a good job with that team and made it better, and they won a championship five years later [with] some of the same players that we started with. But you know, it wasn’t my choice, Ted [Marchibroda] came in there and was going to transition that for what they needed at that point in time. But I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it, no."

Bennett not practicing, Foster spends some time with receivers

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Bennett not practicing, Foster spends some time with receivers

FOXBORO -- Martellus Bennett could use a rest, and the Patriots had him sit out for the start of Wednesday's practice.

The 6-foot-7 tight end is dealing with ankle and shoulder issues that have limited him in practice in recent weeks, and he missed an appearance at a preschool on Tuesday with what a representative called an illness. During Sunday's game against the Rams, Bennett's physical ailments clearly limited him as he had difficulty both as a blocker and as a receiver. 

The Patriots also went without safety Jordan Richards, receiver Danny Amendola and special teams captain Matthew Slater at the start of practice. Richards suffered a knee injury against the Jets in Week 12 and missed practice time last week. Amendola endured an ankle injury against the Rams and left the game iin the third quarter. Slater is dealing with a foot injury that has kept him out of the last two games. 

Patriots corner Eric Rowe was present for the start of Wednesday's practice, but he was not spotted with other corners after a couple of drills. Rowe injured his hamstring late in the third quarter against the Rams and did not return. 

Patriots running back DJ Foster was spotted with receivers near the end of the team's media-availability period Wednesday after working out with running backs to start the session. Foster played receiver for a year in college after beginning his collegiate career as a running back. If the Patriots want depth at wideout with Amendola injured, Foster could be an option.