ARLINGTON, Texas — Things were not going as planned on this business trip. The Patriots’ high-functioning, high-octane offense was sputtering, much to the delight of a crowd with high hopes of a Cowboys upset Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.
Dallas came out in a three-man front — a change from their normal 4-3 look — and one of those three men, defensive end Greg Hardy, was doing considerable damage.
Hardy, playing for the first time in more than a year after serving a four-game suspension, was crashing in off the end and crashing into Tom Brady. A lot.
Another player returning from a four-game ban, Rolando McClain, was causing chaos from his linebacker spot.
Hardy’s pressure, the offensive line’s failure to slow him and his teammates, and Brady’s inability to get the ball out as quickly as he had through the first three games of the season were adding up to a horrific start for the visitors.
It seemed the big D in Dallas was for defense.
“They gave us a look we hadn’t really seen them do before, played a lot of the game in a dime defense, a 3-2 look with McClain and [Sean] Lee in the middle, that left six defensive backs,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “They got on us, and it was a little bit of a different look.’’
McClain sacked Brady for a 9-yard loss on the first possession, forcing a Ryan Allen punt. Hardy got Brady for a 7-yard sack on the next set of downs, when the Patriots settled for a field goal.
Two series later, the Cowboys came calling again, getting to Brady twice, with Hardy sacking him for a 9-yard loss and Jack Crawford hitting him for a 4-yard setback.
“It’s a good front,’’ said Brady. “They’ve got good team speed, I was probably holding it too long on some of those plays
Left tackle Nate Solder, who was victimized by Hardy a couple of times early, said the Cowboys “have a good scheme and they play hard.’’
The Patriots started making adjustments, getting bodies on the pass rushers while Brady started doing Brady things: Finding receivers quickly and getting rid of the ball in a flash.
He hit four of five passes on a seven-play, 55-yard touchdown drive that he capped with a 1-yard run. Perhaps blowing off a little steam, Brady performed a celebratory spike that would have left Rob Gronkowski both blushing and proud.
Though Tyrone Crawford got Brady for a sack on New England’s final series of the first half — giving Dallas five for 28 yards — the Cowboys never got a sniff of the Patriots quarterback in the second half.
“Well, there were some adjustments made,’’ said Solder, who left in the second half with an elbow injury. “But we just started playing better, too. I mean, we had to. We couldn’t play the way we played in the first half.’’
“It was more us doing our job,’’ said tight end Michael Williams. “Not even doing our job better. Just doing our job.’’
Williams said the first half wasn’t as bad as it may have looked. “It was more a miscue here and a miscue there that made the plays happen.’’
Despite the pounding Brady took over the first 30 minutes, receiver Julian Edelman wasn’t worried about whether his quarterback would bounce back.
“Have you seen him play over the last 15 years?,’’ he asked. “He’s pretty tough. I don’t think anyone underrates his toughness. Tom Brady is tough. Very tough.’’
Brady, who completed 10 of 16 passes for 110 yards and no touchdowns in the first half, was a sizzling 10 of 11 for 165 yards and a pair of scores over the final 30 minutes.
“I thought [coordinator] Josh McDaniels and the offensive staff did a good job, and the players, making some in-game adjustments too with the look they gave us,’’ said Belichick.
Though everything may not have gone as smoothly as planned, in the end, Brady was happy with the way the Patriots took care of their business.
“It’s a big win for us,’’ he said. “Going on the road is never easy, especially when they get two key guys back. They really are a good team. They obviously gave us some trick plays, but we got the win.’’
Jim McBride can be reached at email@example.com