ARLINGTON, Texas — The 30 other NFL teams should thank the Cowboys after Sunday’s 30-6 loss.
Despite the lopsided score, the Cowboys actually proved that you can, in fact, slow down the Big Bad Patriots.
The 4-0 Patriots don’t have many flaws on offense right now, scoring 149 points this season, a franchise record through four games. But the Cowboys exposed a few pockmarks Sunday night, and this game would have been a lot closer if the Cowboys had even a halfway competent quarterback instead of Brandon Weeden, who was subbing for an injured Tony Romo.
The final score was a blowout, but the Patriots were pushed around in the first half, beaten at their own game by a Cowboys coaching staff that came in with a creative game plan.
The Patriots had tremendous field position in the first half — three of their seven drives started on the 40 or better, and another one on the 38 — yet they only had 13 points to show for it. A drive that started on the Cowboys’ 45-yard line ended in an un-Patriot-like field goal, and four of their drives stalled with punts.
Bill Belichick explained that the Cowboys gave the Patriots “a look we hadn’t seen them do before” — a 3-2-6 defense that smothered the Patriots’ receivers and forced the quick-triggered Tom Brady to hold onto the football longer than usual.
“It took a little while for us to adjust to it, to get a handle on what they were doing,” Belichick said.
This alignment caused the Patriots problems for several reasons:
■ With the Cowboys defensive backs playing press-man coverage, the Patriots receivers had a tough time getting off the line of scrimmage, disrupting Brady’s timing.
Brady kept patting the ball, waiting for his receivers to get open, and he took five sacks in the first half, after taking just six in the first three games.
“The longer he took to throw it, we knew we had a good game plan,” said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the only NFL owner who holds postgame news conferences and breaks down the Xs and Os.
■ The Cowboys knew Brady would try to get the ball out of his hands even quicker, and hoped it would affect his accuracy. That’s where having six defensive backs really helped — lots of athletic bodies all over the field, ready to knock down the pass or make a quick tackle.
“It almost looked like the minute the ball was hitting his hand it was gone, [but] that’s not as accurate a way to do it, so you need to be able to take advantage of a little inaccuracy to get it done that way. That was the plan,” Jones said. “I thought it worked very, very well. We just needed to have some drives, eat up some clock. That field position in the early part of the game was unbelievable, and our defense held them. I’m so proud of them for that, although it’s hard to be proud when you don’t win.”
■ Playing only a three-man front also allowed defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to get creative with his blitzes, and the Patriots didn’t block it well. Linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive tackles Tyrone Crawford and Jack Crawford each had sacks up the middle against the Patriots’ four young offensive linemen — third-year pro Josh Kline and rookies David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Tre’ Jackson.
And the Cowboys brought great speed off the edges with Greg Hardy, Demarcus Lawrence, and Jeremy Mincey. Hardy, playing in his first game back from a four-game suspension, embarrassed left tackle Nate Solder repeatedly, blowing past him for two sacks, a forced fumble, and a bone-rattling quarterback hit in the first half. Hardy had two more quarterback hits in the second half, when Marcus Cannon replaced Solder, who injured his elbow.
Overall, Brady was sacked five times and hit eight times.
“He was definitely frustrated, but it wasn’t enough to get a victory,” Mincey said. “We were all over the place. I just hate that the score doesn’t reflect our defensive effort as a team.”
Of course, the Patriots made their halftime adjustments like they always do, and Brady wasn’t sacked in the second half. Brady took advantage of the press-man coverage with back shoulder passes on the outside and swing passes out of the backfield. The Patriots hit on a few “rub” routes — the ones that weren’t called back for offensive pass interference — and capitalized on poor tackling on impressive touchdown runs by Dion Lewis and Julian Edelman. The Patriots also kept Rob Gronkowski in to block on a handful of passing plays to help slow down Hardy and the edge rushers.
“We didn’t back down, but we also didn’t make the plays we needed to win,” safety Barry Church said.
But the Cowboys definitely showed that the Patriots can be stopped. You need speedy pass rushers coming around the edge, a dominant nose tackle that can handle a triple team (Tyrone Crawford said he took on three offensive linemen for much of the game), athletic linebackers that can drop into coverage, a deep secondary that can roll six or seven deep, and a big defensive back who can hang with Gronkowski, as rookie Byron Jones did Sunday.
Jones, listed at 6 feet and 205 pounds, was the first defender to slow down Gronkowski this season, holding Gronk to a pedestrian four catches for 67 yards by using the Patriots’ favorite tactic — unpredictability.
“Just tried to use my hands, and tried to switch it up a little bit — play him on, play him off,” Jones said. “Just try to give him a different look every play.”
There aren’t many teams in the NFL that have all those elements on defense, plus a star quarterback who can put up points. Seattle is one (at least they were the last two seasons). The Cardinals and Packers are probably on that list. The Broncos might be. And the Cowboys might be, too, if they can stay afloat until Romo comes back.
The Patriots won’t have too many problems with their regular-season schedule. But the Cowboys showed Sunday that the Patriots aren’t entirely perfect on offense.