Remember the Patriots’ defensive game plan in Super Bowl XXXVI, when their goal was to get physical with Marshall Faulk and hit him within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage on every play?
The Patriots used a similar tactic against tight end Jason Witten in Sunday’s 30-6 win over the Cowboys, smothering him with double coverage and disrupting his timing as much as possible.
The Patriots knew the Cowboys were undermanned on offense, and that backup quarterback Brandon Weeden wasn’t going to be able to keep up with Tom Brady in a shootout.
The one element on offense that could keep the Cowboys in the game, however, was Witten, the future Hall of Fame tight end. So the Patriots sold out to stop him — bringing Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung down into the box to play press-man coverage, getting their hands on him within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, and then double-teaming Witten over the top with a deep safety, either Jordan Richards or Duron Harmon.
Witten did catch five passes but he gained a measly 33 yards, and was only targeted on six of Weeden’s 39 passes, as Weeden was forced to go away from his security blanket.
On top of it, the Patriots’ cornerbacks shut down the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant-less receiving corps — Malcolm Butler, in particular, did a fantastic job on Terrance Williams, who was held without a catch until 12 minutes remained in the game — and Weeden is not skilled enough as a passer to take advantage of the 1-on-1 coverage on the outside.
The result was a multitude of checkdowns for Weeden — 13 of his 26 completions went to his running backs — and a paltry 188 passing yards, 4.8 yards per attempt.
Other observations after reviewing the game tape:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ We wrote in Monday’s paper about how the Cowboys gave the Patriots problems in the first half with some new defensive wrinkles — mainly by switching from a 4-3, zone Cover-2 scheme to a 3-2-6 press-man scheme, with the two linebackers lined up on the line of scrimmage. This made it tough for Brady to call out the blocking assignments to his linemen, and the press-man coverage prevented Patriots receivers from getting much separation, forcing Brady to hold onto the football a little too long andtake some big shots from the Cowboys’ pass rush, particularly Greg Hardy.
How did the Patriots adjust to it in the second half? By running pick plays over . . . and over . . . and over.
They got busted for a couple of offensive pass interference calls — Keshawn Martin threw a blatant pick, and Julian Edelman was called for a questionable one on a big pass play to Danny Amendola (it looked like incidental contact). But the pick play is legal as long as it’s near the line of scrimmage and the receiver setting the pick isn’t too blatant about it. And the Patriots ran it to perfection to create some separation for their receivers.
The third-and-5 conversion to Rob Gronkowski for 18 yards? Pick play. Dion Lewis’s 10-yard touchdown catch? Pick play. Edelman’s 59-yard touchdown? Pick play. Edelman’s 21-yard catch on the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage was also a pick play.
■ No one makes chicken salad out of chicken scratch better than Lewis. He’s such a great fit for the Patriots’ offense because not only is he speedy and shifty at 5 feet 9 inches and 195 pounds, but he also runs with surprising power. We counted a whopping 10 missed tackles created by Lewis — including three on his incredible touchdown catch — a broken tackle, and 26 yards after first contact.
And on third and 1 late in the second quarter, Lewis was hit 4 yards in the backfield but powered through the defender, beat two more defenders to the edge, and scampered 13 yards down to the 1, setting up Brady’s touchdown sneak.
Lewis is much more Kevin Faulk than Shane Vereen with his ability to run between the tackles and power through defenders.
■ Certainly not the best game for the offensive line, with Brady taking five sacks and eight hits. Nate Solder had a few nice run blocks but got caught flat-footed and gave the matador treatment to Hardy on one sack (on a three-man rush), was blown up on the line of scrimmage (along with Josh Kline) on a third-and-1 run by LeGarrette Blount that was stuffed, and gave up a second sack at the end of the first half when Tyrone Crawford twisted his arm, injuring Solder’s right elbow.
Marcus Cannon replaced Solder and was equally embarrassed by Hardy’s speed on another sack, Jack Crawford bullrushed right through Sebastian Vollmer for another sack, and the Patriots had a miscommunication up front early in the game on the Cowboys’ zone blitz, allowing Rolando McClain a free sack on Brady while David Andrews and Shaq Mason double-teamed Crawford.
Andrews, meanwhile, hasn’t missed a snap on offense through four games, the only Patriot to pull off the feat. It’s not always perfect, but he’s having a great season as an undrafted rookie.
■ Mason deserves props for his hustle on Blount’s 34-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. Mason, pulling from the left side, huffed and puffed his way down the field with Blount, leading the way for the entire 34 yards. Maybe the 40-yard dash isn’t such a bad Combine drill for offensive linemen, after all.
■ In the second half, the Patriots kept tight end Michael Williams in as a sixth offensive lineman to help slow down Hardy (who popped Brady from behind on Edelman’s touchdown, leaving Brady wincing in pain), and even Gronk stayed in to block on a few passes.
■ Gronk was used as an in-line tight end on 35 of 57 snaps, and lined up on the boundaries on 14 snaps. Rookie cornerback Byron Jones did a really nice job on Gronk in 1-on-1 coverage, but the Patriots eventually figured out the press-man coverage by throwing a back shoulder throw to Gronk for 33 yards in the third quarter, and freeing him up with some picks at the line of scrimmage.
■ The Cowboys’ blitz was feast or famine. McClain’s sack came on a five-man blitz, and the defense caused Brady to hurry a few throws — particularly the deep fade to Matthew Slater at the end of the first half, which couldn’t have been Brady’s first read. But Edelman had catches of 21 and 15 yards against the blitz, and Lewis had a 14-yarder as well.
■ Surprised to see Martin play so much in his second game as a Patriot — 50 of 57 snaps, 14 more than Amendola. His fingertip 16-yard catch on third and 2 was a thing of beauty.
When the Cowboys had the ball:
■ The Patriots showed impressive depth on defense, particularly when Dont’a Hightower left after nine plays with a rib injury and Duron Harmon missed a series or two with an ankle injury. The Patriots had 19 players play at least 18 snaps, including five defensive tackles, four safeties, and four cornerbacks. Butler, meanwhile, hasn’t missed a snap in three straight games.
■ Hightower’s missed snaps were split by Jerod Mayo, who played a season-high 29 snaps, and Jonathan Freeny, who played a season-high 25 snaps and replaced Mayo in passing situations. Mayo did a nice job chasing down Joseph Randle from behind, but Freeny is much quicker and more athletic, and has better versatility to be used in pass coverage or the pass rush (he blitzed on two consecutive downs in the second half).
That said, the Patriots will miss Hightower if his injury forces him to miss any time. Hightower had a great sack in the first quarter after plowing through Randle, and does a great job chipping the tight ends as the strong-side linebacker.
■ Jamie Collins is putting together a Pro Bowl campaign. He was everywhere Sunday, leading the way with 10 tackles (one for loss) and a forced fumble, and should have had a big third-down sack if not for a ticky-tack defensive holding call on Jabaal Sheard.
■ Speaking of Sheard, he was a big factor in the pass rush, getting consistent push up the middle (Malcom Brown, too), mauling left guard Ronald Leary for a sack in the second quarter, and confusing the Cowboys’ defensive line with a stunt inside for an easy sack in the second half. Sheard has been a terrific addition to the Patriots’ pass rush.
■ Tarell Brown deserves a lot of credit for hanging with speedy slot receiver Cole Beasley and holding him to four catches for 40 yards. And Chung is quietly having a fantastic season, playing 75 percent of snaps overall and holding up surprisingly well in pass coverage, knocking away three of the four passes thrown his way on Sunday.
■ Weeden is, well, not very good. On the first series he threw a terrible deep pass to a tightly covered Williams that fell incomplete while missing Beasley streaking open across the middle. And in the fourth quarter he stared lasers through Williams, allowing Logan Ryan to read him and make an easy interception. Cowboys fans were calling for Matt Cassel to take over, but Dallas is toast unless it gets Tony Romo back soon.
■ Impressive athleticism by Chandler Jones to drop back 15 yards into coverage on a zone blitz. Defensive ends don’t usually drop back that far down the field. Dropping that easy interception, though? Not so impressive. We’ll give him a break, though — he plays defense for a reason.