As improbable as it looked, even in slow motion, Kyle Van Noy knew right away that Stephon Gilmore had committed grand larceny.
And Van Noy knew it in real time.
He knew Gilmore had somehow swooped in and snagged a Dak Prescott pass that appeared destined for Amari Cooper’s mitts.
Lined up to Prescott’s left, Cooper exploded into a crossing route at the snap with Gilmore right in his hip pocket, a story line that would play out all day in New England’s 13-9 win over Dallas Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
Prescott, who corralled a high shotgun snap, zipped it toward Cooper, but in a flash, Gilmore cut underneath, laid out, and snatched it.
A split second before the grand theft Van Noy was already signaling Patriots ball.
“That was an outstanding play, probably one of the best plays we’ve had all season,’’ Bill Belichick said Monday morning.
It would have been an impressive feat at any point, but what made the turnover more significant was that it came on third down, where the Cowboys had thrived all season.
Dallas boasted the top third-down offense in the NFL before running into a New England defense that has made it its business to buckle down on the critical down.
The Patriots held the Cowboys to 2 for 13 on third down, one conversion each half.
“Those are such big plays,’’ Belichick said. “Really, it’s not turnovers, but it’s probably the next closest thing. Our defense has done a good job of that all year. I know the assistant coaches have done a great job with it and the players have done a great job of executing in those situations. Dallas, as we know, is very good in those situations.’’
Gilmore’s blanket coverage on Prescott’s favorite target was a big part of the story, but the entire defense played a part in preventing Dallas from consistently converting and building lengthy drives.
“[The Cowboys] have a good scheme, so they cause you a lot of problems just schematically as they did [Sunday],” Belichick said. “And then, of course, you have a lot of tough players to cover, very good offensive line, and a good quarterback. That was a big challenge for us, [and] I thought our guys really stepped up and met it. We tried to disguise, and I thought that the mixture of coverages was . . . we tried to make it hard on them. But, in the end, you’ve got to cover them, and you’ve got to be able to rush the passer and all that. I don’t think there was anywhere we really confused them, but I think we just tried to make it as hard on them as we could.’’
Dallas tried some bunch receiver looks to get on track but couldn’t find success because the Patriot defenders refused to get caught in the traffic. The defensive backs stayed unbunched, creating space and allowing them to take direct routes to the receivers in coverage.
It was an effective look against a formation that had given New England trouble in the past.
Prescott wouldn’t acknowledge that the unbunched look caught him by surprise, but it clearly led to him holding onto the ball longer than he would have liked.
“For the most part [the defense showed] what we were expecting, nothing that they haven’t done on film,’’ the quarterback said. “It’s just a good defense that’s very well coached, very disciplined, [and] doesn’t make mistakes.’’
The Cowboys’ struggles on third down can be traced to the Patriots success in stifling Ezekiel Elliott on early downs, putting them in uncomfortable positions on a day when the weather prevented big plays.
Belichick pointed to his safety squadron coming up in run support and making adjustments as big reasons Elliott wasn’t able to control the pace of the game.
“Those first- and second-down plays where you can get ahead in the series really help you on third down,’’ said the coach. “Our safety group of Duron [Harmon], Devin [McCourty], and Pat [Chung], those guys have really played together for so long and they have so much chemistry, trust, and communication with each other that it’s really . . . they have a lot freedom and flexibility to use calls and use things that are available in our defensive system to their advantage when different situations present themselves. Some of that could be in disguise, some of that could be to try to position ourselves better against a certain type of look or formation.’’