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BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL

How the Patriots defense confused and confounded the Cowboys

Dak Prescott is leveled by Patriots defensive lineman Danny Shelton.
Dak Prescott is leveled by Patriots defensive lineman Danny Shelton. Matthew j. lee/Globe Staff

At first glance, the Patriots defense seems to take a lot of risks.

The Patriots have called the 10th-most blitzes in the NFL this year, sending extra pressure about 30 percent of the time. They use an “amoeba” front, in which they bring seven guys up to the line of scrimmage to disguise the pass rush. They aren’t afraid to call a “cover 0” blitz, an all-out pass rush in which there is no free safety.

But as the Cowboys learned in their 13-9 loss Sunday, the Patriots defense is really about controlled aggression.

“What they do so well is they know where their help is,” Cowboys tight end Jason Witten told me after the game. “They play to their help, they mix it up with the pressure, they have a good rush, and they know where that help is coming.

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“Even though it’s cover 0, it’s really not. When you think cover 0, you think all-out pressure and man-to-man [coverage]. But they’re dropping out to play whole help, so they have help coming inside. As receivers and quarterbacks, it puts a lot of pressure on you.”

The Patriots held the NFL’s No. 1 passing offense to just 212 yards, and the No. 4 scoring offense to just 9 points. And they did it by playing a game of cat-and-mouse — showing one alignment before the snap, and rotating into another after the snap.

The Patriots have shown this concept throughout the season, but seemed to take it to the next level against the Cowboys, constantly giving Dak Prescott different looks and trying to make him hold the ball as long as possible.

A good example of this came on a second and 7 early in the third quarter. The Patriots looked like they were going to play cover 1, with a single deep safety, but they rotated post-snap into a cover 2 look, with Jonathan Jones dropping off to play deep safety next to Devin McCourty. The coverage forced Prescott to hold the ball . . . then scramble . . . then finally throw the ball away.

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Prescott said the Patriots played “for the most part what we were expecting — nothing they haven’t done on film.”

But it seemed like the Patriots played more cat-and-mouse games with Prescott than they had with any other quarterback this season.

Other observations on the Patriots defense after watching the film:

■   Last week in my film study on Prescott, I wrote that the big question for the Patriots would be: To blitz or not to blitz?

The answer: A heavy amount of blitzing early in the game, and selective blitzing in the second half.

Eleven of Prescott’s 33 pass attempts came against the blitz, and he completed just four of them. Prescott did throw for 100 yards on those completions, including a 19-yard screen pass to Ezekiel Elliott and a 59-yard crossing route to Randall Cobb in the fourth quarter. But the interception by Stephon Gilmore also came against a five-man blitz, and Prescott’s passer rating was 32.4, his second-worst against the blitz all season.

The Patriots blitzed on four of the Cowboys’ first five pass attempts, and nine times overall in the first half. They called just six blitzes in the second half, content to play more coverage and prevent the big play. But they brought the heat on the Cowboys’ final drive, sending extra rushers on first and 10, third and 11, and fourth and 11.

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■   Prescott went 3 for 7 for 41 yards and an interception against the five-man blitz, plus two penalties on Tyron Smith (tripping and holding). He went 1 for 4 for 59 yards (the Cobb completion) against a six-man blitz. And the Patriots sent an all-out seven-man blitz one time, resulting in a 16-yard pass interference penalty on J.C. Jackson in the first quarter.

■   Gilmore has been getting most of the attention in the Patriots secondary, and deservedly so. But Jones deserves plenty of praise for his play this year, and he had another excellent game Sunday. He had a fantastic pass breakup on third and 1 in the first quarter — first showing a deep safety look before the snap, then rotating down to cover Cobb, then making a diving breakup on a slant over the middle.

Jones had only three tackles and one pass defensed, but he did an excellent job shadowing Cobb for much of the day. On third and 3 with 7:22 left in the third quarter, Cobb should have had an easy first down on a quick pass into the flat, but Jones showed tremendous closing speed in chasing down Cobb in time and dropping him a yard short of the first-down marker.

■   And the one big play the Patriots allowed — Cobb’s 59-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter — was an unfortunate case of friendly fire. Jones was chasing Cobb across the middle of the field when he crashed into Gilmore, leaving Cobb open. McCourty did a nice job of recognizing this and switching over to Cobb. It was too late to make a play on the ball, but McCourty was able to chase down Cobb from behind, and even knocked the ball out.

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■   The Patriots stacked the box with extra defenders for much of the day to slow down Elliott, and held him to 86 rushing yards on a 4.1 average. But defensive lineman Lawrence Guy had another excellent game, and did a great job of getting off his blocks, such as when he stuffed Tony Pollard for no gain in the third quarter. Guy finished with eight tackles, second on the team, and has quietly been one of the team’s top contributors all season.

■   The Patriots have been one of the most man-heavy coverage teams all season, but seemed to play more zone coverage in this game, particularly cover 2. Most teams usually try to do one thing really well, but Sunday’s game was yet another reminder of how the Patriots can morph their defense into something different from week to week.

■   Finally, the punt block in the first quarter. The Patriots lined up three defenders out wide on the left side of the formation, which should have tipped the Cowboys off, since they usually show a more balanced front.

But the punt protector, Jeff Heath, didn’t seem to notice. He slid to the middle of the formation after the snap, giving the Patriots a three-on-three situation on the left side. Cowboys linebacker Joe Thomas was more worried about blocking Shilique Calhoun, which allowed Matthew Slater to race around Thomas and get his hand on the ball.

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The Cowboys again struggled with this look in the third quarter, taking two penalties — a delay of game and an illegal shift — as they struggled to set up their blocking.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin