Re-Focused: Cowboys @ Patriots, Week 6

| October 18, 2011

The New England Patriots flashed back to their Super Bowl years with this victory over the Dallas Cowboys.  After relying on the offense all season, the Patriots’ defense stepped up their game and made a number of key stops, particularly in the red zone.

Quarterback Tom Brady struggled to find open receivers all game, but he saved his best for last as he moved New England 80 yards on 10 plays before finding tight end Aaron Hernandez for the game winning touchdown.  The Patriots go into their bye week at 5-1, but more importantly, this game may have shown that they are capable of winning games without putting up 30+ points.

For the Cowboys, it was another disappointing defeat as they have now lost three games by a total of 11 points.  Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had another great game plan to slow the Patriots offense, at least until Brady picked them apart on that final drive, but it mattered little. For no matter how well the defense plays, settling for field goals will not beat good teams, and head coach Jason Garrett must find a way to put more points on the board.

 

Dallas Cowboys – Three Performances of Note

Offensive Line Woes

It has been a recurring theme for the Cowboys this season, but the offensive line is just not getting the job done, particularly when running.  Tackles Doug Free (-2.0) and Tyron Smith (-0.5) had decent enough games, if you ignore the two penalties they had.  In pass protection they each gave up a sack and a pressure, and while neither dominated in the run game, it wasn’t enough to stop the entire unit.  Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they represented the strength of the offensive line on Sunday.

Remember Andre Gurode?  Phil Costa (-6.3) did his best to sweeten that memory with his worst game of the season.  He was consistently blown off the ball in the running game, and gave up a QB hit and three pressures in the passing game. The guards, while better in pass protection, were also to blame for the lack of a running attack.  Right guard Kyle Kosier (-4.7 run block) had his problems with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, consistently getting pushed back at the point of attack, while rookie Bill Nagy (-3.7 run block) had his issues as well, particularly on one play when he nearly invited Gerard Warren to take Romo’s handoff.  The interior of this line is making life very tricky for the Cowboys running game.

 

Defensive Line Solid

Rob Ryan deserves a lot of credit for his defensive game plan, but winning the battle in the trenches makes any defensive coordinator look good.  Defensive end Marcus Spears (+2.0) led the way with two pressures and a sack, with his sack particularly impressive, using a swim move to beat All Pro guard, Logan Mankins. 

Elsewhere Jay Ratliff (+1.7) continued his strong play this season, tying a career high with four defensive stops.  His best plays came in the second quarter, where he used his quickness to beat Dan Connolly and blow up a run play with 10 minutes to go in the second.  He followed up on the next play by slipping past Connolly and flushing Brady out of the pocket.  Ratliff played a season high 57 snaps and helped set the tone for a strong defensive performance by Dallas.

 

Trusting Romo

Much will be made in media circles this week about Garrett’s decision to take the ball out of Romo’s hands in crunch time.  Given that the running game was useless all game, these may be valid concerns.  Romo (+3.1) played a solid game, but he has clearly struggled when pressured (-3.5 on the season).  His interception was a rushed throw across the field and is probably the type of decision Garrett feared while nursing a three point lead at the end of the game.  That said when given time, Romo moved the chains and took advantage of the Patriots’ soft coverage.  He hasn’t become a bad player overnight, and while the Detroit game may still be at the forefront of Garrett’s memory, Romo can go a ways toward eradicating that by improving his play under pressure, and particularly when blitzed (where he completed just 50% of 16 attempts).

 

New England Patriots – Three Performances of Note

Defensive Trio

The Patriots played their best defensive game of the season and they were carried by three key players.  After a few weeks trying to imitate a shutdown cornerback, Vince Wilfork (+3.3 Run Def) was back to his dominant run stopping ways.  It was vintage Wilfork late in the first quarter as held the point against Costa, shed the block and got his left arm on running back Tashard Choice to force a fumble.

Of the linebackers, Brandon Spikes (+5.1) set a career high by playing 67 snaps, making his presence felt all over the field.  He knifed into the backfield to blow up a shovel pass on 3rd-and-5, forcing a Cowboys field goal in the fourth quarter.  As usual, Spikes was at his best when blitzing right up the middle, where he picked up two pressures and one QB hit on only 11 rushes.  It was hard not to notice him as on two different occasions, he blasted Costa right into Romo’s lap.

The last of our fearsome threesome is Andre Carter (+3.3), continuing his strong start to the year with a great all round display that saw the Patriots leave him in for a season high 69 snaps .  He continued his season-long strong run defense, but his pass rushing helped change the game (four hurries, two sacks).  The second sack came on 2nd-and-goal from the 7-yard line, and he just blew past Tyron Smith on a three man rush.  Romo had no chance to react, and that play held the Cowboys to their second of three field goals on the day.

 

Tackle Trouble

Many offensive tackles have fared much worse when going up against Ware, but this game was clearly the worst of the season for both Matt Light (-3.4) and Nate Solder (-2.4).  Light came into the game as our top rated OT, but he surrendered two sacks, two QB hits, and three pressures.  The second sack saw Ware blow right past Light and into Brady’s blindside.  Running back Benjarvus Green-Ellis was supposed to help on the play, but Ware was past Light so quickly he was unable to.

Solder has had a decent start to his pro career, but he hit a rough stretch in the second quarter of this game.  On 1st-and-goal, he whiffed on a block which led to a minimal gain and he followed it up with a holding penalty which knocked the Patriots back before they eventually had to settle for a field goal.  He’ll play better than this in the future.

 

Continuing Problems

Devin McCourty (-3.9) came into the season with high expectations after winning the PFF Rookie of the Year award in 2010, but his sophomore season has been less kind.  He started the season by getting beat fairly easily, particularly when the team used him in more tight man-to-man coverage.  He has been better in recent weeks as the Patriots have gone to more “off” coverages, but perhaps most alarming has been his poor tackling.  He has already matched last year’s total of six missed tackles, three of which came on Sunday.  Tackling is essential with the soft coverages implemented by the Patriots against the Cowboys and McCourty’s missed tackle on WR Laurent Robinson helped turn a six yard gain into a 32 yard big play.  Throw in a bad pass interference penalty in the end zone, which was negated by an offsetting penalty by Dallas, and McCourty is well and truly entering sophomore slump stage.

 

Game Notes

- Between both teams, only one pass was completed of 20+ yards in the air.

- Dallas blitzed on only nine out of 45 pass plays.  Brady was 7 for 9 for 108 yards and a QB rating of 153.7.

- Both teams had 74 offensive snaps.  Dallas LB Sean Lee, New England LB Gary Guyton, and McCourty played all 74.

 

Game Ball

Brandon Spikes was extremely impressive in this encounter.  Against a team that lacks a real physical presence both in the backfield and in the interior offensive line Spikes was really able to dominate, playing in a manner we’re accustomed to seeing from Bart Scott. Spikes’ stop count was low but the number of runs he disrupted, particularly on the Cowboys’ penultimate drive, were pivotal in setting up another Tom Brady comeback drive.

 

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  • motorcycle

    What was Rob Ryan’s defensive gameplan? What did they do differently that other teams didn’t and how did the execute it please?

    • Ben24626

      For one, not blitz much at all, I think they predominantly rushed three.

    • Steve Palazzolo

      I think the biggest part of the gameplan is how they picked their spots in taking away Brady’s favorite targets. On some plays, there would be a well disguised double team on Welker. On other plays, there would be an extensive bump on Gronkowski with another player covering him over the top. It’s not ground breaking stuff, it’s more about picking their spots on when to use “special” coverages.

      Brady excels with his pre snap reads. He knows where to go with the ball and that’s why he’s able to find open targets underneath. Rob Ryan seems to do a better job than most with disguising coverage on the back end. A lot of credit has to go to the secondary too. So many of Brady’s throws had to be pinpoint because of tight coverage.

      Also, last year’s Patriots team scored over 30 points/game because they rarely turned the ball over. If a team has an extra 1-2 possessions a game, chances are they will score more points. In this game, they had four turnovers, one of which was in the red zone. That will certainly hinder a team’s chances to score points.

      In summary, they disguised coverages better than most, and they did a good job of winning the coverage battles while supplying just enough pressure with the front 3 or 4.

  • tom

    It also doesn’t hurt having Ware. He was in the upfield faster than the WR’s were downfield. Also, the Ryan’s seem to do a good job of clogging up the middle of the field which is where Welker, Gronkowski & Hernandez work. In the last drive the TE’s were going downfield and outside the hash marks.

    • Steve Palazzolo

      Agreed. Both Rob and Rex Ryan have had success by throwing extra defenders into the middle of the field and forcing more sideline throws. Making Brady go to his second or third read and trusting the 3 man rush. Of course having Ware helps. Or Shaun Ellis from last year’s playoff game against the Jets.

  • Steve Palazzolo

    One last thing I will add is that the Cowboys did an outstanding job of covering the Patriots’ play action concepts. They will often run the Post/Dig combo at least twice a game and the Cowboys were all over it, including picking up an INT on a tipped pass on one play. It seemed every time Brady came out of his play fake, he had no one to throw to.