FOXBORO — the Patriots’ 13-9 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon perfectly exemplified the last two decades for these two historic franchises.
In a rain-filled slop fest, both offenses struggled to move the ball, going a combined five-for-27 on third down and one-for-five in the red zone.
The difference between winning and losing a game like that is marginal, and the better-coached team made the key plays and avoided critical errors to win a close one in Foxboro.
“The difference in the game, really, when you right down to it,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Matthew Slater’s blocked punt in the first quarter that led to a New England touchdown.
Slater’s block, which set up N’Keal Harry’s first career touchdown, contrasted a bone-headed penalty on special teams later in the game for Dallas that cost them 20 yards of field position.
Starting at their own 38-yard line rather than backed up at the 18, the Patriots went on a 12-play field-goal drive to go up a touchdown at 13-6.
And the difference in the kicking game led to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones issuing strong words against head coach Jason Garrett saying, “special teams is totally a reflection of coaching.”
Here are ten things we learned from the Patriots’ tenth win in 11 tries this season:
If you have Amari Cooper on your fantasy team, I’m sorry, Stephon Gilmore held the Cowboys wideout catchless for the first time in a Dallas uniform. There were a few close calls, but Gilmore pitched a shutout in a dominant performance.
In my Patriots game plan, I wrote about Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s splits on throws to his first read compared to his secondary-read throws. With Gilmore blanking Cooper, the Pats forced Prescott to come off his go-to target, and the MVP candidate struggled to hit his secondary receivers as the numbers said he would.
Gilmore also defensed two passes and came away with an interception on a pass intended for Cooper. On the interception, Gilmore anticipated that Cooper was running a crossing pattern, something the Cowboys offense frequently did on tape out of similar formations. Gilmore trailed Cooper to bait Prescott into the throw, and then undercut the route for the pick.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) November 25, 2019
The All-Pro cornerback explained after the game that film study and identifying concepts based on formations was the key against Cooper, saying that many of the things that came up on tape showed themselves in the game on Sunday.
With Cooper a non-factor, the Pats held Prescott and the Dallas offense to only 212 passing yards, which was 100 yards less than their league-best season average entering this week.
2. Tom Brady Sharp in Difficult Conditions
Based on the box score stats, Brady had a rough go of it against the Cowboys defense, completing only 45.9 percent of his passes for 5.1 yards per attempt on Sunday.
However, tracking his throws live, his ball placement was significantly better than a week ago in Philadelphia. Plus, his counting stats would look if his receivers didn’t drop six passes, per Pro Football Focus. Also, according to PFF, there were another four contested balls that were not caught, meaning ten of Brady’s throws could’ve been receptions instead of incompletions.
Brady wasn’t at his best against Dallas, but he was solid in the win. Let’s get to some of those throws.
The first completion we’ll highlight was a third and 20 play in the third quarter, just a terrific quarterback play. First, Brady’s elusiveness in the pocket is on full display as he steps around an inside rush from Robert Quinn off the left side, resets, and gets his eyes back downfield. In the secondary, the Cowboys are in a cover-two zone shell, and Julian Edelman finds the soft spot on a deep in-cut at the sticks. Brady quickly flips his hips upfield and throws a rope to Edelman over 20 yards in the air for the first down. Noodle arm, right?
Later on, the Patriots picked up another first down thanks to Brady’s manipulation of the Cowboys’ zone coverage. This time, Dallas is in a single-high structure, and Brady throws a hard pump fake to Edelman over the middle. The fake causes the right side of the Cowboys’ zone to leave boundary, so Brady comes back to Jakobi Meyers for a first down.
The counting stats say Brady had a bad day, and the talking heads will likely label his performance on Sunday as such, but context is key. Brady was good.
3. Isaiah Wynn’s Return Comes at a Great Time for the Patriots
There’s quite a bit riding on the health of Pats second-year left tackle Isaiah Wynn, and in his first game action since Week 2, he passed a difficult test against a good defensive line. Wynn played the entire way on Brady’s blindside, but it took him a little to get a feel for Cowboys pass rusher Robert Quinn. In the first half, Quinn beat his blocker, usually Wynn, on over 50 percent of his rushes. But in the second half, Quinn was quiet as the Pats left tackle figured things out.
“Not the speed of the game, but just getting used to his type of rush,” Wynn said about his slow start. “Every rusher is different, so just being able to get used to his rush, that was it.”
My follow up question to Wynn was, well, how did you get used to it?
“Just setting inside-out,” he said with a big smile — no trade secrets from the former Georgia Bulldog.
Along with his contributions in pass protection, Wynn’s biggest impact came in the running game where fellow Bulldog, Sony Michel, had a strong performance.
On the de facto game-clincher, Sony ran right behind his best friend on New England’s lead zone scheme that they call “boss.” Wynn double-teams the end with tight end Ben Watson and then picks up the linebacker on a combination block. As he comes off the double, Sean Lee tries to slide through the backdoor to blow up the play, and Wynn gets just enough of him to seal the edge for Michel.
The Patriots offense only scored 13 points, but Wynn’s return gives them something to build on with hopefully an improved offensive line going forward.
4. N’Keal Harry Catches First-Career Touchdown Pass
Pats first-round pick N’Keal Harry’s lone reception of the contest was a big one, a ten-yard touchdown grab that was the lone six-piece for either team. Entering Week 12, the Patriots ranked 25th in red-zone scoring efficiency, scoring a TD on only 48.8 percent of their red-zone trips. Harry’s size and jump-ball ability should help the Patriots punch the ball into the end zone, and he did just that in Sunday’s win.
On the play, Harry is split out wide against man coverage on the boundary. The Pats rookie runs a fade route, one-on-one with Cowboys top cornerback Byron Jones. Brady perfectly places the ball on Harry’s outside shoulder, away from the coverage, and Harry adjusts while keeping himself in bounds for the score.
Harry told me that he was in “robot mode” on the play. Once the ball was in the air, he said that instincts took over after repping that play over and over in practice.
With injuries piling up at wide receiver, Harry played 55 of a possible 68 offensive snaps on Sunday. We are still waiting for some more targets and specialized plays for the rookie, but he continues to flash his skill set, and the Patriots keep winning with him on the field.
5. Jakobi Meyers Hauls in Four Catches for 74 Yards in Win Over Cowboys
Both Patriots rookie receivers made contributions in Sunday’s win with Jakobi Meyers making four critical catches. Meyers converted to third downs and had the longest play from scrimmage for the New England offense. After the game, he spoke about the challenges of earning Tom Brady’s trust.
“That’s been one of the toughest things about being here,” Meyers said. “I’m going to keep working at it, I’m not going to give up, and hopefully I’ll keep chipping away every day.”
On his 32-yard reception, Meyers ran a shallow crossing pattern against man coverage with two vertical routes clearing out the underneath area of the field. Brady came off the play-action, and Meyers already had a step on his man. Once Meyers caught the ball, he threw Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie off of him and broke up the sideline. Then, he made a great cut back towards the middle to elude another tackle attempt, picking up an additional ten yards or so.
Along with great feel after the catch, Meyers also battled for contested catches, which is more his skill set than the yards after the catch. Running against Awuzie again, Meyers runs at Awuzie’s inside leverage to set up his break and then snaps the out route off after getting into the body of the Dallas corner. With body positioning in his favor, Meyers boxes out Awuzie and shows strong hands to complete the catch.
Although Meyers won’t “wow” you with speed, he’s a smooth technician in his routes, battles at the catch point, is slippery in the open field, and plays inside and outside. He’s a good fit in the offense.
6. Patriots Keep Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliot in Check
Although it felt like the Cowboys could’ve run the ball more, the Patriots defense did a nice job of containing Zeke on the ground. Over the last two weeks, the interior defenders in the middle of the Patriots defense are winning in the trenches after getting pushed around in Baltimore.
“We just worked on fundamentals, that’s what it comes down to,” Pats defensive tackle Adam Butler said. “Man whoop a man, that’s what it comes down to, that’s the game.”
Setting the tone in the first quarter, Pats defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton hold at the point of attack against a zone scheme with combination blocks on the interior. With those two eating blockers, the middle opens for Jamie Collins to shoot the gap from off the ball. Collins’s penetration forces Zeke to bound the run outside, where Kyle Van Noy sets the edge and makes the stop along with Collins.
The Cowboys also ran a speed option play, similar to what the Ravens did with Lamar Jackson, and the Pats held that up nicely as well.
Dallas has a formidable rushing attack that should’ve had some success in the rainy conditions. Still, the Patriots stopped the runs up the middle and made things difficult on Elliott and company.
7. Julian Edelman Guts Through Shoulder Injury to Pace Patriots Passing Attack
Another week, another strong performance by Julian Edelman, who led the Patriots with 93 yards on eight receptions. Edelman was noticeably nursing a shoulder injury throughout the game, but gutted it out with the Pats thin at receiver, and came up with several vital grabs.
On his 23-yard reception in the fourth quarter, Edelman put Cowboys corner Jourdan Lewis in the blender. He attacked Lewis’s leverage by releasing inside to force Lewis to close in that direction, and then gave one shoulder fake to sell an in-breaking route. Then, Edelman made another inside-out fake once he got on top of Lewis. He ran away from the Dallas cornerback and made a leaping grab.
With the receiver position in flux, the Patriots can count on Edelman showing up every week.
8. Sony Michel and the Running Game Makes an Appearance
Based on initial viewing, Sunday’s win felt like Sony Michel’s best game of the season, and it’s no coincidence that it coincides with the return of Isaiah Wynn. We broke down Wynn’s contributions in his section, so let’s talk about Michel’s production here.
On this 15-yard run, the Pats want to hit the play behind Wynn on the left side, but the Cowboys get immediate penetration up the middle. Michel dances around the defender in the backfield and explodes up the middle to daylight, where the Pats have the Cowboys defense blocked down in the zone scheme.
In all, Michel averaged 4.3 yards per rush, and he had four runs of over ten yards.
9. Patriots Lean on 11-Personnel, Tackle-Eligible Packages
The Patriots offense is finding a home in three wide receivers sets over the last three games. They played exclusively out of 11-personnel in the loss to the Ravens, and they are still a heavy-11 team in the last two weeks. On Sunday, they played out of “11” on 80 percent of their offensive snaps with Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, and Jakobi Meyers as the three receivers. The Pats also leaned on a few different heavy groupings, reporting tackle Marshall Newhouse as an eligible receiver. In the rainy conditions, the tackle-eligible packages made sense as the Patriots tried to run the football. As we head towards the playoffs, the Pats are at their best by far when they put three wide receivers on the field, so expect the hefty usage of “11” to continue.
10. Play of the Game: Matthew Slater’s Blocked Punt
The play of the game was the difference in the game, according to Pats head coach Bill Belichick. Belichick credited special teams coaches Joe Judge and Cam Achord for their aggressive approach in the kicking game, which included some short kickoffs that put the Dallas returners in difficult positions.
On the block, the Pats put three rushers to the punters’ left with two of them outside the formation. Slater slipped through the line on the overloaded side and got his fingertips on the ball to force a short kick.
The block set the Patriots up on the Dallas 12-yard line, and they scored the lone touchdown of the game two plays later.