As Winston Churchill once said, “history is written by the victors”. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has written his share of history in the NFL thanks to this, an eight-time Super Bowl champion that came to Dallas on Sunday off a win, drawing the Cowboys off their first loss. It was the victorious Cowboys adding to Belichick’s coaching history with a bounce-back performance though, beating the Patriots 38-3 to hand Belichick his worst ever loss. The win shines a different light on the Cowboys’ ongoing red zone struggles, the hot topic of the week after a 1-5 performance in the 28-16 loss in Arizona.
The Cowboys fared no better against the Patriots, only scoring a late Hunter Luepke touchdown inside the 20 to finish 1-4. The offense was efficient and managed the game as needed, but it was the Cowboys defense redeeming themselves in the best possible way by taking the ball away three times, and scoring on their own twice, to dictate how this late afternoon contest would play out from AT&T Stadium.
Dallas’ combined score on the season sits at 124-41, but still in search of a signature win and elongated win streak to cement their status as a top team in the league. They’ll get this opportunity in a playoff rematch at the 49ers next Sunday night, but before all that will be said and written about that clash of top NFC contenders, here are a few notes on their 38-3 drubbing of the Patriots.
- The Cowboys are still very much searching for their offensive identity in the red zone, trying to blend their West Coast passing concepts to receivers while involving the run game and a trio of tight ends - Jake Ferguson, Peyton Hendershot, and Luke Schoonmaker. The Cowboys got their first touchdown to a receiver all season with CeeDee Lamb scoring from one yard outside the red zone on a go route. The talent from this group of pass catchers is certainly there for this team to fix their red zone woes internally, with not only Lamb continuing to abuse single coverage but Michael Gallup stacking consecutive positive games.
Gallup was on the receiving end of a scramble drill throw from Dak Prescott on the opening drive, gaining 29 of his 60 yards on one of five catches. Making these unscripted plays has always been when Gallup is at his best, but Mike McCarthy’s offense has done well to keep him involved with scripted touches that get the big-bodied receiver moving laterally against smaller defensive backs. How they can incorporate more of Gallup on short fields in the red zone will have to wait until the 49ers game at the earliest, but as five different Cowboys receivers including KaVontae Turpin and Jalen Tolbert caught a pass in this game, Dallas has shown they’ll have plays ready for defenses that want to be even more aggressive taking away Lamb with double coverage.
- Another positive element from CeeDee Lamb’s touchdown was the Cowboys identifying a mismatch in coverage and immediately using it to their advantage. On the play before Lamb’s score, Patriots star rookie corner Christian Gonzalez was injured and left the game. Lamb was matched up with undrafted corner Myles Bryant because of this, and beat him over the top for an easy six. While this unfortunately didn’t count as a red zone score, the Cowboys featured plenty of jump ball and fade throws in the red zone under Kellen Moore, but have been less successful under McCarthy. Still, allowing the game flow to take a shot to their best receiver against a player fresh off the bench is a great sign of development for this offense, and set the tone that Dallas would have New England playing from behind.
- The splash plays from Leighton Vander Esch taking a fumble into the endzone and DaRon Bland returning an interception for a touchdown shouldn’t overshadow a fourth down stand by the Cowboys defense with the game still at 10-3. New England tried to run Philadelphia’s version of the QB sneak with Mac Jones, but Dan Quinn’s defensive line stood tall and made the stand.
Quinn’s defense was caught in far too many bad looks against the Cardinals, trying to match up with their speed and versatility in the backfield by getting creative themselves and moving Micah Parsons inside or playing Vander Esch on the edge. The Cardinals stayed one step ahead of these looks and ran the ball right at the Cowboys interior when Parsons was in there, and attacked on the edge with success on the ground too. The key to this response against the Patriots was forcing the more one-dimensional Jones to beat them from the pocket, and the Cowboys lined up and won their matchups up front to do so. Dallas didn’t take immediate advantage of the turnover on downs with a three and out of their own, but Jalen Tolbert showed up on special teams with a big hit on the ensuing punt.
With New England pinned at their own ten, the opportunity for the pass rush to do what they do best was right in front of them, and Dante Fowler created the sack-fumble that led to Vander Esch’s first career touchdown. With the offense adding a field goal before Bland’s pick six, this sequence was the turning point in the game for the Cowboys to put the Patriots in a position they’re not built to play from, controlling the rest of the game with ease.
- Creating havoc in the middle of the field has been a staple under Quinn for the Cowboys defense, and doing so in their first game without Trevon Diggs in week three proved difficult. The Cowboys had to play Jayron Kearse outside of the box more in that game, and struggled to have cohesion between other safeties Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson (making his season debut) as well as Vander Esch and Damone Clark. The Cowboys may have found their answer here against the Patriots thanks to Bland, who along with his second touchdown of the year came away with a second pick in the third quarter. It was also Bland knocking away a crossing route on third down the play prior to the fourth down stop mentioned above.
By having more trust in the outside duo of Bland and Stephon Gilmore, the Cowboys defense looked like their usual selves by contesting throws and disguising pressures. Jones did find some throws in the middle of the field to Hunter Henry who led the team in receptions and yards Sunday, but the Cowboys defense showed clear signs of progress in their second test without Diggs, boding well for the big test ahead in Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers offense.