It wasn't pretty, but the final drive was a thing of beauty.
1. Robbing Ryan - Prior to the Patriots' final drive, the Patriots receivers posted the following numbers:
Rob Gronkowski - 6 rec, 63 yards, 0 TDs
Deion Branch - 3 rec, 69 yards, 0 TDs
Aaron Hernandez - 6 rec, 44 yards, 0 TDs
Wes Welker - 3 rec, 24 yards, 1 TD
Danny Woodhead - 0 rec, 0 yards, 0 TDs
BenJarvus Green-Ellis - 1 rec, 11 yards, 0 TDs
Chad Ochocinco - 0 rec, 0 yards, 0 TDs
The Patriots targeted the tight ends for most of the game while Rob Ryan copied his same defensive plan from the Browns game from last season- eliminate Branch and Welker and defend the tight ends. For the majority of the day, it seemed as if Ryan had the best of the Patriots' offense. Ryan seemed to generate consistent pressure from all angles on Brady and did not give up many easy throws. However, Tom Brady and the offense turned on the engines on their final drive of the game and marched down the field for the winning touchdown. That was the one of the extremely few drives where it seemed as if the Patriots' offense couldn't be stopped. Ryan and the Cowboys held the Patriots to their lowest scoring game since the Patriots played Ryan and the Browns last season. Ryan and the Cowboys win this match-up.
2. Robbing...Romo? - The Patriots opened the game by intercepting Tony Romo and had the opportunity to break his spirit early in the game. However, Romo was able to get into a rhythm with his receivers- Dez Bryant in the first half, Miles Austin the the second half, and move the ball down the field. Romo completed 65.8% of his passes and the only times he could be stopped were by dropped passes, by Patriots pass rush, or when he gave the ball to his running backs. Romo was extremely efficient after his first mistake and the Patriots never fully got into his head. Cowboys win this battle.
3. Remove Witten - Witten didn't register a reception until the Cowboys' last offensive play of the first half (a 1 yard touchdown catch). He was held to 4 receptions for 48 yards and a touchdown- and one of those receptions (for 20 yards) was on the Cowboys' last gasp drive of the game. Rob Ninkovich did an excellent job of knocking Witten on the line and forcing him off of his timing and route. James Ihedigbo and the downfield coverage did a great job of not allowing Witten to be a regular target. In fact, his second reception was in zone between Gary Guyton and Kyle Arrington, and his third was due to the Patriots defense not recognizing Witten and putting a man in coverage. Rob Ninovich was on the slot receiver and Guyton was on the opposite side of the field covering the hashmarks. No one was on Witten. Patriots win this battle.
4. Pass Attack - The Patriots goal was to take advantage of what plays were given to them by Rob Ryan and the defense. Brady only forced the ball a couple times in the game- for example, when Sean Lee picked off the ball in the fourth quarter, even though his arm was hit, Brady had no business throwing into double coverage. Seriously- his throw to Aaron Hernandez (who was double covered) was knocked down and went to where Wes Welker was running (who was triple covered). Brady needs to take better care of the ball in key moments.
As for their tendencies, the Cowboys bracketed the tight ends with a linebacker underneath and a safety over the top, but Brady was still able to make plays to the open receiver. The Patriots didn't seem to bother with dump-off passes to outlet running backs until the final drive, so that tendency was a non factor (although no one covered the outlet receivers on that final drive). When looking up the middle of the field, the Patriots definitely took advantage of the Cowboys defensive middle of the field.
The Patriots passing attack was by no means explosive, by they took what was given and they opened the field for the run game to pick up yards against the best run defense in the league. Win for the Patriots.
5. Secondary Performance - The secondary had an extremely up-and-down day. They held Romo to a respectable 286 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception on the day until the final drive. A pair of terrible tackling attempts by Gary Guyton and Pat Chung on Dez Bryant, as well as Devin McCourty's disastrous attempt on Laurent Robinson allowed 50 additional yards after the catch. From a defensive positioning and scheming aspect, the secondary had a phenomenal job as they eliminated Witten for the majority of the game, and held both Bryant and Miles Austin to only one productive half. From an execution standpoint, there's plenty of work left to be done. The tackling was atrocious, as Bill Belichick himself said, and that alone would have had a great impact on the perceived success of the Cowboys offense.
The Patriots eliminated the big play from the Cowboys and kept all of the passes in front of them, which is a schematic victory against the much larger and physical Cowboys receivers. I gave two options for the Patriots secondary for covering their receivers:
1) They need to be playing 7 yards off their receivers in order to prevent the quick completion, while forcing Romo to hold the ball in the pocket and make a more difficult deep pass.
2) They must play at the line of scrimmage and jam their receiver to disrupt their timing with Romo, while riding in their hip pocket in coverage.
And recommended that those who played (McCourty, Leigh Bodden, Kyle Arrington) to follow scheme #1. Well, the secondary played 7 yards off of their receivers and saw considerable success. The pass rush got to Romo before the play could develop and Romo had to take the short passes to get rid of the ball. As a result, the secondary was in position to make an immediate tackle and prevent a big gain.
As a whole, the secondary had a very good game. There's definitely still room for improvement with the fundamentals such as tackling and diagnosing the receiver's route, but they are still improving and have had three solid games in a row leading into the Bye week. A win with the scheme and positioning, a loss for some execution. Patriots get half a win in this battle.
The Patriots leave this game with 2.5/5 wins, which is represented in the extremely close final score. Rob Ryan put a great defense on the field and the Patriots were fortunate to walk away with a victory. The building blocks are in place for this defense to continue to improve and the offense has time to get back on track.
On to the Bye Week!