"It's only a matter of time before a defense decides to drop eight players into coverage and force the Patriots inexperienced interior line to stave off opposing defensive lines for longer than half a second." - Some Pats Pulpit writer to our Cowboys affiliate
The New England Patriots offense struggled in the first half because the Dallas Cowboys were smart. Week after week, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli trotted out a defensive scheme with the same general foundation with varying degrees of success.
"One thing about Rod, I don't think you're going to see much different," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said to the press earlier in the week. "I think he'll be the first to tell you that he believes in what he's doing, he's not going to change a lot. He's had a lot of success- probably no reason to change it.
"Will there be a couple of game plan things for us- I'm sure obviously there will- but overall they believe in what they're doing, they do it well, they've had a lot of success with it. I mean, I can't imagine him putting in a new defense this week. That would be so out of character for them. They don't need to do that. I don't think they believe in that."
Well, surprise, surprise, the Cowboys had a wrinkle that limited the Patriots to a meager three points over the first four drives of the game. What did Dallas do, and is it something that other teams can mimic to hurt the Patriots?
Turns out, it was just a page out of Rex Ryan's playbook.
"It was a new look they hadn't shown before, that was that 3-2 dime defense with [linebacker Sean Lee] playing inside," Belichick said after the game. "It was a new look. It took a little while for us to adjust to it, to get a handle on what they were doing."
The Cowboys, usually so traditional in their four down lineman approach, opted to instead feature just three lineman, but six defensive backs. The linebackers were expected to blitz based upon their match-ups, but Dallas was comfortable with their edge defenders beating the Patriots tackles.
"We just thought it was a good thing to do against these guys," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said after the game. "We thought it would create some good matchups for us and get the right guys out on the field against all their different personnel groups and looks.
"I think it was effective for us. We hit the quarterback a lot and that's what you have to do against a team like this. They're really efficient and they're really good. They play at a high level and so you have to disrupt them in some way. I think we were able to do that."
Dallas did a good job with their tight coverage out of the snap, dropping eight and only rushing three. Cowboys edge defender Greg Hardy was able to defeat Patriots left tackle Nate Solder on multiple occasions and the hits left quarterback Tom Brady wincing when he got up from the turf.
Rex Ryan would play this defense when he was with the Jets because the tight coverage eliminates the quick passes, and then his talent on the defensive line would eventually defeat the Patriots blockers.
Of course, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels solved the puzzle in the second quarter and the Patriots scored on five of their final seven drives (and one of those failed drives was a turnover on downs where the Patriots were in range for a 44-yard field goal).
There were two answers:
1) LeGarrette Blount. If the Cowboys were only going to rush three linemen, that meant that the Patriots had the numbers advantage for some easy four, five yard gains to soften up the defense.
2) Legal pick plays and rub routes for Julian Edelman. Receivers are allowed to block within one yard of the line of scrimmage, so the Patriots would run their receivers out of tight bunches. If the Cowboys were going to play the Patriots receivers tight at the line of scrimmage, that left them susceptible to the legal pick play.
So long as the pick takes place at the line of scrimmage, or so long as the receiver down the field has turned around to face Brady to mimic attempting to receive the ball, then that's absolutely legal. The Patriots took advantage.
It was a mix of mid-game adjustments and just talent that helped the Patriots crack this game open. It's why McDaniels is one of the best head coaching candidates in the league, and it shows why New England is never out of the game.
"I thought that our players and coaches did a good job making those adjustments during the game and throughout the game," Belichick said after the game. "It was definitely a different look and they obviously were going to come up and get on us and match it up. That caused us some problems but we scored 30 points.
"I think that caused them some problems, too."