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Film room: What went wrong for the Patriots defense on 3rd-and-25 against the Cowboys?

Related: 3 winners and 7 losers from the Patriots’ loss to the Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The New England Patriots came close to beating the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6, but close was just not good enough to actually do it. The game ended when the Cowboys scored a 35-yard touchdown in overtime that allowed them to prevail 35-29.

While that touchdown throw from Dak Prescott to wide receiver CeeDee Lamb eventually sealed the deal for the visitors, the pair had another big connection that allowed Dallas to even get to that point. Late in the fourth quarter, and with the Patriots up 29-26, Prescott and Lamb hooked up on a 24-yard gain on 3rd-and-25.

The play allowed the Cowboys to tie the game on a 49-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal, and take it to overtime. It was, in a way, the beginning of the end for New England’s hopes of upsetting one of the best teams in the league.

So, how did the play break down? Let’s take a look at the film to find out.

3-25-DAL 45 (:31) (Shotgun) D.Prescott pass deep middle to C.Lamb to NE 31 for 24 yards (J.Mills).

Even though they had some issues in the second half — from a Mac Jones pick-six, to an insufficient pass rush, to overly conservative offensive coaching — the Patriots found themselves up by three with just 2:11 to go in the fourth quarter. A 75-yard touchdown pass from Jones to Kendrick Bourne put the team ahead, and its defense in the spotlight.

If New England was able to keep Dallas out of field goal range let alone the end zone, the team would move to 3-3 on the year.

The drive began well for the unit, with its opponent gaining only six yards on the first three plays to set up a 4th-and-4. The Patriots failed to end the game there, with Dallas gaining 13 yards on a pass to Cedrick Wilson to move the chains. Still, the defense had its opportunities.

Four plays later, after all, the Cowboys offense faced a 3rd-and-25 at its own 45-yard line. An incompletion or completion well short of the sticks would set up a much more favorable fourth down. A conversion or successful throw into field goal range, on the other hand, would keep Dallas alive.

We already know that the Cowboys would do just that, with the play unfolding as follows:

NFL GamePass

With the Cowboys 25 yards away from the line to gain — two incompletions were followed by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty — the Patriots knew it needed to keep the play in front of them. In turn, post safety Devin McCourty (#32) aligned deep to help take away the potential big play. Likewise, the Cowboys had to move the ball in a chunk in order to set themselves up for a manageable fourth down or field goal attempt.

New England approached the down in what initially appeared to be a two-deep coverage shell with McCourty and Adrian Phillips (#21) as the deep safeties. Furthermore, three cornerbacks — J.C. Jackson (#27) over the X, Jonathan Jones (#31) in the slot, Jalen Mills (#2) on the Z — were on the field alongside them, as was fellow safety Kyle Dugger (#23) on tight end Blake Jarwin (#89).

Instead of playing a two-deep zone, however, the Patriots shifted to a single-high Cover 1 variation at the snap. McCourty stayed back as the deep centerfielder, with Phillips moving down to take away the shallow crossing route run by X-receiver Amari Cooper (#19). Cooper was originally covered by Jackson, but the Patriots’ CB1 dropped back as a second deep-field defender as soon as he saw the Cowboys receiver cross the field.

Unfortunately, Phillips moving out of his initial spot and Jackson playing over the top of Blake Jarwin’s crosser created a window in this area of the field that the Cowboys took advantage of.

The player eventually making the reception — CeeDee Lamb (#88) on a deep dig route — originally aligned on the far side of the 4x1 empty formation. Going up against him was Mills, who played off-man coverage with outside leverage. The goal was to funnel Lamb towards the middle of the field and into traffic where a completion would be more difficult.

With Dugger taking Jarwin on the deep crosser in the high-low concept run by the Cowboys, and with Jonathan Jones covering Cedrick Wilson (#1) one-on-one, the Patriots had a solid plan in place to make life hard for Dallas. However, it did not come to fruition for two main reasons:

1.) Quarterback Dak Prescott (#4) is playing at an MVP level right now and was not fooled by the coverage shift; he knew its potential weakness versus the dig as soon as he saw Wilson carry Jonathan Jones deep on his vertical pattern and Phillips come down versus the low crosser.

2.) The pass rush did not get home in time to force Prescott into a quicker decision or errant throw; instead he was given the time to let the play develop.

The pass rush in particular is worth taking a look at, because it plays a big role in New England giving up a deep completion.

New England had five front-line defenders on the field for the play: Josh Uche (#55) and Christian Barmore (#90) in a three-point stance, with Matthew Judon (#9), Kyle Van Noy (#53) and Dont’a Hightower (#54) playing in a stand-up alignment. Four of them — Uche, Barmore, Judon and Hightower — were meant to attack the pocket, but they did not provide enough pressure to impact the play in a positive way.

One of the issues was the role played by Hightower and Van Noy, and the following clip shows why:

NFL GamePass

While Van Noy was originally aligning off the ball, Hightower was on the line but beyond the far-side hash mark. That by itself might not have been a problem from a pass-rush perspective — the play would take more time anyway if Dallas wanted to hit a deep route — but Hightower was asked to do two things on the play: chip running back Ezekiel Elliott (#21) and then move forward towards the pocket.

With Hightower following Elliott that before handing over the coverage responsibility to Van Noy, he effectively took himself out of the four-man rush. As the clip above shows, he was moving towards the boundary upon initial contact with the Cowboys running back but took considerable time to get back into the frame.

As a result, the Patriots had only three players rushing the passer with seven dropping into coverage. Hightower, meanwhile, was in no-man’s land until it was too late. While there is no telling whether or not he would have made any difference, the play shows how one conceptual miscalculation can cause problems for a defense (especially given that Van Noy was late to get over to Elliott as well, allowing him to get wide open on his out-and-up route).

Another problem that the pass rush faced was the three players that were near Prescott did not push the pocket enough.

Uche was contained one-one-one by left tackle Tyron Smith (#77), with Barmore not moving the left guard/center combo block back enough. This, in turn, blocked Judon’s rush lane: the Patriots’ sack leader was trying to cross the formation behind Barmore, but he did not have the space to do so.

At the end of the day, the Patriots therefore gave Prescott and company the openings they needed to make a play. They still had to execute, though, and to their credit did just that.

One play later the game was tied. The rest, unfortunately, is history.