The Patriots shook off a slow start before putting away the banged up Dallas Cowboys with a workmanlike 30-6 victory at Jerry World. Here are some random thoughts from New England's fourth victory of the season.
BIG D IN BIG D –The Patriots offense opened the season in impressive fashion by scoring 119 points in the first three games. Sunday in Dallas was not one of the group's best efforts, but it didn't matter because the defense turned in its best performance of the year. Dallas went three-and-out on six consecutive possessions in the first half, all while the offense was struggling to get in gear. Dont'a Hightower came up with a huge sack on third down to stop one drive on a play when he kept his feet after a tough block from Darren McFadden. Later the secondary was tight on a third-and-one when Tarell Brown blanketed Cole Beasley and Malcolm Butler had Terrance Williams, forcing Brandon Weeden to throw it away. In all the Cowboys managed less than 300 total yards and a pair of field goals.
OUT OF LINE – Greg Hardy's mouth was a major storyline heading into the game, and once it began his play became one. Hardy gave everyone fits, especially during the first half when his outside pressure was a constant concern. Nate Solder was no match for Hardy's speed before leaving for the day with a shoulder injury in the second quarter. Marcus Cannon also couldn't handle Hardy, who finished two sacks and a forced fumble. Overall Tom Brady was sacked five times in the first half before the Patriots made some protection adjustments in the second half. Even then Brady was forced to buy time in the pocket frequently before finding his receivers. Offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo talked during the bye week about how the group's performance was good enough but needed to improve. On Sunday the stats backed up what he said.
LEWIS CAN'T LOSE –Dion Lewis continued his impressive start to the season with another handful of impressive plays. After signing a two-year contract extension during the week, Lewis made his presence felt with some shifty running after the catch. His best move came on his 10-yard touchdown catch late in the third quarter when he made at least three Cowboys miss after a short throw from Brady. Lewis slipped one tackle before ducking under another en route to the end zone. Lewis consistently moves the pile after contact and shows incredible elusiveness in the open field. The one minor blemish for him came in pass protection where he struggled to slow down some Dallas rushers throughout the first half. But Lewis' production remains impressive and he finished with eight catches for 59 yards and six rushes for 34 yards.
INJURY CONCERNS –It wasn't all positive for the Patriots as they suffered a couple of potentially important injuries. Solder never returned after his shoulder injury in the second quarter and Hightower suffered a rib injury in the first half and also didn't return. Hightower has been arguably the Patriots best defensive player thus far and losing him would be a blow, although it would be somewhat mitigated by the presence of Jonathan Bostic, who arrived during the bye week following a trade with Chicago. Bostic was inactive for the Cowboys game but offers some insurance going forward in the even that Hightower is out next week.
PICK PARTY –The Patriots offense is predicated on working individual matchups to their advantage and often they do so by running a lot of crossing routes in an effort to use pick plays and rubs to get receivers in the clear. The Patriots were called for pass interference twice, both times negating big receptions for Danny Amendola. But the penalties did little to dissuade offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels from using the crossing routes and just two plays after the second pass interference, Julian Edelman took advantage of another rub play as he crossed the field in the clear before going 59 yards for the game's final touchdown. Amendola crossed into the middle as Edelman was coming toward the sideline and the Cowboys defenders couldn't find their way through the wash, leaving Edelman all by himself. Clearly the Patriots go with the "they can't call them all" theory and it worked to perfection.
CLOSE CALLS –The Dallas offense without Dez Bryant and Tony Romo was not considered to be dangerous, but it nearly was early on. Williams got behind Butler in the first quarter for a potential big play but Weeden overthrew him by at least 5 yards. Williams ran right past Butler, who failed to get a jam on the speedy wideout and was in chase mode from the start. Later in the game, after the outcome had long since been decided, Williams beat Butler again, this time in the end zone. The play came late in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-goal, and Williams made an inside move before cutting outside to the back corner. He was all alone as Butler was completely lost on the play, but again Weeden's pass was well overthrown. Williams was the Cowboys lone big-play threat, and he finished with just two catches for 30 yards, but it could have been a lot worse had Weeden been more accurate.
RUNNING WOES –The Patriots moved the ball reasonably well on the ground during the game, especially early, but the short-yardage situations were a different story. LeGarrette Blount was stuffed on an early third-and-one, and then again in the fourth quarter on a fourth-and-one. Each time the Cowboys got tremendous penetration and smothered Blount in the backfield. The Patriots had converted all eight of their third-and-ones heading into the game but failed on a pair of short-yardage chances in Dallas. In fact, Lewis almost was stopped on a third-and-one in the red zone in the first half but was able to avoid a tackle in the backfield before picking up 13 yards down to the 1. Blount did rip off a 34-yard run in the fourth quarter and finished with 74 yards on 13 carries (5.7-yard average) while the Patriots finished with 109 yards rushing as a team.
EXTRA POINTS – The strong defensive effort was one of the best for the Patriots on the road in quite some time. It marked the first time New England failed to allow a touchdown away from home since Dec. 26, 2010, in a 34-3 win at Buffalo. … Stephen Gostkowski's 57-yard field goal was a career best and matched the longest in team history, equaling Adam Vinatieri's effort in 2002 against Chicago. … Interesting stat: Since Dec. 10, 2012, Brady and Weeden each have lost 11 times. Brady has won 36 games during that span while Weeden is winless. … This marks the eighth time in team history the Patriots have started a season 4-0. They also improved to 43-10 against the NFC since 2002. … The Patriots have scored 149 points through four games, one more than they recorded in 2007 through four weeks. … New England is now 12-4 after the bye under Bill Belichick. … Brady played in his 213th game as a Patriot, moving ahead of Bruce Armstrong for the most in team history. … Jabaal Sheard recorded a pair of sacks, marking his second two-sack game of his career. … Jamie Collins forced a fumble for the third straight game.