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Cowboys reined it in

Outside of the offsetting penalties, Cowboys QB Tony Romo didn’t attempt one pass 20 yards or more against the Patriots. Outside of the offsetting penalties, Cowboys QB Tony Romo didn’t attempt one pass 20 yards or more against the Patriots. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)
By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / October 19, 2011

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The Patriots defense, by scoreboard, statistics, and performance, has shown improvement the past two games in victories over the Jets and Cowboys.

It took a promising step in attitude in the 20-16 decision over Dallas.

But there has to be some context. Both opponents had issues that affected their play.

For the Jets, the beating quarterback Mark Sanchez took against the Ravens destroyed their confidence. Against the Patriots, the Jets tried a simplistic approach, and their struggles continue, which was clear in a sloppy victory over the Dolphins Monday night.

Two weeks ago, the Cowboys lost to the Lions, 34-30, after holding a 27-3 third-quarter lead. As in their season-opening setback to the Jets, interceptions by quarterback Tony Romo set the stage for the Cowboys losing a game they should have won.

That lingered with Dallas through a bye week, and it was obvious from the team’s play against the Patriots that coach Jason Garrett tried to get Romo to be more of a game manager. Garrett even referenced that buzzword in his postgame comments.

When looking at the Cowboys’ lack of offense, some of it had to do with the Patriots. But some of it also had to do with Romo assuming the role of Captain Checkdown, even in the scoring zone.

When good teams enter the fringe area, 25 yards and in, they see a green light, because the closer you get to the end zone, the harder it is to pass because space is limited.

The Cowboys saw a yellow light in the fringe area and deep in the red zone.

The Cowboys had 20 plays inside the 25-yard line. One pass was thrown into the end zone (22 yards) - and that play was wiped out by offsetting penalties.

The Cowboys had 10 plays inside the 10. Not one pass was thrown into the end zone. The Cowboys’ one passing touchdown, a 1-yarder from Romo to tight end Jason Witten, was completed 1 yard behind the line of scrimmage.

Before the game was out of reach, Dallas’s Dez Bryant, the kind of big receiver the Patriots have had problems with, was targeted seven times. Only two came in Patriots territory, and not once when the ball was spotted inside the 25.

Of Romo’s 39 passes overall, including penalties, 33 (84.6 percent) were thrown 10 yards or less. Against the Lions, 79.5 percent were thrown the same distance.

The kicker was that the Cowboys didn’t take any shots down the field to even out their usual dink-and-dunk passing game.

Outside of the offsetting penalties, Romo didn’t attempt one pass 20 yards or more. Against the Lions, he attempted five (11.4 percent).

It’s not as if the Patriots were doing anything exotic in the secondary. Most of the time, they either played with two deep safeties behind zone coverage, or they walked a safety down to help with Witten and used Cover-3, where one safety and two cornerbacks divide the field into thirds. The Patriots also mixed in the occasional matchup quarters (field divided into quarters) and man-to-man.

Romo wouldn’t take a chance throwing to Bryant or Miles Austin if he saw a safety lurking over the top. And Romo would look away from Witten if Patriots linebackers Rob Ninkovich and Gary Guyton and end Andre Carter blasted Witten coming off the line, which they did 14 times.

That left 19 targets for players the Patriots knew wouldn’t beat them.

The Patriots game-planned to help Romo and Garrett toward those decisions, but even Bill Belichick probably couldn’t believe the Cowboys didn’t take one shot down the field against a secondary that is still feeling its way, outside of cornerback Kyle Arrington.

The Patriots certainly executed better, and it started with a change in attitude back to what we saw during training camp.

The Patriots simply attacked more, against the pass and the run.

They sent more than five rushers on 12 of 44 dropbacks (27.2 percent), including penalties. That’s more than they did in the previous two games combined (10).

The Patriots also turned linebacker Brandon Spikes loose seven times on blitzes, and three times as a fourth rusher.

Spikes was also sent on nine run blitzes, and only once was it called when the Cowboys actually threw the ball. The Patriots must have seen something that allowed them - or Spikes, if it was a read play - to guess so well. On those eight runs, the Cowboys gained only 16 yards, with four considered run stuffs of 1 yard or less.

Is the regained aggression of the Patriots here to stay? Or was it a product of Belichick having a very good idea of how Garrett would call this game?

We’ll have to see after the bye week.

Here are the positional ratings against the Cowboys:

QUARTERBACK Rating: 3.5 out of 5

This was by far Tom Brady’s biggest challenge of the season, the kind of game where the win at the end is the only thing that matters. Despite the Cowboys sending more than four rushers just four times on his 44 dropbacks (9 percent), Brady never felt comfortable because of the talent in Dallas’s front seven, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan constantly changing coverages and how he rushed Brady. That led to Brady throwing 82 percent of his passes 10 yards or fewer - by far his highest percentage of the season. Of Brady’s 289 yards, 172 (59.5 percent) came after the catch. The second interception just shouldn’t have been thrown - even though he got hit on the pass. Brady threw two sensational passes before that pick. And he was simply pinpoint on the final drive, with five of his eight completions needing to be thrown perfectly.

RUNNING BACKS Rating: 4 out of 5

Stevan Ridley likely got only three carries because this was the type of tough, hard-nosed game that called for BenJarvus Green-Ellis (14 carries for 58 yards). It’s surprising he didn’t get more carries considering how well the Cowboys were covering and that they played nearly the entire game in sub packages. Green-Ellis allowed a half-sack. It was good to have Danny Woodhead back, but his running just hasn’t been effective this season.

RECEIVERS Rating: 2.5 out of 5

This group accounted for two penalties and a fumble. Aaron Hernandez had a huge fumble on first down at the Dallas 21-yard line near the end of the third quarter, but otherwise he was a standout and even contributed in the running game with two clear-out blocks. Nice block by Rob Gronkowski on Deion Branch’s 45-yard reception to start the second quarter. Branch is just old reliable on in-breaking routes. Wes Welker had his hands full with Dallas cornerback Orlando Scandrick, but he can’t be defensed going to the sideline, as he did on his touchdown. He sets up the defender too well. The Patriots played 90.5 percent of their snaps with two or three tight ends.

OFFENSIVE LINE Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The Patriots allowed 2.5 sacks, but only six other pressures. Matt Light entered the game having only allowed one sack, and allowed two half-sacks and a hurry - all against All-Pro DeMarcus Ware, whom he had to block most of the game one-on-one. Light allowed one other knockdown. Two of the Cowboys’ sacks came on three-man rushes. Light toughed it out on the final drive despite appearing to sprain his right ankle. Logan Mankins was up and down with a sack, knockdown, and run stuff allowed. Nate Solder allowed three stuffed runs and had trouble with the strength of the Cowboys. He’s better against speed.

DEFENSIVE LINE Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Two very good games back-to-back for this group. The Jets game was probably a more impressive performance because the Cowboys offense is a doughnut, with the hole being at center (Phil Costa) and guard (Bill Nagy and Kyle Kosier). Costa and Nagy, in particular, were just rag-dolled by the Patriots’ interior linemen. The 10 run stuffs were the most since the 2009 season. Wilfork (two hurries, 1.5 run stuffs, forced fumble) was back to his old self. Carter (two sacks) has played at a high level the past three weeks. When you combine total quarterback pressures and run stuffs, he has produced 15.5 impact plays the last three weeks. He had six in the first three games. Albert Haynesworth showed some gradual improvement (quarterback knockdown, two nice plays against the run) but it’d be nice to see him do it against better competition. Yes, Haynesworth was “triple teamed’’ once, but so was Gerard Warren - because the Cowboys set up their alignment wrong. Shaun Ellis (hurry, 1.5 stuffs) had his most impact of the season. Kyle Love made a terrific play on one of his two run stuffs when he shed a weak block by Kosier and took down Felix Jones on the second possession. When the Patriots needed to force Dallas to punt late, Love was in the game, not Haynesworth.

LINEBACKERS Rating: 4 out of 5

Spikes, finally turned loose by the coaches, was sensational with 2.5 quarterback pressures and 2.5 run stuffs. Nice play by Ninkovich early in the second quarter when he got physical with running back Felix Jones, then deflected the dumb pass. Jerod Mayo can’t come back soon enough because Guyton continues to be a liability, as he had four of the Patriots’ 12 missed tackles.

SECONDARY Rating: 3 out of 5

Of the team’s 12 missed tackles (leading to an additional 82 yards of offense for the Cowboys), six came in the secondary. Devin McCourty had three missed tackles, including the 24 yards allowed to Laurent Robinson. McCourty hestitated while Witten crossed the formation on his 1-yard touchdown catch before halftime. It’s a play the Cowboys love to go to and was likely scouted. Patrick Chung had two missed tackles, and has to force Bryant back to the inside on his 33-yard catch. Arrington’s interception was a gift but he is terrific at reading the quarterback and making the right break in zone. Miles Austin’s second “drop’’ was, upon further review, a tremendous play by Arrington. If he doesn’t alertly swat the ball away, the Cowboys convert a crucial third down. Amazing the Cowboys didn’t once throw a quick hitch or bubble screen with the Patriots cornerbacks playing 7 yards off.

SPECIAL TEAMS Rating: 3 out of 5

Antwaun Molden had 1.5 kickoff tackles, and Dane Fletcher had a terrific takedown after a 53-yard punt by Zoltan Mesko that had 4.95 seconds of hang time (4.25 on his other). Tracy White has been so good on special teams that Dallas went offsides trying to block him on a kickoff. Danny Aiken had one low snap that Mesko did well to pick up.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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