ARLINGTON, Tex. -- Jabaal Sheard is a man of few words. And the Patriots defensive end only needed three to make a point about how well his team's defense carried out its job on Sunday.

“Did they score?” Sheard asked when a question was posed about the defense getting the credit it deserves.

The credit from the outside, Sheard seemed to indicate, is not as important as the bottom line. Against a severely undermanned Cowboys offense, the New England defense did exactly what it should have: Shut Dallas down, allowing just a pair of field goals.

Both Cowboys scoring drives were aided by questionable, drive-extending third-down penalties. The Patriots were close to a shutout. Instead, they had to settle for allowing six and keeping Dallas from the end zone.

The Patriots’ game plan -- as seen through the eyes of Dallas quarterback Brandon Weeden -- was pretty obvious.

“We knew what their game plan was probably going to be. They wanted to take away 82 (tight end Jason Witten) and take away 11 (slot receiver Cole Beasley). They did that, especially on third downs.”

The Patriots did it with a mish-mash of personnel and alignments. But the essence of the plan -- walling up against the run on first and second down, letting the edge rushers (Sheard in particular) loose, and making sure the deep part of the field always had a safety ready to help on downfield throws -- was the same throughout.  

The Patriots lost Dont’a Hightower early to a rib injury, but they kept firing without much of a hitch. Pressure at the line on Beasley and Witten and stiff coverage on their short routes, the work of Devin McCourty both at deep safety and closer to the line of scrimmage, and the game-changing presence of the versatile Jamie Collins made it a long day for Weeden, who didn’t go over 100 yards passing until the fourth quarter.


“The way the Patriots play, the free safety plays pretty deep and he is rangy so you have to be careful with those deep throws or whatever there may be on the sideline because he can cover a lot of ground back there,” Weeden explained. “They do a good job of rerouting on the inside and doing things like that for the man-on-man stuff . . . We knew we were going to get a lot of single-high (safety looks). They scattered in a couple two-deep zones and we had some situations that they maybe hadn’t done in the last few weeks, but we knew that. They are a game-plan defense. They are going to try to use our tendencies and our personnel to call their defense. But early on, when the game was in reach, we knew we were going to get different fronts and some change in coverages and I had a feeling that they were going to take away Witten and Beasley and that’s what they did.”

Collins keeps drawing raves from his teammates.

“He’s a heckuva athlete, man,” said Sheard. “Freakish athlete, plays hard every down. When you have a player like that he’s gonna draw a lot of attention. He did a great job with penetration on the line and allowed me to play off of him.”

“He’s not human,” McCourty said of Collins. “He was all over the field today. He made so many plays that he didn’t make on paper but just his presence of being in the gap (made the play). He was all over the place. That’s coming from me being in the game and not watching. I could feel him. I can’t imagine being able to just watch from up top and see all the plays he can make. His energy is huge.”

Hightower has become the glue-guy on the Patriots defense, the one who can do so many things well -- run-stuffing, rushing the passer and being a factor in coverage every now and then. If his rib injury keeps him down, it’s a loss. But McCourty said that the team certainly has answers if Hightower isn’t in there.

“We got a lot of guys at that position between [Jerod] Mayo and [Jonathan] Freeny and Jamie,” McCourty pointed out. “Whoever’s in there, we’re comfortable with. Mayo’s been in there so many years, especially for me we don’t even think about it. Freeny’s done a great job throughout the year whenever he’s called on to be out there, I played with him in college so it was just, ‘Keep playing.’”


The Patriots still haven’t seen a formidable offense at full strength. But every week, their performance has improved. All they can do is play the team across from them, and so far they’ve had the upper hand each time.

And that's the point.