Secondary issues on display in Patriots’ OT loss to Cowboys

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The Patriots spent heavily this offseason hoping to patch the holes of a team that finished 7-9 in 2020 and on the outside of the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Through six games of 2021, those efforts have added up to them being exactly where they were this time a year ago.

Sunday’s 35-29 overtime loss to the Cowboys was rife with many of the same issues that have plagued the Patriots (2-4) throughout this season, from costly turnovers to difficulty executing on third down.

This latest setback also has crystallized just how much the defense misses having cornerback Stephon Gilmore in the secondary.

The most glaring example was on display in the fourth quarter with the Patriots trying to protect a 29-26 lead in the final minute.

New England had just answered Trevon Diggs’ 42-yard interception return with Mac Jones’ 75-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne. The Cowboys were facing third-and-25 on their 45.

The Patriots came out in a dime package, going with six defensive backs, a linebacker and four linemen.

It wasn’t enough to prevent Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott from completing a 24-yard pass to CeeDee Lamb. It set up Greg Zuerlein’s 49-yard game-tying field goal to send the game to OT.

“It was a good throw and a good catch,” coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “Coverage was pretty good, but Prescott made a good throw. Lamb made a good catch.”

All true. But safety Devin McCourty also acknowledged that extra help on that play on third down may have been warranted.

“We’re banged up, it’s tough. You would want more DBs in, but you guys could see, it was tough,” McCourty said. “(Jonathan) Jones was in and out, (Adrian Phillips) went down for a second, (Justin Bethel) went down for a second, it was just tough.”

The play accounted for 24 of a season-high 445 passing yards allowed by the defense.

Asked if they considered going with an extra defensive back, Belichick said they were in the coverage they’d planned on.

It’s unclear how much the addition of Gilmore, who spent the first four weeks on the physically unable to perform list before being traded Oct. 6, would have made on the play.

But only one team passed for more than 400 yards in the games he played in last season on a defense that ranked eight against the pass, giving up 223 passing yards per game.

This season the Patriots have slipped to 16th in the league, allowing 246 passing yards per game.

WHAT’S WORKING

The offense scored a touchdown on its only trip inside the red zone, a 20-yard pass from Jones to tight end Hunter Henry in the first quarter. That’s its best showing inside the 20 this season.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Penalties continue to hurt the Patriots. They had five for 47 yards Sunday, their fifth game with five or more this season. New England had only six such games in all of last season.

The costliest was in the second quarter, when the Patriots appeared to add to their 14-7 lead with a 25-yard TD pass from Jones to Jakobi Meyers. But the points were taken off the scoreboard by a hold on left guard James Ferentz.

STOCK UP

Jones had his best game of the season completing deep passes Sunday, going 6 of 7 for 172 yards and two touchdowns. He also finished with a season-high 10.9 yards per passing attempt.

STOCK DOWN

The offensive line took a step back Sunday as it continues to deal with multiple injuries. The group gave up two sacks and allowed Jones to be hit five times. Backup right tackle Yodny Cajuste has played well the past two weeks, but allowed defensive end Randy Gregory to blow past him and knock the ball free when he sacked Jones from behind in the second quarter. Chauncey Golston recovered for the Cowboys, leading to a 30-yard field goal that pulled Dallas within 14-10.

INJURIES

The Patriots had eight players listed as questionable heading into Sunday’s game. That list could grow this week after safety Adrian Phillips (foot), cornerback Jonathan Jones (ribs) and linebackers Christian Barmore (shoulder) and Chase Winovich (hamstring) all left the game with injuries.

KEY NUMBER

Minus-3 — The Patriots’ turnover differential on the season. Their 11 turnovers on offense are tied with Houston for the third most in the NFL.

NEXT STEPS

The best news for New England is that next up is a visit from the struggling Jets, who have lost two of three since their turnover-filled 25-6 loss to the Patriots in Week 2.

___

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