Cowboys roll past the Patriots 38-3

What happened in the Arizona desert was a mirage after all.

The Cowboys responded from their dismal defeat one week earlier with a dominance more in line with their other two games. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and cornerback DaRon Bland scored early defensive touchdowns, helping spoil Ezekiel Elliott’s return home with a 38-3 flattening over the New England Patriots.

Here are five quick takeaways:

Defense is back

Dan Quinn did not recognize his defense in a 28-16 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Not the lack of takeaways. Not the poor run defense. Not the inconsistent tackling. And least excusable of all, not the way his players lethargically ran to the football at times.

So, the best compliment to give the Cowboys’ performance Sunday is also the simplest.

They looked like themselves.

Defensive end Dante Fowler strip-sacked Jones in the second quarter, and Vander Esch recovered with an 11-yard return for a touchdown. Bland did his best Trevon Diggs impression when starting in his place, notching two interceptions that included his second pick-six of the year. Overall, the defense played fast while stopping the run.

Elliott was quiet in his Dallas return. His first carry went for 9 yards. The other five totaled just 7.

Rhamondre Stevenson managed 23 yards on 13 carries.

In the Cowboys’ three wins this season, they held teams to 67 carries for 225 yards, a 3.4 average. No single run totaled 20 or more yards. In their Sept. 24 loss, the Cowboys allowed 7.4 yards per carry. The Cardinals totaled four runs of 20-plus yards in the first half.

Sign of life in the dead zone

The red zone was the dead zone for the Cowboys’ offense.

Dallas entered Sunday having scored three touchdowns in 11 red-zone appearances across its previous two games. The offense began Sunday with three visits that ended in two field goals and a turnover on downs. That made seven straight red-zone trips without a touchdown.

The Cowboys aren’t satisfied after ending the game on a positive note.

Rookie fullback Hunter Luepke scored a touchdown on a 3-yard plunge in the fourth quarter, drawing an emphatic applause from AT&T Stadium’s crowd and substantial relief from its home sideline.

“It’s slow progress, but slow progress is good progress at the end of the day,” running back Tony Pollard said. “We’re moving in the right direction. It’s early in the year, so I feel like we’re right where we need to be.”

The Cowboys have reached the red zone 19 times in four games, tied with the Buffalo Bills for most in the NFL.

They have scored a touchdown on 35.7% of appearances. Only the New Orleans Saints (33.3%) and Houston Texans (35.7%) are worse.

Here's how the red zone drought ended.

Center Tyler Biadasz is the Cowboys’ resident expert on a team philosophy called “cover and finish.” He approves of what Sean McKeon did Sunday.

In the fourth quarter, the tight end sprinted downfield, trailing wide receiver KaVontae Turpin on a 46-yard carry. When the star returner fumbled, McKeon was there to recover, securing possession at the Patriots’ 14-yard line. Six plays later, Luepke found the end zone on third-and-goal.

Biadasz has recovered two fumbles this season.

In Week 1, Pollard caught a screen pass in the red zone. Biadasz ran 13 yards downfield, delivered a block on a New York Giants safety and fell on a fumble at the 4-yard line. Two plays later, Pollard scored a 1-yard touchdown.

In Week 2, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb caught a slant and ran for a 31-yard gain before fumbling. Biadasz was there, not another offensive lineman within 15 yards of him. The prolonged drive ended in a field goal.

A cover-and-finish play has come in all three Cowboys wins. They committed no turnovers in those games.

“It doesn’t take talent,” Biadasz said. “It’s all effort. I think that’s the biggest part. Those are the little things that separate good football teams and great football teams. With our coaching staff, it’s part of our fundamentals. ... On that play, Sean is right there, blocking for Turpin. That’s effort. That’s 100% effort. It’s a mindset. That was a huge, huge play in the game.

McKeon, elevated Saturday from the practice work, mitigated Peyton Hendershot’s absence.

Hendershot was inactive with an ankle injury.

Good practice

Some call it a “tush push.”

The Philadelphia Eagles prefer “Brotherly Shove.”

Regardless of label, the Patriots gave the Cowboys good practice on a short-yardage run the Eagles have popularized. The concept features a quarterback diving into the defense’s interior while multiple teammates push him from behind.

Dallas halted Jones on a fourth-and-1 in the second quarter.

That gave the Cowboys possession at their own 41-yard line.

Not even close

The Cowboys have a way of making wins anticlimactic.

Their three victories this season have come by a combined 108-13 scoring margin. They beat the New York Giants 40-0 and the New York Jets 30-10 before this 38-3 drubbing. Those games featured a plus-10 turnover differential compared with being minus-one in Arizona.

Cooper Rush has made an appearance in each win. He entered Sunday in the fourth quarter, completing both pass attempts for 20 yards.

Dak Prescott finished 28-of-34 for 261 yards and a touchdown. He picked apart a Patriots secondary that entered the game without two of their top three cornerbacks. Their top one, rookie Christian Gonzalez, then exited in the first quarter with a shoulder injury. The Colony High School graduate did not return.

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