Spagnola: Time To Chase Those Boogeymen Away


FRISCO, Texas – We're quite familiar with the Hot Boyz around here, the Dallas Cowboys' self-celebrated defensive front, a group that needs to heat up down this final six-game stretch.

But now, Sunday, 3:25 p.m., Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass., we're about to meet the _Boogeymen,_ the self-described New England Patriots' defensive front, a group haunting NFL offenses at a frightening pace. Some might call the numbers they are producing ridiculous, almost an insult to our common senses.

Boogeyman is a long-ago term defined as a "mythical creature used by adults to frighten children into good behavior." As children growing up, we all feared, when the lights were all off at night in the basements of our houses, the fictional boogeyman, sending the scaredy-cats scrambling up the stairs.

But these guys are real: Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, John Simon, Danny Shelton, Adam Butler, Chase Winovich, among others, a conglomeration of New England linebackers with a few defensive linemen sprinkled in, the soul of the Patriots' No. 1 defense waiting impatiently to butt heads with the Cowboys, the NFL's No. 1 offense, on this Sunday afternoon nationally-televised game that just might crush previous TV ratings.

Let's list these 10-game defensive numbers of the 9-1 Patriots, tied with San Francisco for best record in the NFL.

No. 1 total yards: 249.9 a game.

No. 1 points allowed: 10.8 a game.

No. 1 touchdowns allowed, and get this: Of the 13 touchdowns scored against the Patriots so far this year, 1.3 a game, and only Baltimore able to score more than 1, well, only nine of those have been yielded by the defense. The other four an interception return and three fumble returns.

Crazy, man.

And oh, there is more.

The Patriots also lead the league with 37 sacks.

They lead the league with 28 takeaways.

They lead the league limiting opponent third-down conversions at a remarkable 19.3 percent.

And on top of all this, they own a 20-game home winning streak, not to mention Tom Brady still is the quarterback, Bill Belichick still is the head coach, and a team considered to be struggling this year has scored one more point than the Cowboys' fourth-best 286-point total.

"It's exciting … it's exciting," says Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, the NFC Offensive Player of the Week not flinching a bit, despite knowing the Boogeymen are awaiting.

So how did all this get started?

We take you to Oct. 6, following the Patriots' 33-7 victory over Washington when New England held the Redskins to just 223 yards offense, recorded 3.5 sacks, six tackles for losses, five QB hits and one forced fumble

"We're the boogeymen," said Hightower, the veteran linebacker, after the game. "We're the boogeymen."

Just as Hot Boys, this took off like wildfire. Van Noy announced a contest for whoever designs the best Boogeymen T-shirt, and that he'd buy tickets for the winner to a game of choice. Immediately, Boogeymen video sprouted up left and right.

And it sure helped their image when after beating the Jets, 33-0, the second time around, Jets quarterback Sam Darnold having a terrible night, completing just 11 of 22 passes for 73 yards and being intercepted four times, is heard saying while mic-ed up for TV, "I'm seeing ghosts."

How ghoulishly perfect.

"We're able to give offenses different looks and different things each and every week," Hightower says, "because we know it and we're smart enough to make changes on the move."

What the Patriots have been doing is the reason defensive lineman Michael Bennett is now with the Cowboys. Belichick has devised a scheme playing four to five linebackers up front. Sometimes six. Then only one or two defensive linemen, meaning the 34-year-old Bennett, a pass-rushing defensive end/tackle in his first season with the Patriots, wasn't getting many snaps and became expendable.

The Patriots have linebackers swarming all over near or on the line of scrimmage, smaller, but strong and athletic pass rushers. For a quarterback, hard to identify who is rushing, who is dropping. Becomes an annoyance after breaking the huddle. Ask Philadelphia's Carson Wentz, sacked five times this past Sunday in the 17-10 loss, completing only 20 of 40 passes for a mere 174 yards, with the Eagles rushing for just 81 yards.

But former Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls, joining us this week on Talkin' Cowboys, says this is nothing new for Belichick. Remember, when the Cowboys released Walls after the 1989 season, Giants head coach Bill Parcells signed him. Belichick was the Giants defensive coordinator.

"It's very familiar," Walls remembers back to that Super Bowl-winning 1990 season. "Of course, reminds me of the Super Bowl, Super Bowl XXV. We're going against Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, and they went no huddle (three-wide), so it's almost like they are trying to catch you with the personnel they want. So we stuck with personnel we were going to live with. It was almost like what the Vikings did to the Cowboys. We wanted to make Thurman Thomas beat us because Jim Kelly was such a quick striker. 'So what we we're going to do is play all pass.' We had one nose guard in the game pretty much all the time, unless it was short yardage.

"So yeah, Belichick has always had this thing for this personnel. He's always wanted to do it, so Super Bowl XXV was his first opportunity to use that particular personnel and that idea about how to play that defense in this particular game. There is no telling what you might see from Belichick because in 1990 we were the No. 1 defense in the league and we changed everything for the Super Bowl."


"Everything," says Walls, who also moved on to play for Belichick when he was the Cleveland Browns head coach.

So who knows what Belichick is cooking up for Dallas, and as Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore says, "They have a lot of versatility in their defense," suggesting they can change what they do weekly.

Great communication will be imperative for the Cowboys offense in this game, "because we have to make sure everyone is on the same page," Moore says, echoing Garrett's exact same words, and those too of Prescott.

Running the ball effectively also will be imperative for the Cowboys. Somehow, they have to make the Patriots pay for playing with such an undersized front. And that is how Baltimore wound up beating the Patriots, 37-20, the most points scored on New England since Kansas City beat them, 43-40, in Week 6 last year. And get this, just the second-most points since the 2017 season opener when, uh, Kansas City also beat the Patriots, 42-27. Baltimore rushed for 210 yards just two games ago, Mark Ingram going for 115 and quarterback Lamar Jackson piling up another 61 and two touchdowns on 16 carries.

But other than that blip on the Patriots' defensive radar, no one else has scored more than the 14 the Jets and Giants did in crushing 16- and 21-point losses, respectively.

So you, Michael Bennett, why does this work so well, with all these linebackers storming the line of scrimmage? You witnessed this up close and personally.

"Kyle Van Noy (5.5 sacks) is one of the smartest guys I've been around," Bennett says. "Jamie Collins (6 sacks) is one of the best athletes I've ever been around. Dont'a Hightower (3 sacks) just smart.

"And the rest of those Boogeymen."

As someone has described rather perfectly of this catchy nickname, "Shapeless personification of terror."

Thus, we have the NFL's No. 1 defense vs. the No. 1 offense, the best, most balanced and talented offense in the league the Patriots will have faced in these first 11 games.

How delicious, some kind of pre-Thanksgiving treat.