Saints vs. Cowboys: Looking Forward By Looking Back

The typical weekly cycle here at BTB mirrors that of the team we cover: on the Monday following Sunday matchups, we offer global post game roundups; on Tuesday, when the players are off, we tend to present assessments of key moments in the game. By Wednesday, we, like the players, are putting the last game in the rear-view mirror and moving on to the next opponent. Consequently, Thursday's and Friday's posts tend to be peppered by game previews, injury updates, and behind-the-enemy-lines storylines. Every season, this routine is thrown off by the annual Thanksgiving game. So, as the dust settles after Sunday's grind-it-out victory over Detroit, we, like our beloved 'Boys, barely have time to break out our DirtDevils before New Orleans comes to town. And, as Jason Garrett has made clear, the World Champs will be here at 3:15 on Thursday, ready to play.

In this compressed week, I'll offer a Thanksgiving two-fer: a small Lions review side salad to go with a entree-sized portion of Saints preview. You want stuffing? No problem; I'll spoon it up in the form of a look back to the last time the Cowboys and Saints locked horns, in last year's Gumbo-licious, season-saving, 72-Dolphins-break-out-the-champagne, Superdome-quieting, defensive gem. If you recall, the Cowboys built a commanding 24-3 lead before withstanding a furious, and ultimately fruitless, Saints rally. The Cowboys offense played well, but they won the game because of inspired defensive play; Wade's charges were the first team in 2009 to hold New Orleans below 24 points and 370 yards of offense. There are several reasons for this: the front seven shut down the run; the secondary played lights out against the Saints' stable of tall, fleet receivers; and DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer spent the entire evening in Drew Brees' lap.

Another key factor in the victory was a pair of New Orleans injuries. Jeremy Shockey, the Saints tight end and a formidable receiver, didn't suit up for the game; he was replaced by New England castoff David Thomas. Then, late in the second quarter, Reggie Bush caught a short pass over the middle and broke into the open field only to pull up lame. He tweaked a hammy and didn't return. As a result, two of the Saints' primary weapons in the short passing game had been summarily eliminated. D. Thomas did his best Shockey impression, catching eight passes for 77 yards, and Pierre Thomas nabbed five balls for an even fifty. Unlike Shockey and Bush, however, they're not the kind of receiving threats that keep defensive coordinators up at night.

With Shockey and Bush out of the game, the two scariest matchups for the middling Cowboys safeties and inside linebackers had been erased. Without Bush and Shockey on the field--and with a sizeable lead--the middle of the Cowboys' pass coverage (the ILBs and strong safety) could cheat deep without the risk of being burned by Bush running underneath crossing patterns. Consequently, the Dallas defensive staff could concentrate on delimiting the likes of Marques Colston, Devery Hendersen and Robert Meachem, which they did with an effectiveness unprecedented to that point in the season.

Why do I return to the scene of the Cowboys' crime--the theft of New Orleans' undefeated season? In reviewing the game against Detroit, one recurring scene that stood out with painful clarity was Keith Brooking's inability to cover Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew. As has been oft discussed, the Cowboys back seven is playing much more zone than they did in the first nine weeks of the season; this has served to protect the Dallas corners, who appeared to lose confidence after being exposed with shocking frequency when they were marooned on one-on-one islands without any pass rush to speak of. Without safety help in the short and intermediate middle, however, Brooking, Bradie James (and perhaps Sean Lee) share the burden of slowing down opponents backs, tight ends and slot receivers.

The two-deep zone adopted by the Paul Pasqualoni administration is exactly the sort of defense that New Orleans head coach and offensive genius Sean Peyton historically has feasted upon. Peyton likes to stress defenses by forcing mismatches and putting pressure on weak spots in opponents' coverage schemes. Against zone defenses, he'll proffer combo routes designed to force the opposition to pick their poison: either cover the likes of Meachem and Henderson deep, or guard Colston on intermediate crossing routes, or contend with Shockey and Bush on shorter crossing patterns or routes outside the numbers. Very few teams can accomplish all of these at once; take away the deep routes, and Colston or Shockey will kill them with acrobatic grabs over the middle or up the seams; try to stop all the wideouts, and you'll leave the middle open for Lance Moore or the electrifying Bush.

Bush has been injured for the better part of the season; all reports indicate, however, that he will play on Thursday. Shockey missed last week's contest against the Seahawks with bruised ribs but is expected to be on the field against Dallas. If I were Sean Peyton, after looking at the Detroit tape (or, frankly, tape of any Dallas game this year), I'd pull out a package of plays that force the middle of the Cowboys defense to cover. Not only have they struggled mightily all season to keep up with opposing backs and tight ends, they won't have encountered as dangerous a set of short passing options as New Orleans sports if Bush, Shockey and Pierre Thomas all play.

Pasqualoni and his coaches have implemented a basic philosophy that goes something like this: play coverage, allowing the other team their yards, and ask eleven men to fly to the football, causing collisions and, hopefully, generating turnovers. In the past two weeks, this philosophy has allowed the players to feel more confident in what they're doing; as a result, the game slows down for them and they play faster and make more plays each week. That said, Coach Paul and his staff have shown that they'll alter the gameplan a little differently from game to game. Against the Giants, they played almost exclusively coverage; against Detroit, they blitzed with much more frequency in an attempt to force Lions quarterback Shaun Hill to make quick decisions in the face of oncoming rushers (this didn't always pan out; recall strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh getting turned around and giving up a 58-yard gainer by journeyman receiver Nate Burleson after a six-man blitz failed to reach Hill).

What will we see against New Orleans? I submit that the greatest difference between the 2009 and current Cowboys teams is that the 2010 model has failed to generate a consistent pass rush. Ultimately, it was the failure of anybody other than Ware to get to the quarterback that led to Wade Phillips' demise. In the past two weeks, this problem hasn't been solved; rather, the new defensive scheme has done a better job compensating for the absence of Cowboys in the opponent's backfield. But the Saints present a more complicated puzzle than the Lions or even the Giants. Think about it: assuming you're not going to get pressure rushing four, what poison do you drink? Blitz Brees and risk not getting to him, with Colston and Meachem in single coverage? Play coverage, thus giving him big mismatches to exploit in the short and intermediate zones?

In order to avoid either of these nightmarish scenarios, Coach Paul will have to come up with some special sauce for his Thanksgiving turkey--a way to make Brees uncomfortable in the pocket without his guys getting exposed repeatedly--preferably with a delicious side dish, a heapin' helpin' of turnovers. Given the lack of success Dallas had blitzing against Detroit, I'd expect them to go back to three- and four-man rushes. This is precisely the scheme the Cowboys deployed in last year's big upset in the Big Easy, when Ware and Spencer dominated the Saints OTs and constantly harassed Brees, forcing two fumbles. Unless Spencer suddenly returns to last December's form, however, its hard to imagine that gameplan playing as well as it did last December.

I certainly don't envy Pasqualoni his task; does he go high-risk or slow poison? Switch it up and hope to guess right? If reports that Bush and Shockey will play are in fact true, his challenge will become all that much harder. Five men in the pattern, and Brees in a clean pocket? With Brooking isolated on Shockey? Or Bradie James on Bush? Or Sensabaugh on Colston? Not scenarios likely to relieve Thanksgiving indigestion...

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