When you think of game-planning to stop the Saints, you worry about a lot of things. They are excellent at killing you with little dump-offs to their speedy backs and they are great at the quick strike to Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston and company. It starts to feel like a very complex nightmare to try to slow them down.
The Cowboys can thank Rob’s brother Rex for simplifiying things a bit.
But before we get to that, we need to back up to the Saints game against the Buffalo Bills. In that game, Saints center Brian de la Puente and guard Ben Grubbs struggled against DT Kyle Williams, who registered 1.5 sacks. Now Williams is a very good DT, but he’s no Jason Hatcher. Willams has four sacks on the year and five stuff yards. Hatch has seven sacks and ten stuff yards. So put a pin in that for later as well.
Also struggling against the Bills, was Saints left tackle Charles Brown matched up against Mario Williams, giving up a sack and some pressures. None of it mattered in that game though, because the Bills turned the ball over, couldn’t slow down the Saints enough and couldn’t keep up on offense, so they got drilled.
But as far as putting some things on film for Rex Ryan, the game meant something.
Ryan attacked the Saints on Sunday with many types of pressure and created many breakdowns in the Saints O-line, culminating in center la Puente being flagged for a critical holding penalty at the end of the game.
To quote Mike Triplett of ESPN,
Over the final 20 minutes, quarterback Drew Brees was sacked twice, guard Jahri Evans and center la Puente were flagged for holding, and guard Ben Grubs was flagged for illegal hands to the face. Brees was also pressured into some incomplete passes, and the Saints failed to score a second-half touchdown.
The Jets do have one of the NFL's most disruptive defensive fronts. But the Saints' pass protection has been more up and down than usual this year, with most of the pressure coming up the gut.
In addition to putting up a blue print on slowing down the vaunted Saints offense, Ryan’s minions knocked Daren Sproles out of the game with a concussion. It’s becoming more common for players take a game off after a concussion, especially with the new concern over head injuries. Clearly Sproles should do that, but that hasn’t been declared yet.
If Sproles misses the Cowboys game, it will greatly simplify things for Monte Kiffin. The short passes to Sproles are so dangerous that they set up Brees beautifully to attack over the top. With him gone, the coverage is pulled in fewer directions.
Also simplifying things, Colston was already sidelined with a knee injury. He has endured microfracture surgery and various repairs on both knees in the past. The extent of his new problem has not yet been revealed.
Colston and Sproles represent roughly 27 percent of the Saints receiving production. And not just any 27 percent. These are targets that Brees is extremely comfortable with.
There is a distinct possibility that these players will miss the Sunday tilt with the Cowboys as well. If so, the defensive game plan will become as simple as it has ever been facing Sean Payton:
Take away Graham while pressuring Brees.
The amount of offense that runs through Graham is ridiculous. He accounts for 28 percent of the passing yardage and makes the vast majority of first downs for this team, with 35. No other player even comes close. Colston and Sproles have chipped in 16 and 15 first downs, respectively, but again, they could be sidelined.
As far as scoring, it’s even more lopsided in Graham’s direction. He leads the NFL with 10 receiving TDs. The next closest for the Saints is Pierre Thomas who has 2.
So yeah, it’s much easier said than done, but Dallas must take away Graham.
Has Anyone Taken Away Graham This Season?
Yes. New England held Graham catch-less through more than three quarters before he went out with an ankle injury. The Patriots did it while getting only one sack and one interception. They also did it while still worrying about Colston and Sproles.
Belichick has long been known for employing the strategy of taking away his opponents greatest weapon and he did it beautifully in that game. For whatever reason, he seems to accomplish this when no other teams can pull it off.
Kiffin Must Learn From the Patriots, Bills and Jets
Each of those games provided insight into beating the Saints. Even though the Bills lost, they revealed things that Ryan used to get his Jets the win. And Belichic’s strategic gifts are something the Cowboys would do well to emulate, so hopefully that game film has been analyzed backwards and forwards.
Pressure up the middle with stunts and blitzes, pressure from Ware and Selvie, do whatever it takes to limit Graham.
On offense, continue to trust your slot guys to keep the chains moving. Hurt them with Jason Witten early to open up things for Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams. And stay with the run. The Jets showed how weak the Saints can be against a determined running attack.
Bonus Tid Bit
Dallas is now ranked first in the NFL on special teams by Football Outsiders, New Orleans is ranked 19th. Dwayne Harris is fourth in punt returns and is second in kickoff returns. The Saints have relied on Sproles, who is 19th in kick returns and 17th in punt returns and may not be playing. Once again, Dallas appears to have a definite advantage in special teams.
Vegas currently has the Saints as seven point favorites for this game. While Dallas is certainly capable of getting blown out, given their recent defensive efforts, my guess is this contest goes down to the wire and is decided by three or fewer points. In other words, it's very winnable if Garrett can manage the game correctly and play to win.