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Cowboys vs. Saints Preview: Knocking Off an Undefeated in Six Simple Steps

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Simple to identify, difficult to execute:

1.  Get the lead. 

The Saints don't usually fly out of the box, the way the old 'Niners teams of the '90s used to do.  (More on this in a second.)  They've more like an old Saturn V rocket.  They start slowly, but consistently build momentum every quarter, until they're outracing bullets by the 4th. 

Several teams have built early leads on them.  The Dolphins had a huge lead.  The Panthers built a fair one.  The Redskins kept them off balance for most of their game.  The Cowboys will need to join them, which means the second quarter will be vital.  The Cowboys, at least in the Garrett-era, make their offensive hay in the 2nd and 3rd.  They'll have to join these other teams in wringing points out of the first 30 minutes.

2.  Keep the foot on the accelerator

The Panthers ran their way into the lead, as did the Dolphins.  They faltered in the second half because they lacked the firepower to keep scoring once the Saints sold out and slowed those rushing attacks down.  If the Cowboys find the lead, either through the air or on the ground, they need to keep attacking.  To me, this suggests a steady diet of Romo passing, with the expected draws and counters mixed in.  Marion Barber isn't, or shouldn't be counted on to ice away the game with late running, if it comes to that.  The Cowboys are a big play team, and score from the opponents 20 out much of the time.

When the Cowboys pass their own 40, the big play calls are coming;  the wrinkle runs, the attacks over the middle, the combination routes up the sidelines.  They'll likely start here and continue until the Saints 20.   The imperative is to score touchdowns.  Missing a field goal, as Shaun Suisham did for Washington two weeks ago, and as Nick Folk has done seemingly every week since the pre-season, sets up New Orleans for the quick-strike counter attack. 

3.  Don't Forget to Defend the Run

The Cowboys have been steady at containing running attacks since the Bucs ripped them to open the season.  The Saints get leads, get you worried about their many passing threats, and then hammer you on the ground.  They run more than just about any team and run effectively.

Pierre Thomas must be kept under some measure of contain.  The Redskins and Falcons held New Orleans to two of their season lows in rushing the last two weeks and knocked the Saints scoring maching off rhythm.  It may seem counter-intuitive, because Drew Brees passes so well, but putting the game on his shoulder, putting him in second and third and longs, would greatly increase Dallas' competitiveness.

4.  Self scout yourself extra hard this week

Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams often builds his defenses from the back forwards.  In Washington, he drafted Sean Taylor and Laron Landry to roam the deep middle.  They gave him the flexibility to blitz more with his front seven, which had trouble sacking QBs with a four man rush. 

When he came to the Saints, Williams inherited a team which also had a so-so rush, and a weak pass defense.  The team invested heavily in the secondary, adding free agents Jabari Greer, an unsung YPA leader in his Buffalo days, and Darren Sharper, a smart, but aging FS who seemed to lose his top two gears in Minnesota.

They teamed with second year CB Tracy Porter to shore up the Saints pass defense.  Gregg's guys have not made a huge step forward, but they are three points better per game this year than last.  Add a seven point improvement from the offense and you can see why the Saints have rocketed from .500 to perfection.

Williams' fronts look vanilla till just before pre-snap; he gives a lot of base 4-3 looks, then makes a lot of late shifts.  He's a streaky game caller, and when he's on, it looks to opposing teams that he's in the huddle.  His philosophy is to take away your ten best plays and make you adapt.  Sharper's production shows the effectiveness of this strategy;  many observers thought his legs were gone in Minnesota, and he won't win many foot races these days, yet he has 8 picks, because he knows where to be. 

For this reason, opponents need to understand what they do, because the Saints will.  The challenge then is not to try to make yourself over, but to change your tendencies, so you can still do what you do best, but do it in slightly unpredictable ways.   Have a pet play you like to run in the red zone?  Run it, but run it outside the 20.  Have a play you favor on 3rd downs?  Run it on first instead this week.

That said, look for Jason Garrett to use an inside/out passing tactic which he used very effectively against Williams' defense in a 28-23 win at Texas Stadium.  He started Terrell Owens out wide, then motioned him into the slot.  T.O. was sent up the field on combination routes.  Tony Romo would fake to him, then lob passes over the top of the secondary.  The motion isolated Owens on the middle linebacker, who had deep responsibility in the cover-2 the Redskins played a lot, or put him on a safety.  Owens ended the day with 173 yards and four scores. 

I look for Dallas to try similar plays with Miles Austin.  Garrett got him off to a hot start three games ago against the Raiders by motioning him across the middle.  He may do this again, but take his routes farther up the field in this game.  Sharper is smart, but he's not fast anymore.  Saints MLB Jonathan Vilma is the most athletic of the Saints LB trio, but he nonetheless will have some trouble tracking receivers across his zone.

5.  Ball custody, ball custody, ball custody

The Saints have turned leads into blowouts by racking up defensive turnovers.  They have taken the ball away 37 times in 13 games, nearly three times per game.  That's double the Cowboys' defense, for example. 

Poor to average teams which have protected the ball have scared New Orleans.  The one-win Rams only turned the ball over once, and therefore gained possession in the last two minutes with the score at 28-23.  They couldn't find the end zone, but gave themselves the chance. 

The Falcons' secondary bled yards, as they have all year, but their backup QB Chris Redmond only turned it over once.  They too had the ball in the last minute with a chance to win the game. 

The Cowboys have been pretty good at ball custody lately.  Marion Barber made a costly turnover in New York, but Dallas actually won the turnover battle the last two weeks.  Tony Romo has just three interceptions in his last nine starts. 

Dallas will need another strong week from him.  If the Cowboys keep their turnovers low, they'll have a fighting chance.  If Romo gets pass crazy, as Tom Brady did last month, and makes early picks, as Brady did, the game could spiral away from the Cowboys quickly. 

6.  Relocate the Big Return

When the Cowboys went on their four game winning streak in October, Patrick Crayton made some huge punt returns.  Lately, the Cowboys' return game has gone missing.  San Diego twice downed punts inside the Dallas two last week. 

The kickoff return game has struggled all year, though Felix Jones returned the opening kickoff past the Dallas 40. Another big return or two would greatly help the cause.

Overall

The Cowboys defense was able to hang on last week against San Diego.  Philip Rivers made his share of plays, but he's done that to everybody all season.  Dallas held him to a season low 20 points.  The D will need a similar effort this week.  They need to set their cap around 23 or 24 points, hope they match the game Atlanta sprung last week, and then get the offense to get near 30.

Can it be done?  Yes.  Three teams at the bottom of the standings, the Rams and Redskins, have given New Orleans two of its toughest games this year.  The Falcons had their chances in both close losses and the Dolphins fizzled once the game fell to their passing game, which served up three crippling interceptions. The Saints have their weaknesses, and Dallas has weapons to exploit them. 

On the other hand, the Cowboys' middle pass defense is soft.  The Chargers and other recent opponents are gaining big yards throwing at Keith Brooking, Bradie James and the Dallas safeties.  San Diego bled the clock dry in the 4th running Malcolm Floyd, Vincent Jackson and its backs across James' zones. New Orleans has weapons to do the same.

The result will likely come down to whether Dallas loses the big play races, as it did in New York and against the Chargers, or whether it edges ahead, as it has in its wins.