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Saints @ Cowboys: Dallas' Defensive Chickens Come Home to Roost

All season long, the Cowboys defense has resembled a triage unit, yet Rob Ryan and his coaches have managed to bandage together their wounded charges, to the point where they might have been gashed but never exploited. That ended on Sunday afternoon, when the Saints took full advantage of an injured Cowboys defense.

The match-up nightmare: Connor on Sproles
The match-up nightmare: Connor on Sproles
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

For more than five years now, the Saints have exploited the Cowboys defense with stunning regularity and ruthless efficiency. This has particularly been the case since since 2006, when Sean Payton and Drew Brees took over the Saints offense, one season after Bill Parcells switched Dallas to a 3-4 defense. As we have seen in the intervening years, Payton's scheme is designed to stress defenses by forcing mismatches and putting pressure on weak spots in opponents' coverage schemes. He'll proffer combo routes designed to force the opposition to pick their poison: either cover fleet outside receivers deep, guard the likes of Marques Colston on intermediate crossing routes, or contend with tight ends and quick scatback types on shorter crossing patterns or routes outside the numbers.

This scheme is particularly effective against the 3-4. Lets compare, shall we? 4-3 defenses have two swift outside 'backers that might conceivably be capable of running with the New Orleans running backs and tight ends. If they have a do-everything safety, a Darren Woodson type who can be a hammer against the run and still excel in man-to-man coverage, so much the better. I bring up Woodson because a defense like the one the 90s Cowboys sported, one with a bevy of superfast linebackers and a big safety who can cover, is the kind of set-up likely to have the most success against Payton's scheme.

A 3-4 defense, especially a big Bill Parcell-style 3-4, doesn't match up nearly as well. If you think about such a scheme, its really a glorified version of Bud Wilkinson's "Oklahoma," a 5-2, with three defensive tackles, two stand-up defensive ends and two run-stuffing middle linebackers. Instead of fleet 225 pound outside linebackers, the 3-4 tends to feature comparatively lumbering 260 pounders (think Anthony Spencer vs. former Cowboy Darren Smith, who ran like a deer). Moreover, a 3-4 OLBs' first responsibility is to rush the passer; coverage is a secondary task. Against Payton's scheme, therefore, the lion's share of coverage responsibilities fall to the inside guys.

And that's where Dallas has been abused in recent years. In 2006, with Bradie James and Akin Ayodele manning the two ILB spots, New Orleans racked up 384 yards passing and 536 total yards, almost all of it in the "short" (less than 20 yards) zones. In particular, Payton exploited mismatches between the Saints backs and tight ends and the Cowboys linebackers. Working the short zones, Reggie Bush caught six passes for 125 yards; Deuce McAllister had three grabs for 15, fullback Mike Karney added five for 39 and Colston caught another 5, for 48 yards. In total, New Orleans completed 23 underneath passes for 265 yards - the vast majority in the area covered by the Cowboys linebackers and safeties.

This changed in 2009, when Dallas went into the Big Easy to face an unbeaten New Orleans squad. 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 Phillips'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.

To my mind, the 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. Dave Thomas did his best Shockey impression, catching eight passes for 77 yards, and Pierre Thomas nabbed five balls for an even fifty. But they're no Shockey and Bush.

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. For the only time in four tilts against the Brees-led Saints, the Cowboys; middle linebackers weren't exposed.

In 2010, with James joined in the middle by Keith Brooking, they reverted back to form, getting torched in a hard-fought 30-27 loss in which the Saints piled up 333 passing and 414 total yards. A look at the box score is instructive; Brees only threw four "deep" (more than 20 yards) passes outside the numbers, completing two for 77 yards. The vast majority of his success came short and in the deep middle. Slot receivers Colston (6-105) and Lance Moore (5-39); tight end Graham (3-23) and running backs Bush (1-12) and Julius Jones (3-21) all made hay against Brooking, James and safety Alan Ball.

Dallas has striven to fix this problem for many a year, and, in Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, finally had a dynamic pair of inside linebackers capable of limiting the damage Payton's scheme has inflicted in the past six seasons. In Barry Church, they had the early makings of a thumper who could cover and thus wasn't a liability against either phase of the game. In short, they are more equipped to match up against New Orleans than at any time since Brees donned the black and gold.

But here's the kicker: all three of these guys are on IR, and their spots have been admirably manned by a succession of game but over-matched down-roster fellows. Since Bruce Carter went out against the Redskins, the Cowboys have given up their fair share of yards, but have played a surprisingly effective delimitation game. All week leading up to games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, my overriding concern was "will this be the week the Cowboys' defense is exposed?" - a thought typically followed by a full-body shudder. For whatever reason (a combination of luck and tenacity), they managed not to be. Against New Orleans, the kind of offense, like the 49ers squads in the late 80s, well rounded enough to expose even the best defenses, the gig, finally, was up.

In 2006, as we previously noted, in Payton and Brees' first season in the Big Easy, New Orleans came to Dallas and demolished a confident Cowboys bunch, who were 8-4 and, behind electric new starting quarterback Tony Romo, riding a four-game winning streak. After the game, as Dallas proceeded to lose three of their final four, pundits remarked that the Saints had offered the league a "blueprint" for beating the Cowboys; indeed, it appeared so, as Dallas' next three opponents averaged 388 total yards, a fat 67.2 yards above their season average.

Although only a single game remains in the 2012 campaign, we must ask: did Brees once again lift the Cowboys' defense's soiled t-shirt and show the league its soft and squishy middle? If I'm Kyle Shanahan, the stuff I'm pulling out of my playbook will stretch Dallas' corners and deep safety, forcing guys like Dan Connor and Brady Poppinga to stay with quick receivers between the numbers. The one thought that will allow us to sleep at night is that the 'Skins don't have anybody on their roster resembling Jimmy Graham, Lance Moore or Darren Sproles.

So, do Rob Ryan and Co. have enough duct tape for one more defensive con job? Or will the exposure continue for whatever remains of the Cowboys 2012 season? The way things have gone so far (I haven't picked a Dallas game correctly in our weekly pick 'em in what seems like two months), I have no concrete answer. All I can say is that it should be fun...

Happy Holidays. I hope Santa puts a lot of cool Cowboys swag in your stockings and under your trees.

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