Blogging The Boys: The Saints defense has had problems in the early part of the season, what do you see happening there? Is it players, is it scheme, and how did it improve against the Vikings?
Canal Street Chronicles: The Saints defense has had three major issues, which appeared mostly in their first two games against Atlanta and Cleveland: a) communication problems, especially in the secondary. b) The inability to get to the quarterback. This is a defense that recorded 49 sacks in 2013, but couldn't touch Matt Ryan in Atlanta and only sacked Brian Hoyer once in Cleveland. c) Red zone woes and a porous scoring defense. In the first two games of the year, New Orleans allowed five red zone touchdowns and respectively 37 and 26 points.
Against Minnesota, there were talks of Rob Ryan simplifying his defense a bit, which led to less confusion at the second and third level of the defense. The defensive line produced two sacks, but also four quarterback hits and several quarterback hurries. Finally, the Saints tightened up in the red zone, as they gave up a total of nine points to the Vikings, while not allowing a single touchdown. These improvements are sure to get tested on Sunday night against Dallas.
BTB: No one expected the Saints to start 0-2, what was the general feeling when that happened? Did the win over the Vikings change the outlook?
CSC: Although coaches try to guard their players from reading their own press clippings and believing the hype, I truly believe that Saints players (and maybe even some of their coaches) did believe that New Orleans just had to show up to instill fear in the heart of their opponents. As you can imagine, Saints fans gobbled up the cheese as well, so with the 0-2 start, the general feeling in the fanbase was that the season was over, the end of the world as we know it was near and the walking dead (out of Atlanta, of course) were at our doors. After the win against Minnesota, the demanding (read spoiled) Saints fanbase remembered the taste of victory, and hey: the world might not end this soon after all! A win in Dallas may bring back the cockiness in Saints fans, but for now, they're in somewhat of a "show me I can trust you" mode with their team.
BTB: With Mark Ingram out, discuss the Saints running game?
CSC: The Saints running game is the most pleasant surprise of the young season for Saints fans. This offseason, Sean Payton said New Orleans would run the ball more and most fans chuckled, because we all know what he really loves to do: chuck it, with Drew Brees spraying it all over the field to his multitude of receivers. So far this year, Football Outsiders has New Orleans ranked 2nd in the league in rushing with a 26.1% DVOA. They're also tied for 2nd in the NFL with five rushing touchdowns. Mark Ingram was a big part of that before he got hurt, but his backup Khiry Robinson is an even more powerful back and is now getting a long-awaited opportunity to show what he can do as a starter. Veteran Pierre Thomas will be relied upon as always, not only to run between the tackles, but also on screens plays and third downs for pass protection. Third-string running back Travaris Cadet will spell either Robinson or Thomas when either needs a break. Against Minnesota, the Saints rushed for 108 yards (their third game in a row with 100+ rushing yards) but more importantly they had a 5.8 yard per carry average. There's an x-factor to the Saints running game and that is rookie Jack-of-all-trades Brandin Cooks and I will address his role and impact in your next question.
In case you're interested in seeing what New Orleans has been doing with its running schemes, here's a really cool breakdown piece from my Canal Street Chronicles colleague Kevin Skiver.
BTB: A lot of people are talking about Brandin Cooks. How has he looked so far and how have the Saints utilized him?
CSC: Cooks has been almost everything the Saints and their fans expected when they drafted him in the first round this past May. I say almost because as a punt returner, Cooks has yet to make a positive impact. However, the rookie is on his way to becoming one of Sean Payton and Drew Brees' favorite offensive weapons, this season and for years to come. Cooks has been lining up all over the field for the Saints, in the multifaceted way New Orleans used diminutive running back Darren Sproles. Cooks is no Sproles just yet, but so far this year he has three rushes for 49 yards, mostly on reverses or jet sweep plays. He is second on the team behind tight end Jimmy Graham in targets (24), receptions (18) and receiving yards (168).
What is really amazing about Cooks is how quickly he has picked up Payton's complex offensive system and how good he's been at making tough catches in traffic. What is scary for Saints opponents, he is only a rookie, who isn't even close to reaching his full potential. With Graham and Marques Colston likely the primary focus of Dallas' linebackers and secondary, expect Cooks to get a lot of balls thrown his way going against nickel cornerback and former LSU Tiger Mo Claiborne.
BTB: How do you see the game playing out if the Saints are going to win?
CSC: I think that both teams will try to establish the run. The Cowboys have been one of, if not the best team at running the ball in the league so far this year. I expect Dallas to run it early and often to try and keep Brees on the sideline, perusing the game films with a frustrated look on his face. Meanwhile, the Saints will likely commit more men into the box, while rolling coverage on whichever side Dez Bryant lines up. I believe the Saints will take their chances with Romo beating them by throwing the ball, with the hope that he'll eventually force one to Bryant and make a mistake.
On the other hand, I think Dallas will be less concerned with the Saints running game, simply because of that Texas guy New Orleans has under center. The chess game is going to be whether Payton will run it often and successfully enough to force Dallas into bringing their safeties up closer to the line of scrimmage, which would then open throwing lanes behind the defense to Graham, Colston and Cooks.
I think both teams will be able to run on each other as both possess rather average defenses. Eventually, I see the difference in the game being New Orleans wining the turnover battle and using a takeaway to either seal a narrow victory for the Saints or to give Brees one more shot at a game-winning drive. As an "objective homer" I say (and obviously hope) New Orleans takes this one 31-27. No matter what, I expect a highly entertaining game.
Editor's Note: FanDuel is hosting a private fantasy football League for SBNation readers this week. It's $10 to join, the top 200 teams win money, and first place wins $1,000. League starts Sunday 1 PM ET and ends on Monday. Here's the link.