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Cowboys vs. Saints: Previewing the Saints offense

Drew Brees is putting up an MVP season. How can the Cowboys stop him?

There’s just no other way to put this. The New Orleans Saints have a terrific offense. This is no secret, and it’s been apparent since 2006, when then-Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Sean Payton was hired as the head coach and got to work with Drew Brees as his quarterback.

Still, even for their standards, this year’s offense is insane. They lead the NFL in scoring offense, averaging 37.2 points per game. Only once before in NFL history has a team averaged more than 37 points per game for the entire season. That was the 2013 Denver Broncos when Peyton Manning won the MVP.

It should be no surprise, then, that the Saints QB is firmly in the conversation for the NFL’s top award despite tough competition from Patrick Mahomes. Brees is having himself a great season throwing the ball, too. He’s completing 76.4% of his passes - yes, he’s completing over three fourths of all his passes - and has thrown for 3,135 yards, 29 touchdowns, and only two interceptions. Those are phenomenal numbers, and it only adds to an already illustrious career. In Week 5, Brees broke Manning’s all-time passing yards record, and in Week 10 he passed Brett Favre to move into second place in all-time passing touchdowns.

But the Saints’ offensive prowess this year hasn’t been squarely on Brees’ shoulders. While their passing offense ranks sixth in the NFL, their rushing attack also ranks seventh in the league. The tandem of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram is a large reason for that. With Ingram missing the first four games of the year due to a suspension, Kamara got the chance to prove he’s capable of being an every down back and did so convincingly, putting up 611 total yards of offense on the ground and as a receiver and scoring a total of six touchdowns.

For the whole year, Kamara has run for 706 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground, and has caught 78.1% of his passes for 519 yards and four touchdowns. To make things even more impressive, Kamara has not fumbled the ball one single time.

On the other side, Ingram’s return has opened things up even more. His more downhill style of running has made the offense more multi-faceted and allows for Kamara to do more work as a receiver out of the backfield. In the seven games he has played this year, Ingram has tallied 440 rushing yards and scored four times. Between the two runners, the Saints are averaging 127.1 rushing yards per game.

The biggest difference between the two is Kamara’s usage in the passing game. In fact, Kamara is second on the team in targets with 73. Third on the team in targets is 37-year-old tight end Benjamin Watson with just 36. But as far as figuring out Brees’ favorite target, there’s no question. Michael Thomas has been the go-to guy ever since he arrived in New Orleans, and he leads the team in every receiving category with 86 catches, 1,080 yards, and eight touchdowns. Additionally, Thomas has the highest catch rate of anyone on the team who has been targeted more than ten times.

After Thomas and Kamara, there is a long list of mostly unfamiliar names that Brees still manages to connect with. This list includes the aforementioned Watson, as well as Tre’Quan Smith, Josh Hill, Ted Ginn, Dan Arnold, Cameron Meredith, Austin Carr, Keith Kirkwood, Zach Line, and TommyLee Lewis. Don’t be fooled, though, because this Who’s Who of receivers and tight ends have combined for 16 touchdown receptions.

Unfortunately for the Dallas defense, merely taking Thomas or Kamara out of the game - which itself is no easy feat - will not be enough to stop this offense. Brees will find someone else, and probably not even know their name, but he’ll complete a pass to them and make you pay for it. In other words, the Cowboys will have to be on their very best Thursday when facing this unit.

Another reason for New Orleans’ success has been their offensive line. Not only have they opened holes for the running backs, but Brees has only been sacked a total of ten times this year. To put this into perspective, Tyrod Taylor hasn’t played a meaningful snap since Week 3 of the NFL season and he’s been sacked three more times than Brees has. Even Mahomes, who is largely considered the only rival to Brees in the MVP race right now, has been sacked twice as many times as Brees.

Perhaps the only good news in previewing the Saints offense for this week’s matchup, New Orleans’ left tackle Terron Armstead hasn’t practiced all week and is expected to miss the game. According to Pro Football Focus, Armstead has been the best left tackle in the NFL this year, so not having him would be a huge loss for the Saints. It could open things up for guys like Randy Gregory and Taco Charlton to have big days. But it will also likely lead to more quick passes from Brees, who already has one of the quickest releases in the league, so the Cowboys defensive backs will need to fully embrace Kris Richard’s type of press coverage if they are going to stand a chance.

This Cowboys defense has been one of the best in the league this year and undoubtedly the best, most consistent part of this team so far, but they’re facing a historically good offense with one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. It’ll be the toughest test this team faces all year, and like Amari Cooper said earlier in the week, if Dallas can get a win on Thursday it’ll say a lot about this team.

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