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Cowboys must force Saints to play their style and that means slowing it all down

Cowboys face their toughest opponents yet with the 10-1 Saints on deck. It’s going to take a lot to slow New Orleans down.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Cowboys have flipped the script on this season and have put together a nice three-game winning streak. All the while, this week’s opponent, the New Orleans Saints are on quite a winning-streak of their own, having won their last 10 games. Drew Brees is still Drew Brees and doesn’t look like he has plans to slow down. Especially when he has guys like Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas to work with. So, the 6-5 Cowboys already know that Thursday Night’s game will present plenty of challenges. How do you stop a Saints offense that is scoring a league-best 37 points per game?

To paraphrase a quote: You can’t stop New Orleans, you can only hope to contain them. This should be the Cowboys mantra for this week up against such a juggernaut of an offense.

The gameplan that was implemented two weeks ago against the Falcons is pretty close to what they’ll need to replicate. Though these two NFC South rivals are on very different trajectories, New Orleans only out-gains Atlanta by 16 yards per game. Both teams are averaging over 400+ yards of offense each week. The Cowboys defense, on the road, held the Falcons to their third-lowest output of the season at 354 yards and only one touchdown. It was about as good of a game as this defense could have hoped to play against a potent offense. Can they do it again?

They certainly have a few positives in their favor, starting with the fact that this game is at home. We don’t dare think about the nightmare of having to face Brees with the home elements of “Who Dat” Nation. The Cowboys need to force the Saints to play their style, even if it means making this game as boring as the Falcons game started. That game was 6-3 at halftime in favor of Atlanta. The first touchdown didn’t come until there was less than 15 minutes to play and it was the Cowboys scoring it. The Falcons didn’t score theirs until the two-minute warning. It’s going to be a lot harder to replicate that against the Saints but that’s likely their best shot at winning.

For the Cowboys defense, they just need to keep limiting scoring opportunities. This Dallas defense has held opponents to 48% in the red zone, that’s fourth-best in the NFL. The defense really doesn’t need to concern themselves with yards as long as they keep those drives out of the end zone. The one area that can be a killer for the Cowboys defense is on third downs where they are allowing the fourth-highest conversion percentage. Games like these usually come down to which team’s defense can get a stop when they need it most. The Cowboys defense has answered the call more often than not. They may bend a whole lot but they don’t break too often. Saints offense versus Cowboys defense is strength-on-strength:

Cowboys DEF 7 3 12 4 29 (44%) 4 (48%) 7 (8%)
Saints OFF 5 1 6 7 6 (47%) 3 (73%) 2 (2.9%) Allowed

The most points they have given up was 28 to the Titans. As bad as that looks now, 28 to the Saints may spell victory this time around. Three defenses have had success against this Saints offense. The Browns held New Orleans to their season-low 21 points, Baltimore held them to 24 and the Vikings defense allowed 30 points. All three of those defenses still picked up a loss on the day because their offenses couldn’t hold up their end. For this gameplan to really work, the Cowboys have to break a pretty solid Saints defense. That shifts the focus to the Cowboys offense that are starting to crawl their way out of the depths they spent half the season in. Looking at their season as a whole, it would look as though the Cowboys offense wouldn’t stand a chance:

Cowboys OFF 25 23 28 6 21 (38%) 23 (53%) 31 (10%) Allowed
Saints DEF 15 15 30 1 14 (38%) 24 (68%) 19 (7%)

Those numbers are a bit skewed just because of how bad the Cowboys were for half of the season. Though they are much improved, Dallas doesn’t want to get into the business of trying to match firepower with New Orleans. This is not a game they can win if they get into a shootout. As previously mentioned, this defense will do it’s part to try and prevent that from happening. It’s on the Cowboys offense to continue their path of improvement. It starts by wearing down the Saints defense and that may mean some boring offense like we saw in Atlanta. We need to see the Cowboys offense that has long drives that almost lull you to sleep before it concludes with a party in the end zone. We need to see the Cowboys offense of the last three weeks:

Cowboys OFF 12 10 13 9 4 (49%) 13 (60%) 23 (9%)
Saints DEF 15 15 30 1 14 (38%) 24 (68%) 19 (7%)

These numbers show the improvement but they also show that the Cowboys still have room for much more. At least the offense has found more balance because that’s pretty much an imperative for Dallas to succeed. Before we get worked up over that “stout” New Orleans’ run defense, keep in mind that they are often playing with a sizable lead. The Saints’ run defense has faced only 224 attempts for 805 yards, by far the lowest in the league. When teams are playing catch up, they’re not trying to run much. Also, the Saints have allowed the seventh-most rushing touchdowns and face a Cowboys offense with the sixth-most scored.

A loss to the Saints is not a season-ender for the Cowboys, but a win could be a real momentum shot and keep them ahead in the East. The Cowboys face the tallest of tasks this Thursday night and it’s going to take all they’ve got to be successful. Everyone’s money is on the visitor’s side in this one, FiveThirtyEight only gives the Cowboys a 36% chance to win. What if the Cowboys pull it off though? Beating a 10-1 Saints team isn’t just a boost. It could very well be a signature win that fuels a deep push in the playoffs.

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