Your Dallas Cowboys have been made a 7-point underdog to the 10-1 New Orleans Saints by the Vegas wise guys. The stat guys over at 538 expect a slightly more competitive contest, with their ELO ratings making the Saints a 4-points favorite and a 64% win probability.
Those are odds I’d take as it basically indicates the Cowboys would win one out of three times when matched up against New Orleans. Is a Cowboys’ victory probable? No. Possible? Absolutely.
Here’s what they’ll need to do to emerge victorious.
Slow the Saints offense
Right, easier said than done. We all know the Saints have a juggernaut offense putting up video game numbers. The Saints rank first in points and fifth in yards across the entire league. Six times they’ve topped 40 points. They’ve averaged 44 points their last four games. In short, this is a much bigger test than any offense the Cowboys defense has seen this year.
But it’s not unstoppable. Every NFL offensive superman eventually runs into kryptonite. In fact, four times this year the Saints have been “held” to merely “good” offensive numbers:
Now, none of these teams “stopped” the Saints; they still averaged 300 yards and 26.5 points across these four games. But those are numbers the Cowboys can compete against; they’re highly unlikely to be able hang with a Saints’ team putting up 38+ points.
Realize, that’s four (36%) of the Saints’ 11 games, meaning opponents have been able to keep the Saints within shooting range about one of three times. That should be the objective of the Cowboys’ defense Thursday.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. How can the defense make it happen?
Win the defensive line of scrimmage
The strength of the Cowboys defense lies with their front seven. The defensive line and linebacker group, led by Demarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Randy Gregory, Leighton Vander Esch and Jayon Smith, has done two things that make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks:
- Stymied opponents running games making them one-dimensional
- Put pressure on opposing quarterbacks
That’s an extremely difficult task against the Saints, who possess maybe the best offensive line in football. A huge part of the Saints’ success lies in the fact they combine a Hall of Fame quarterback playing perhaps his best ball ever with a punishing, two-headed rushing attack. The combination makes it difficult for defenses to figure out who to prioritize.
For Dallas to have any real hope of slowing the Saints they’ll have to win the line of scrimmage. This means slowing a running game that has averaged 155 yards rushing over the Saints last six games.
And it means making Brees uncomfortable in the pocket. It’s unlikely the Cowboys will record many sacks against Brees (he’s only gone down 11 times this season); he simply reads defenses, moves in the pocket too well and gets rid of the ball faster than rushers can reach him. But teams can force him into uncomfortable throws and getting rid of the ball before he wants to.
Combine these two things and Dallas will have a chance.
Score early, score often
This is key. Dallas simply can’t fall behind by ten or fourteen points early and be forced into catch-up. This plays right into the Saints hands. Like all teams with potent offenses, New Orleans is a classic front-runner.
They want to get up early, force opponents into feeling an urgency to score, unleash their pass rushers and force turnovers. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop that has allowed the Saints to rack up big, early leads recently:
- Redskins: 20-6 with three minutes left in first half
- Rams: 35-14 with 36 seconds remaining in first half
- Bengals: 28-7 with 1:22 remaining in first half
- Eagles: 24-7 with 39 seconds remaining in first half
- Falcons: 17-3 with 3:20 remaining in first half
That’s a combined 124 to 37 for those counting. This means the Cowboys have to generate some early scoring drives so that when the Saints inevitably score it’s not to take a ten-point lead to seventeen or a seven-point lead to fourteen.
Then of course, Dallas will have to keep scoring to keep up. There’s hope for this, as the Amari Cooper effect has allowed the Cowboys to record some good offensive results recently:
- The Cowboys have scored ten points on their last two opening drives, going 85 and 75 yards on those drives (only a Cole Beasley drop prevented touchdowns on both drives). An opening drive score would be a good way for the Cowboys to start Thursday.
- Cowboys have averaged 27 points the last three games.
- Cowboys have averaged 379 yards per game the last three weeks.
Those are numbers that match up well with the Saints when teams like the Browns, Vikings, Ravens and Falcons have faced off with them. These things should help with what is, as always, an obvious key:
Win the turnover battle
The Saints have absolutely feasted on opposing offenses lately, recording 12 turnovers in the team’s last five games and 17 on the season. Once they’re able to get a double-digit lead and force teams into one-dimensional play, they’re making things happen on defense.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, have quietly started generating turnovers at a good rate as well. After recording only two turnovers in the team’s first four games, they’ve recorded eleven in the team’s last seven games (and seven in the last four).
Both teams are stingy with the ball. Dallas hasn’t had a single turnover since the Tennessee game, and only ten on the season. New Orleans has only nine on the season, and only five in the team’s last nine games. Don’t be surprised if there’s any where from zero to two turnovers this game.
At minimum, Dallas has to stay even in this statistic. But even a 1-0 victory in the turnover battle would be huge. There’s also that minor reality the Cowboys’ have yet to win a game when they’ve turned the ball over even once.
There are some who advocate Dallas get pass happy and try to match the Saints point for point. It’s a a good debate but I come down on the other side. I believe the Cowboys need to limit the number of drives within the game. The following are from Football Outsiders “pace” or “per drive” metrics:
Of course the Saints rank first in points and yards per offensive drive, while Dallas is mediocre. In fact, New Orleans outscores Dallas by 1.8 points per drive. This means you want to limit the number of opportunities the Saints have to exploit that advantage; the fewer possessions the fewer opportunities.
Note also, however, that New Orleans ranks very low in points and yards allowed per drive. This, combined with the recent improvement in the Dallas offense, should give Cowboys fans hope Dallas can move the ball and score some points.
One thing that surprised me about the team’s drive stats is New Orleans has the fewest offensive drives in the entire NFL (107), five fewer than Dallas (112). That’s basically 10 drives per game and Dallas will want to keep the number of drives between eight and ten Thursday.
This brings us to our final point.
Win the red zone battle
Note the difference between the Cowboys defensive ranks in yards allowed per drive (13th) and points allowed per drive (fifth). This is largely due to the Cowboys’ outstanding red zone defense, which ranks second in the NFL (allowing only 1.4 red zone touchdown per game).
By comparison, the Saints rank 22nd, surrendering 2.1 red zone touchdowns per game. In short, Dallas will need to get some stops in the red zone to force field goals while taking advantage of their own RZ opportunities to score touchdowns. For those wondering, Dallas is fourth in red zone touchdown percentage allowed (48%) while the Saints are 24th (68%).
Slow the Saints by winning the line of scrimmage, score early and often, win the turnover battle, limit possessions and execute in the red zone on both sides of the ball. No biggie.
We’ve been here before
Many are citing the Cowboys’ 2009 match-up against the then undefeated Saints as precedent for Thursday’s contest. But I’m old enough to remember a different game. The year was 1991 and the 6-5 Cowboys headed to RFK Stadium to take on the 11-0 (and eventual Super Bowl champion) Washington Redskins. That Redskins team was also an offensive juggernaut that would set a then-NFL record for points scored. Dallas was considered a severe underdog, having lost both of their previous games.
Head coach Jimmy Johnson understood the situation and held back nothing. There was an onsides kick attempt, fourth-down attempts and aggressive play-calling. Rather than staying away from All-Pro cornerback Darrell Green the Cowboys repeatedly attacked him with Michael Irvin recording nine catches for 130 yards.
Despite Troy Aikman being injured the Cowboys dominated most of the game, ended the Redskins’ bid for an undefeated season and went on to win six consecutive games, including a wild card round playoff victory.
After the game Johnson gave a locker room speech where he talked about (paraphrasing here):
When you go up against a big gorilla, you don’t hit him with jabs....you hit him with all you got!
Jason Garrett needs to embrace this philosophy and be bold and aggressive. Playing not to lose, keeping it close and hanging around... that’s for losers. We’ll see if Jason can come up with the same kind of approach.