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Tale of the tape: How the Cowboys secondary shut down the Saints passing attack

Let’s take a look at the All-22 tape and see just how the Cowboys secondary dominated their matchup against the #1 offense in football last week.

New Orleans Saints v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

When looking at the box score from last week's Cowboys victory over the Saints, the first thing you’ll notice is Drew Brees’ passing statistics. Brees finished the game going 18/28, for 127 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. Last week was Drew Brees’ second-worst yardage total of the season, his worst passer rating score of the season, and his second-worst completion percentage total on the year.

How did the Cowboys make an MVP candidate look like a UDFA QB that couldn’t move the football to save his life? Let’s take a look.

The first play of the game for the Saints set the tone for the entire night. The Cowboys are in Cover 1 with man underneath except for Jaylon Smith playing an underneath zone. The Saints run Keith Kirkwood on a medium-depth post, but Anthony Brown stays in perfect position on Kirkwood’s backhip, and is able to get his hand in to knock the ball away. While Brown played the route perfectly, take a look at the other receivers on this play and you’ll notice there wasn’t anywhere for Brees to go. This was lockdown coverage across the board on the Saints first play of the game, something the New Orleans offense haven’t seen much of this year.

Second play of the game, and the panic starts to kick in. The Saints get Michael Thomas matched up against Chidobe Awuzie on the outside. Awuzie has had his struggles this year in coverage, so the Saints are in perfect position to take advantage of Awuzie, right? Wrong. Thomas runs a curl route, but Awuzie is able to disrupt Thomas at the line of scrimmage, break on the ball, and breakup the high pass from Brees for the second straight incompletion.

Byron Jones had a few penalties last week, but other than that he was phenomenal in coverage against whoever lined up across from him. Jones allowed just one catch for three yards in coverage last week against the Saints. Here’s one of the failed attempts at attacking Byron Jones. New Orleans tries to run the back shoulder wheel route to Michael Thomas, but Byron defends it perfectly. Jones is able to avoid contact with Saints WR who was hoping to rub Jones of the line of scrimmage. At the top of Thomas’ route, Jones is able to get his head around, find the ball, and continue to rip at Thomas’ arms until the play is blown incomplete. If Jones doesn’t get his head around, he likely never gets his right arm in to rip at the ball. (We do note that Brees threw to the wrong read, missing the wide-open crossing route, but that’s how it goes on some nights)

Here’s another fun one to look at. This is a third down and nine for the Saints. Instead of moving the chains, the Saints check the football down to Alvin Kamara who is stopped five yards short of the marker. Why would Brees do that on third down? Go one-by-one and take a look at every Saints receiver and how not open they are. The pressure from Maliek Collins forced Brees to get rid of the ball, and at that time Kamara was the only player on the field in position to catch a football. Another play where the Cowboys secondary just completely locked down the Saints receivers across the board. Once Kamara got the ball, the Cowboys were there with a sure tackle.

While the Cowboys cornerbacks have been playing outstanding football, safety Xavier Woods has been playing out of his mind as well. Whether it’s defending the run, making plays in coverage, or laying the wood on receivers coming across the middle of the field, Woods seems to be showing up on tape a ton over the last month or so. Here the Saints had a matchup they wanted to take advantage of, and they did until Xavier Woods decided to put a stop to it. Dan Arnold is lined up across from Damien Wilson and is able to easily beat him up the seam. Brees is able to find Arnold for what looks to be a huge gain, possibly even a touchdown. Instead, Xavier Woods said absolutely not and drops the hammer to force a fumble against Arnold. It’s unfortunate the Cowboys weren’t able to fall on the football, but this play still saved points when the Saints couldn’t punch it in.

Poor Michael Thomas. Five catches for 40 yards later and he’s still on Twitter complaining. It didn’t matter who was lined up across from Michael Thomas, they shut him down. Here Byron Jones plays the slant perfectly to knock the ball away for one of his two passes defended. There aren’t many corners in the NFL who can defend this route from Michael Thomas due to his size, speed, and reliable hands. Byron Jones defends it perfectly in front of the whole world to see.

The play Cowboys Nation has had on loop since last Thursday night. Props to Jourdan Lewis for making a huge play that ended the game. Lewis only played eight snaps last Thursday, but in those eight snaps he had a game-sealing interception, another pass defended, a tackle, and a key-third-down stop on Alvin Kamara in the first quarter. Lewis took full advantage of his limited snaps and came away being one of the players of the game. For bonus fun, check out the twin spin moves from Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford on this play; Collins generates pressure of his move forcing Brees to throw quickly and inaccurately, creating the interception.

This secondary has been playing great over the last month, but this game stood out more than the others. The ability to shutdown Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, and Alvin Kamara in the passing game is the main reason the Dallas Cowboys were able to pull out a huge upset against the Saints in week 13. Down the stretch, they’ll need to continue to play at a high-level if they want to finish out the season as the NFC East champions, and continue to play in January.

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