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Two weeks after Dallas takes on the Falcons, they’ll come home to the house that Jerry built to face Atlanta’s rival, the New Orleans Saints. This should be one of the hardest matchups the Cowboys will see all year, for many reasons.
The Saints were 11-5 last year and would have gone on to the NFC Championship game if not for the most improbable of plays from Stefon Diggs and the Vikings at the last second. Still, New Orleans found success the same way they did from 2009 to 2013, with a potent offense and a good enough defense.
The offense is the hard part. Sean Payton’s scheme isn’t exactly complicated, as it features a lot of pass plays to a lot of different players, but when Drew Brees is the one throwing those passes, it becomes almost unbeatable. Michael Thomas is Brees’ top target, and he’s been everything the team could have hoped for and more. Ted Ginn and Brandon Coleman are used a lot too, and free agent acquisition Cameron Meredith looked promising in 2016 before tearing his ACL last year.
But Payton also gets a ton of production from his running backs. Mark Ingram split time with rookie Alvin Kamara. The dichotomy quickly became clear: Ingram was a better runner and Kamara a better receiving threat. Ingram had a career year on the ground, 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns that justified Payton calling more run plays than normal. Kamara also put up 728 rushing yards, but made his presence made as a receiver, snaring 81 passes for 826 yards and 13 total touchdowns between the air and the ground.
Last year, there were only two games in which the Saints scored under 20 points. It was against the Vikings and the Falcons; New Orleans lost both games. The Vikings game was the season opener, and the duo of Ingram and Kamara had not yet been realized in favor of Adrian Peterson’s quickly diminishing role. The Falcons game saw Kamara leave with a concussion on the first possession. Neither game represents much in the way of a blueprint to stopping their dominant offense, although a big part of the trouble they faced against Minnesota was that of their five red zone trips, only one turned into a touchdown. The rest were field goals, keeping their point total low while the Vikings executed touchdowns against the defense.
The Cowboys must try to do much of the same on defense. There are no obvious holes on the Saints offense to attack, as their offensive line is pretty stout. Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk was one of the very best last year, and should be one of DeMarcus Lawrence’s toughest matchups, while left tackle Terron Armstead has the speed and agility to keep up with even the fastest of edge rushers. Left guard Andrus Peat seems to be the weakest link, and the Saints could end up teaming Peat with center Max Unger to chip the interior defensive tackles. This could free up space for a blitzing linebacker or safety to get in and make a play.
The big challenge is stopping the receivers, though. New Orleans lines up in a ton of different formations and shifts their receivers everywhere, and this makes it incredibly easy to create separation from defenders. What the Vikings did really well in the season opener was that they went away from the press coverage and instead trailed the receivers closely. The objective was more so about allowing them to make the short catches and then wrapping them up immediately. As mentioned above, this allowed the Saints to get into scoring position but the defense never broke, limiting them to under 20 points.
With the arrival of Kris Richard as the new coach of the secondary, it can be expected that these cornerbacks will be employing a lot of physical press coverage from the snap of the ball, getting their hands all over the receivers within the five yard cushion and trying to bump them off their routes. This might work against the Saints, but if not, Richard and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli would be well-served to follow Minnesota’s model and back off a bit. Byron Jones and Jourdan Lewis, most of all, have the closing speed to get to the receiver as soon as the ball is caught.
But this is a game where the safeties will be tested more than ever before. Brees is one of the best quarterbacks to ever throw it, and he’s exceptional at looking off the safeties. Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods will have their hands full with the diversity of routes that will go right at them, but trying to read anything from Brees’ eyes will likely prove too tall a task. If the Saints’ protection can minimize the impact this pass rush has, Brees will likely be able to do most of what he wants against the young secondary.
Which means the onus of this game will be on the shoulders of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. The Saints front office knows that offense is their calling card, so they’ve constructed a defense that’s just good enough to limit opponents from scoring too many points. And for defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, it starts in the trenches. Cameron Jordan doesn’t get nearly enough credit for how disruptive he is, and now he won’t be the only one. Sheldon Rankins is an effective defensive tackle who can play the 3-technique or 1-technique if Jordan slides in to play 3-tech. Defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha was a sack machine in college, and despite frequently missing time with injuries in the NFL, he’s garnered eight sacks in 22 games. Another defensive end, Alex Okafor, was putting up sacks before tearing his Achilles last year. Both of these players will now be looking for snaps behind rookie Marcus Davenport, widely considered the best pass rusher not named Bradley Chubb in this most recent draft.
The defensive line for the Saints looks really, really good. The position versatility and depth at this unit will allow for Allen to send wave after wave of attacks against the Cowboys’ stellar offensive line. Stopping Jordan has to be the top priority, and it would make sense if New Orleans mostly lined him up against La’el Collins to avoid facing Tyron Smith or even Zack Martin. If that’s the case, Dallas would be wise to call several power runs to the strong side with Connor Williams pulling to help Ezekiel Elliott get by Jordan and into the second level.
Speaking of which, the Saints have a bit of a weakness in their linebacker group. Free agent addition Demario Davis seems to be the best of the bunch, with guys like AJ Klein, Jayrone Elliott, Manti Te’o, and Craig Robertson also looking to get some action. This is where Elliott can make guys miss, and any short or intermediate passes to these receivers can result in some serious YAC against this group.
The secondary is where the passing game has to be careful. The reigning defensive rookie of the year, Marshon Lattimore, is the top cornerback and Patrick Robinson left the Eagles to return to the Saints opposite of Lattimore. PJ Williams and Ken Crawley offer good depth men who can play in nickel and dime packages, while Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams are sneaky good at safety. The signing of Kurt Coleman also gives New Orleans the option of moving Williams to corner in certain packages as they did at times last year.
The approach for the Cowboys on offense must be one of getting around the defensive line and avoiding the defensive backs. As talented at rushing the passer as this line is, most of them are lacking in run defense, especially on the edge. End runs for Elliott, perhaps with Dalton Schultz as an additional blocker, will help attack this linebacker corps. Additionally, drawing up some inside routes and heavy use of levels concepts should free up receivers to get the ball in front of these linebackers.
This is a game where the offense must be on point. If they can run effectively and control the pace of the game, and if Prescott can avoid putting the ball into the hands of the secondary, the Cowboys have a chance. If the offense sputters, the Saints are going to put up points, and a lot of them. If Dak and Zeke can’t hang with them, this could spiral out of control in a hurry.