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Predicting the Cowboys at Saints matchup: Dallas squeaks one out on the arm of Dak Prescott

Based on what we have seen lately and the news coming out of Dallas, this game becomes much more difficult.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Good news, the Cowboys are finally done with the AFC West, and four of their remaining six games are against a still-struggling NFC East. Bad news, amidst a downward turn from Dallas after the bye, they are now dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that will significantly impact Thursday’s game.

It wouldn’t be a Dallas Cowboys season if not for a bit of drama sprinkled in.

Entering the game as a four-point favorite according to DraftKings Sportsbook, there is optimism the Cowboys can snap their two-game losing streak. It is not the game that we expected when the schedule came out, but it is the game we now have.

So, what will it take for Dallas to get back on track?

The Cowboys offense

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The question marks surrounding the Dallas offense against the New Orleans Saints defense makes this exponentially harder to predict. Will both Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb be back? If they are, how much do they help the offense? Does losing Terence Steele impact this game? What has happened to the Saints’ defense since they lost Jameis Winston?

There are a lot of aspects in this game that will remain unclear until the final whistle blows. The truth is that this game could go in a million different directions. But there are a few facets of this matchup that we can reasonably expect to happen.

For one, the New Orleans’ run defense is still superb. The Saints are currently allowing a league-low 3.4 yards per rushing attempt. But the difference between New Orleans and the second-place team in this metric is larger than the difference between the second-place team and the nineteenth ranked rushing defense.

It will be challenging for the Cowboys to establish any rushing game, regardless of who is taking the carries.

Another aspect of this game that we know will be true is that the Saints’ secondary has been underperforming. In other words, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb returning is even more pivotal.

This will be similar to the Buccaneers game, where the Cowboys will take advantage of a weaker coverage unit instead of trying to run against a tough rushing defense. Look at the discrepancy in the Saints’ defensive rankings by various outlets:

The Saints Defense Lacks Balance

Outlet Run Defense Rank Pass Defense Rank
Outlet Run Defense Rank Pass Defense Rank
EPA per play allowed 2 11
PFF grade 2 11
Yards per attempt 1 26
DVOA 1 14
EPA allowed since Jameis injury 2 30

While the New Orleans’ corners have done well preventing completions, they tend to allow big plays. To illustrate, Marshon Lattimore only allows a 59% completion percentage when targeted, but he is also surrendering nearly 20 yards a reception. Meaning that explosive receivers such as Michael Gallup and hopefully CeeDee Lamb should be in for a big day.

Dallas should be able to put up points. This is a defense that is allowing over 30 points per game since their starting quarterback was injured. However, the operative word here is “should.” The Dallas offense has been wildly inconsistent after the bye.

Hopefully, the reinforcements that are presumably returning will aid them in regaining consistency. The Saints can be a favorable matchup for Dak Prescott to get his squad back on track. This is also a matchup where the offense could continue to struggle if the rushing game is completely shut down. It all rests on the impact of Cooper and Lamb’s return.

The Cowboys defense

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

There are 26 players on New Orleans’ active roster, but the defense’s ability to stop the Saints rests on the shoulders of only one player. Alvin Kamara is their only weapon at this point and needs to be treated as such.

Going into week ten, when Kamara was ruled out due to injury, he had accumulated 60% of the team’s rushing attempts, 23% of the receptions, and 33% of their yards. In a season muddled with injuries and players leaving in free agency, Kamara is all that is left. It appears as though he will be available to play this week and bring life to a struggling Saints offense.

So, the Cowboys will have to get creative in covering Kamara. Using safeties and zone looks to ensure someone like Leighton Vander-Esch isn’t covering the gadget running back is crucial. Even Parsons, who has struggled a bit in coverage, should not be trusted to guard Kamara. Treat him like the best wide receiver on the team because he essentially is at this point.

They will have to use their secondary to defend Kamara out of the backfield and make sure that a linebacker doesn’t try and guard him. Presumably, this will open up the field for other New Orleans pass-catching options.

It now seems like the quarterback that will try and take advantage of the open field will be Taysom Hill.

This is a little scary for the Cowboys. Not in the sense that Hill is some other-worldly quarterback, but he does bring a more dynamic skill set than Trevor Siemian.

Looking at the four games that Hill started last year, he got the job done. Throwing for an 82.6% adjusted completion percentage for 7.7 yards per attempt, he went 3-1 with the offense averaging 24 points per game.

Sure, Hill’s arm might not be the best in the NFL. He is a below-average passer, and he won’t shred the defense for 400 yards and six passing touchdowns. But he does have the speed to tuck the ball and produce first downs with his legs.

In the four games he started last season, Hill averaged over 50 rushing yards per game, carrying the ball for 5.2 yards per attempt. He had more yards after contact per attempt last season than Joe Mixon does this year and forced one less missed tackle in four games than D’Andre Swift has in all of 2021.

This is not an attempt to compare Taysom Hill to the likes of Lamar Jackson, but he does bring a new element to the Saints offense with his legs alone.

Thus, with DeMarcus Lawrence hopefully back this week, he will have to contain Hill and prevent him from leaving the pocket. Micah Parsons should be used as an edge rusher that drops back into a quarterback spy on obvious passing situations. Dallas can contain the New Orleans’ offense, but it will take a good game from the defensive line.

None of the Saints’ receivers are particularly threatening, but New Orleans now has speed out of the backfield. It is time to step up again, defense.

Coaching and special teams

Dallas Cowboys v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

What a mess these two aspects of the game have become. Mike McCarthy will be absent due to COVID-19, meaning that Dan Quinn will be the “point-person” for in-game decisions.

The implications of this essentially mean that every coach will have to rebound in a big way. With his weapons back, Kellen Moore can get creative again on the offensive side of the ball. Moving the ball downfield with ease like the Cowboys used to would mean fewer fourth-down decisions for Quinn.

Dan Quinn himself will have to deal with head coaching duties and leading the defense. Meaning that if they can force turnovers and three-and-outs early, you can shrink the Saints playbook further down the road. This will simplify things for the defense, thus simplifying the game for a coach with two major responsibilities now.

And then we get to John Fassel and the special teams. From the two previous paragraphs, the theme is; get on the board early and make it easier for Dan Quinn to focus on finishing the game instead of coaching a tight matchup as a head coach and defensive coordinator. Unfortunately for Quinn, the special teams is not particularly great at starting strong.

To a certain extent, outside of penalties, the special teams has played well. Tony Pollard even gave the Cowboys a free six points on special teams last week.

But Greg Zuerlein has struggled, especially early in the game. It has been extensively discussed, but Dallas cannot afford a missed field goal or PAT at the beginning of this game if it might result in difficult two-point conversion decisions later. They have to get off to a quick start, and that includes the field goal unit.

We can figure out the kicking situation later, but please don’t struggle early in this one.

This is a big game. The New Orleans Saints need to get back in the win column to keep pace with a highly competitive NFC Wild Card race. The Dallas Cowboys, losing three of their last four, need to prove the six-game win streak wasn’t a fluke.

Both narratives collide on Thursday night. This isn’t going to be a cakewalk for the Cowboys, but proving they can beat an out-of-division opponent would be great before they enter an NFC East-filled final stretch of the schedule. We believe in you, Dallas.

Analytics Projection:

Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 52.1%

Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 26, New Orleans Saints 24