You’d be forgiven for thinking the sky is falling in Dallas after losing three of their last four games. The Cowboys have fallen on hard times, and it’s only been exacerbated by an outbreak of COVID-19 that will see defensive coordinator Dan Quinn take the mantle of interim head coach for Thursday’s bout with the Saints in New Orleans.
According to reports, Mike McCarthy is still in communication with the team and virtually going through the same game prep routine as he normally would, but Quinn will be the one in charge of calling timeouts and such come game time. Of course, Quinn has plenty of experience from his nearly six years as the Falcons head coach, but this change will entail Quinn moving to the sidelines after calling every game this year from the booth.
As for the players themselves, Dallas is looking forward to the return of both CeeDee Lamb and DeMarcus Lawrence, both of whom should provide significant boosts to their respective sides. Amari Cooper, who has returned to the building after testing positive for COVID-19 nearly two weeks ago, is still not practicing as he deals with continued symptoms and could miss the game.
There’s also Ezekiel Elliott, who has been playing with a banged up knee for the last month or so. There were whispers that Dallas may opt to sit him in this one to keep him fresh for a playoff run, but Jerry Jones insisted that Zeke will not only play against the Saints but will see “a serious load.”
That would be a curious move if indeed the Cowboys do plan on trying to ride Elliott to a victory. Not only has Dallas been virtually unable to run the ball well in these last four games, but the Saints defense leads the league in rushing DVOA and is second in rushing EPA/play allowed. As good as the Saints defense has been overall, their pass defense - ranked 13th in DVOA - is their weakness. That’s where rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo is playing a high amount of snaps, and also where safety CJ Gardner-Johnson won’t be playing after landing on the injured reserve three weeks ago.
It’s also where former Cowboys coach Kris Richard is serving as the defensive backs coach. That adds to the story of Quinn taking the lead for this game, as the two worked together in Seattle back in the day. In fact, Richard was named the Seahawks defensive coordinator after Quinn took the Falcons job. Now, they’ll get to go up against each other, whether or not Dallas tries to test this inconsistent secondary.
As for Quinn’s defense, they’ll be the first team all year to have to deal with Taysom Hill as the starting quarterback. New Orleans lost Jameis Winston for the year back in Week 8, and backup Trevor Siemian has played some brutal football that’s helped the Saints lose four straight. Head coach Sean Payton has apparently seen enough and Hill - mostly a gadget player - will make his fifth career start under center.
Quarterback hasn’t been the only problem for this Saints offense, which ranks 20th in DVOA. Star running back Alvin Kamara hasn’t played since Week 9, the beginning of the Saints’ losing streak, and has been limited in practice leading up to this game. Backup running back Mark Ingram, recently acquired to offset the loss of Kamara, didn’t play in the Saints’ Thanksgiving game either, although he’s been a full participant in practice so far this week. Even when Kamara was playing, the offense wasn’t quite what it once was, as wide receiver Michael Thomas hasn’t suited up once all year long.
Adding to the Saints’ issues are injuries along their offensive line. Starting left tackle Terron Armstead has yet to practice this week, and starting right tackle Ryan Ramczyk was held out of practice Tuesday after being a limited participant Monday. That’s especially bad news for the Saints as the Cowboys hope to see their top pass rusher suit up Thursday night, potentially setting the stage for a nice welcome back for DeMarcus Lawrence.
When the NFL scheduled this matchup for the Thursday after Thanksgiving, they probably anticipated a close contest with potential playoff implications. Instead, they’re getting two teams missing key players (and coaches) that are trying to snap losing streaks. The Saints have the advantage of hosting, as the Superdome is one of the loudest stadiums around, but Quinn has plenty of experience coaching in this environment. Smart money is on this game being a bit ugly and probably closer than it should be, although with so many absences in this one, it’s hard to predict.
One thing is for sure: after playing three games in 12 days, both of these teams will be grateful for the mini-bye week that comes after this one is over.