These two teams also played on Sunday Night Football in Week 4 of last season in Dallas, when the Cowboys blew out the Saints 38-17. Tony Romo, Demarco Murray, and Dez Bryant had a field day with Rob Ryan’s defense, but none of those three will be in uniform for Dallas tonight.
Saints Offense vs. Cowboys Defense
Saints Team Offense
- Total offense: 370.3 yards per game (13th in NFL)
- Scoring offense: 20.0 points per game (T-19th)
- Pass offense: 294.3 yards per game (5th)
- Rush offense: 76.0 yards per game (26th)
Cowboys Team Defense
- Total defense: 317.7 yards allowed per game (8th in NFL)
- Scoring defense: 25.0 points per game (20th)
- Pass defense: 229.7 yards per game (13th)
- Rush defense: 88.0 yards per game (10th)
It’s been a very odd start to the 2015 season for the Saints offense, making it very hard to accurately judge. In Week 1, they played one of the best defenses in the NFL and in my opinion, had a very poor game plan. In Week 2, Drew Brees was hit in the shoulder while trying to make a throw on the second drive of the game, hindering his ability to get the ball much further than ten yards down field with accuracy. Last week, Brees sat out and Luke McCown made just his 10th start of his twelve year career, completing 31 of 38 pass attempts for 310 yards. It’s no surprise that Brandin Cooks leads the team with 16 receptions and 190 receiving yards, but it is a tad shocking that Mark Ingram is tied for the lead in receptions and second on the team with 152 yards receiving. Willie Snead has shown to be a reliable target, while veteran Marques Colston has had two of his first three games riddled with drops. After a stellar preseason, Ben Watson has struggled to get into a rhythm with the offense from the tight end position.
Despite losing cornerback Orlando Scandrick to a torn ACL during training camp, the Cowboys pass defense has done a decent job of holding up so far. They were able to give division rivals Eli Manning and Sam Bradford fits in their first two games, but the cracks started to show a bit last week when Matt Ryan threw for 285 yards and 2 TDs in a game where the Falcons ran all over the Cowboys. Dallas has only recorded three sacks so far this season, with only one coming from their front four. Sean Lee has one of the team’s two interceptions and also has one of the three sacks. While they haven’t gotten much publicity, their cornerbacks are noteworthy names. Just two years ago, Brandon Carr was well known for his ability to lock down #1 receivers. On the other side, former LSU Tiger Maurice Claiborne flashed loads of talent in college, but is still trying to put it all together at the next level. It’s tough to know what to expect with these two, as on any given day they can be shut down corners or they could end up getting burnt.
With it seeming to be everything but definite that Brees is playing, it’s safe to say that he’s fairly healthy. With that in mind, let’s not be naive enough to believe that he’s 100%. What’s encouraging is that last Friday when Sean Payton announced that Brees was sitting out against Carolina, he mentioned that they were not going to bring him back until he was fully ready to go. While that could mean 80-90%, you can be confident that Payton isn’t going to send Brees out there with a limited game plan. With a home prime time game against another injury-riddled team and also having seen what McCown is capable of, Brees on the field means that he truly is good to go.
With that being said, I want to give you his stats regarding home games in prime time. In his past 15 prime time games in the Superdome, including playoffs, Brees has competed 74% of his passes for exactly 5,000 yards with 49 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. The last of those games was in Week 12 of 2014 when the Baltimore Ravens beat the Saints 34-27 on Monday Night Football. That snapped the Saints’ fourteen game home winning streak in prime time. Needless to say, Brees is nearly unstoppable in those situations. This offense is very different than what it was throughout that stretch, but despite the shoulder injury, I’m looking for him to go big tomorrow night.
I mentioned earlier that it’s been a weird start for the Saints pass offense. As for the rush offense, it’s just been a flat out bad start. The problems all begin and end up front. The offensive line has struggled to open up many holes, no matter who is trying to run through them. Khiry Robinson had a very solid second half against Tampa Bay in Week 2, but that has been it. He has 79 yards rushing through three games, while Mark Ingram has 127 yards. Robinson is averaging 4.0 yards per carry and has scored one touchdown, while Ingram is averaging 3.3 yards per carry and has scored twice. Obviously if you look at the yards per carry, it’s easy to assume that Robinson is out playing Ingram, but it’s all because of the line opening a few holes for Robinson in that second half two weeks ago. The bottom line is that the ground game has been inconsistent and at times non-existent. Not that he was lighting the world on fire, but they’ll be without Jahri Evans for the second straight week as he recovers from a knee injury. Senio Kelemente did a solid job in his place last week, but it’s going to take a group effort to get this offense where they want to be in production from the rushing attack.
It has been an up and down start for the Cowboys against the run. They fared well against a New York Giants team that doesn’t run the ball particularly well in Week 1, they shut down what’s supposed to be a great rushing attack with Demarco Murray and the Philadelphia Eagles, then allowed Devonte Freeman to run for 141 yards on 30 carries and score three touchdowns a week ago. Outside linebacker Sean Lee is one of the best in the game, having been injury plagued over the past few seasons, but is off to a nice start in 2015 while leading the team with 33 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and his aforementioned sack and interception. Free safety Barry Church offers solid support against the run, as well, along with Anthony Hitchens as the two are tied for second on the team with 20 tackles.
It is very hard to know what to expect seeing as both teams have been inconsistent with the ground attack. Part of me could see Mark Ingram run for 125 yards with a 5.0 yards per carry average, but the other part could see it being another stinker if the offensive line can’t figure things out. Hopefully Sean Payton can pick up on a few things that the Falcons did a week ago and build upon that. The Cowboys are smart enough to understand that Brees isn’t going out there to play limited, but if he somehow struggles to hit passes early on, you can bet that they’ll start loading the box and prevent the Saints from trying to go to the run. I have already expressed that I believe that Brees is primed to get into a nice groove, but some help from the rushing attack certainly could not hurt.
Saints Defense vs. Cowboys Offense
Saints Team Defense
- Total defense: 397.0 yards allowed per game (29th in NFL)
- Scoring defense: 28.0 points per game (T-26th)
- Pass defense: 271.0 yards per game (22nd)
- Rush defense: 126.0 yards per game (26th)
Cowboys Team Offense
- Total offense: 380.7 yards per game (8th)
- Scoring offense: 25.0 points per game (12th)
- Pass offense: 275.3 yards per game (9th)
- Rush offense: 105.3 yards per game (16th)
While most pieces of this team have been up and down to start the year, the pass defense has been poor the entire time. Whether it’s getting pressure on the opposing quarterback or keeping receivers from getting open, it’s been rough. To be fair, though, I believe most of the issues have been based on scheme and Rob Ryan not having his players in the best position to make plays. Don’t get me wrong, there have been quite a few mistakes by the players themselves, but some of the game planning has been poor. There have been some bright spots, though. Rookie cornerbacks Delvin Breaux and Damian Swann have shown great promise, repeatedly keeping themselves in position to make plays in coverage. Hau’oli Kikaha’s two sacks lead the team, which I believe is just a sign of things to come.
It was obvious that the Dallas offense was going to take a big hit when Dez Bryant injured his foot in their Week 1 victory over the New York Giants. That hit was amplified when starting quarterback Tony Romo fractured his collarbone in Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s now the Brandon Weeden show, with his top receivers being Terrance Williams, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley. Running back Lance Dunbar seems like the top target, as he actually leads the team in a few receiving categories with 21 receptions and 215 yards. Witten leads the team with two touchdowns and will always be that safety valve, especially for a backup quarterback like Weeden. The Cowboys have possibly the best offensive line in football and have only allowed three sacks so far this season.
If Rob Ryan can’t figure out a way for his defense to defend this very short-handed offense, I’m not sure that he’ll have much success preparing for any team the Saints play this year. Thankfully, it appears as if he’ll have some reinforcements to help his unit improve the team’s play thus far. Keenan Lewis, Jairus Byrd, and Dannell Ellerbe are all listed as probably after being limited participants in practice all week, which will give a gigantic boost to the pass defense. Ellerbe, who is a very good coverage guy from the linebacker position, will be very helpful for a guy like Witten.
Like most of this team, the Saints run defense has been inconsistent. At times, they are shutting down opposing running backs, like Doug Martin in the second half of Week 2 and Jonathan Stewart for most of last weeks. Then, they will all of a sudden be whiffing on tackles and allowing huge running plays. Kenny Vaccaro leads the team with 20 tackles and thankfully looks more like the player we saw during his rookie season. Kikaha is actually second on the team in tackles with 18. Rookie middle linebacker Stephone Anthony sits behind them with 16 tackles, but leads the team with three tackles for a loss.
Dallas had struggled to do much on the ground through the first two weeks of the season, but then ran for 127 yards, 6.0 yards per carry, and 4 touchdowns against the Atlanta Falcons a week ago. Joseph Randle led the charge, running for 87 yards on 14 carries and 3 touchdowns. All four of the team’s touchdowns came in the first half, as they were shut out by the Falcons in the second half. I mentioned before that they may have the best offensive line in football and the rushing attack is when it really shows. After Demarco Murray left for Philadelphia, the Cowboys brought in Darren McFadden, but that was all as they chose to go with Joseph Randle as their starter. They believed that between his skills and the immense talent on the offensive line, they could still run the ball with consistency.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the rushing attack is what the Cowboys will try to use to beat the Saints. With not many options in the passing game, they’ll likely lean on their offensive line to open holes for Randle and McFadden. The front four, along with players like Anthony and Vaccaro will need to play solid and avoid letting them get on a roll. The offense’s ability to score points and hold a lead could play a large roll in this, as well. If Drew Brees can help his team get some points on the board, Dallas would be forced to get away from what they do best.
It’s been tough to find much optimism for a team that’s 0-3, but for the first time since the game against the Buccaneers ended, I actually do feel optimistic. It’s absolutely been an ugly start, but despite how poorly this team has played, they had the ball and chance to either win or tie the game with under 2:00 left in all three of their losses. With having Brees and a fleet of reinforcements on the defense, I can say with confidence that I believe the Saints will notch their first win of the season. Here’s to hoping I am not too crazy…
Prediction: Saints – 31, Cowboys – 21