We are joined by Dave Halprin of Blogging the Boys for this preview of the latest installment of the Cowboys and Saints grudge match. We all know some of the most prominent ties between the two teams: Sean Payton was a young and bright offensive coordinator in Dallas, but Jerry Jones let him go to New Orleans in 2006, which Jones later stated was a mistake. Prior to the 2013 season, Dallas fired now Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who thought he wasn't given a fair shake in Big D. Since 2006, the Saints own a 4-1 advantage over the "Boys," including an embarrassing 49-17 thrashing in the Superdome last year. A game that Dallas' players have stated they remember (not fondly) and will use as motivation on Sunday.
New Orleans (1-2) is clearly the most desperate of the two teams, trying to avoid falling into a near unsurmountable 1-3 hole. On the other hand, Dallas (2-1) is trying not to start the season 0-2 at home after losing their home opener to the San Francisco 49ers.
Let's get right into it.
Canal Street Chronicles: After three games, the Dallas Cowboys have started the season 2-1. However, the one loss was at home against one of the NFC's best, the San Francisco 49ers. Meanwhile the two wins, although earned on the road, were against two of the teams that are not expected to seriously contend in the Tennessee Titans and the Saint Louis Rams. How does the Cowboys fanbase view the team's start to the year? Does it offer promises of a successful season or are fans warily waiting for the other shoe to drop?
Dave Halprin: As a Cowboys fan I am very happy with the way the season has started. The loss to the 49ers was tough but besides the constant turnovers in the game there were positives to build on: mainly the running game and a defense that has been surprisingly better than expected. The Cowboys used those two elements to go on the road and get a couple of needed wins. Even though they fell behind the Rams big time, which made you question the earlier good play, they came back and pulled out the win. That was encouraging in itself, the never-give-up attitude and the ability to come from behind and not abandon the running game in the process.
CSC: For the past couple of years, the Cowboys have often been criticized for excessively relying on the right arm of quarterback Tony Romo. So far this year however, Dallas has called 95 rushing plays (which ranks fifth in the NFL) while throwing only 89 passes (28th in the league). This is almost a perfect balance between passing and rushing attempts. Do you feel like this is the year the Cowboys lean more heavily on running back Demarco Murray who leads the league both in rushing attempts (75) and rushing yards (385)?
DH: This is what the Cowboys should be doing with the offensive line that they've built over the last few years. The O-line was once a problem for the team, now it is undoubtedly a strength. So they are utilizing that line along with DeMarco Murray who is a very dangerous running back. The only issue with Murray and this approach is can he stay healthy for the whole season, something he has yet been able to do. (He also needs to get his fumbling issues, something that only started this year, under control). They are also protecting Tony Romo's back by running the ball, and chewing up game clock so the defense doesn't have to spend too much time on the field. So the running game (and its success) is essential this year.
CSC: I'm a big fan of advanced stats and a few numbers I saw recently caught me a bit off guard: Football Outsiders has the New Orleans Saints ranked 1st in the NFL in total offense, with a 24.6% DVOA. The Saints are 10th in the league in passing (29.7% DVOA) but quite surprisingly, New Orleans boasts the 2nd rushing attack in the league with a 26.1% DVOA.
On the other hand, while the Cowboys secondary has been in the news recently with the struggles of former first round pick Mo Claiborne, Dallas' pass defense isn't as bad as it is portrayed to be (16th in the NFL, with a 13.1% DVOA). The rush defense however is not very good: 26th in the NFL with a 2.4% DVOA). In your opinion, ahead of this game on Sunday night, what are the Cowboys biggest worries defensively when facing the Saints? And how do they intend to remedy those issues?
DH: Fortunately for Dallas, they will have Orlando Scandrick back and he will be starting this week, he has been our best corner for the past year or two. This will allow us to move Mo Claiborne back into a nickel role, and fourth corner Sterling Moore has been playing well, too. The problem is our safeties can't cover tight ends so I expect Jimmy Graham to have a huge day. That is where the Saints can really hurt the secondary. The other problem in the pass defense is the inability to get sustained pressure on the quarterback. Dallas may be without some of their key defenders up front, so that pattern may continue. There's not much they can do to change those deficiencies this week, so they will want to run the ball and keep their defense off the field as much as possible.
CSC: Let's switch sides here (which I think your readers will enjoy). Defensively, the Saints are almost a mirror image of the Cowboys. New Orleans is 17th in the league against the run with a -8.5% DVOA (please note the more negative the defensive DVOA, the better the defense). However, they are 30th overall against the pass, with a frightening 33.5% DVOA. How do you think the Cowboys offense will attack the Saints defense on Sunday? Given New Orleans' porous secondary, could we see the return of "Air Romo?"
DH: The Cowboys will still want to establish their running game, so they won't abandon that. As mentioned above, it's key to protecting Romo's health for the long haul and it allows the defense to not have to spend an inordinate amount of game time defending, especially against an offense like the Saints. But if they find the need, they will certainly go to Romo and the receiving corps, especially Dez Bryant. I would expect the Cowboys to try and keep and even balance this week between run and pass, it really just depends on the game flow and the score in the game. If Dallas can win the game by running the ball, that is what they'll want to do. If that's not working, they can go to the passing game and do it well. But it will all depend on the game situation as the time passes.
CSC: The Cowboys must be fired up to play the Saints and exact some kind of revenge after the way the contest between the two teams went last year (New Orleans recorded a whopping 40 first downs in a 49-17 Saints win in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome). This time around, the game will be played in "Jerry World" and the odds seem somewhat stacked against the visiting team. How do you see this game play out on Sunday and what is your score prediction?
DH: Everybody seems to be predicting a shootout for this game, but if the Cowboys want to win their odds are better if it's not a 48-45 type game. The Cowboys will want to control the clock, they'll want to keep Drew Brees off the field and they will definitely need to not turn the ball over. If the game plays out according to the Cowboys script, the score will be something like 28 - 24 Cowboys.
Many thanks to Dave for taking the time to answer our questions.