The New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys meet up in a clash of division leaders in NFL's Thursday night football. The Saints, 10-1 and winners of ten consecutive games, lead the NFC South by four games and are the hottest team in football. They're considered one of the front runners for the Super Bowl, in part, because of the league's most balanced offense. They lead the NFL in points per game (37.2), rank 4th in total yardage (417 yards/game), and are led by one of the game's best ever in quarterback Drew Brees. The Saints travel to Dallas for this one, where the 6-5 Cowboys sit on top of the NFC East with the help of a top 10 defensive ranking in yardage surrendered (331 yards/game) that has allowed only 19.4 points per game.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. COWBOYS PASS DEFENSE
The Saints are averaging 284 yards passing per game, and Drew Brees is having perhaps the most efficient season of his spectacular 18-yr. career. He has completed 76.4% of his throws for 3,135 yards with 29 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. Brees diagnoses defenses with computer-like precision, and even at 39 years old still has the athleticism to move around the pocket away from pressure and deliver passes with deadly accuracy. He doesn't get pressured often though. The New Orleans offensive line has given up just 10 sacks on the year, and just one takedown in the last five games. Second year right tackle Ryan Ramczyk is already one of the better edge protectors in the game, while guards Larry Warford, Andrus Peat, and center Max Unger set up an almost impenetrable pocket for their quarterback to survey the field. Veteran left tackle Jermon Bushrod has done a solid job of protecting the blind side in the absence of injured starter Terron Armstead, but he and the entire line will be tested by a talented Dallas defense. Michael Thomas is Brees' primary target, and has 86 catches for 1,080 yards and 8 touchdowns. Although he was held a bit in check during last week's win over Atlanta, Thomas is one of the league's most productive receivers, and has been next to impossible for most defenses to contain. Running back Alvin Kamara has not been utilized as much in the passing game as he was earlier in the year, catching two passes in the last two games. He is still second on the team in receptions, yards, and scores with 57 grabs for 519 and 4 trips to the end zone through the air. Rookie Tre'quan Smith also has four touchdowns, and has caught 22 passes for 371 yards. Smith has looked like he was going to become a consistent threat within the New Orleans offense, but a foot injury sidelined him in the Falcons win, and has him questionable against the Cowboys. Undrafted rookie Keith Kirkwood has already made solid contributions in just three games of action, with six receptions for 83 yards, and caught his first career score last week. Tommylee Lewis returned from injured reserve to have a scoring catch of his own, and Austin Carr can be an effective target out of the slot. The inexperience of the Saints wideouts caused the team to sign veteran Brandon Marshall a couple weeks ago, but he has been inactive for two games thus far, with no definitive word of when he will be inserted into the lineup. Brees does have a reliable veteran in tight end Benjamin Watson, who is third on the team with 28 receptions, which have gone for 313 yards and two touchdowns. Josh Hill is used mainly as a blocker, but has 12 receptions for 160 yards and a touchdown. Watson's production has been inconsistent though, as has the production of the position as a whole. Dan Arnold has been getting more looks in the passing game, has 10 catches for 130 yards, and caught his first career score last week as well.
The Cowboys give up around 238 passing yards per game, and have been able to put heavy pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They have 71 quarterback hits, and have registered 31 sacks. Demarcus Lawrence leads the team with 8.5 sacks, but they also get good edge pressure from Tyrone Crawford (4.5 sacks) and Randy Gregory (3), while effectively mixing in blitzes from Jaylon Smith, who has four sacks. Dallas has just 7 interceptions on the year, but has covered opposing receivers tightly and tackles well in the open field. Cornerback Byron Jones is the best player in their secondary, and has pro bowl caliber coverage ability. Safeties Xavier Woods and Jeff Heath have played well, keeping big plays to a minimum and covering effectively out of the slot when asked. Their deep support has helped give corners Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis the confidence to lock down on shorter routes. The Cowboys secondary has reaped the benefits of the team's pressure up front. Dallas also hopes to get edge rusher Taco Charlton back from a shoulder injury that has caused him to miss the last three games.
~ Matchup to Watch: Ryan Ramczyk and Jermon Bushrod vs. Demarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, and Randy Gregory ~
Lawrence, Crawford, and Gregory have combined for 16 sacks, and have brought key pressure when the game is on the line. Ramczyk has the look of an All-Pro, and has been able to silence some of the NFL's best rushers. Armstead's talent is certainly missed up front, but Bushrod has done well against some good pass rushers from Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Atlanta in the last three weeks.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. COWBOYS RUN DEFENSE
New Orleans has rushed for at least 140 yards in the last four games, and averages 133 yards per game on the ground. Their offensive line has dominated defensive fronts, and has taken over contests most of the year. Second year back Alvin Kamara leads the team in rushing with 706 yards, averaging 4.7 per carry and has 11 scores on the ground. He won the league's offensive rookie of the year last season because of his dynamic versatility, but has proven this season that he can take on the role of a primary back and pick up the tough yardage between the tackles. Mark Ingram continues to be a valuable weapon in the offense, and has averaged 63 yards per game rushing since returning from suspension with two games of over 100 yards. Both Ingram and Kamara are explosive cutback runners, and will test the discipline of an aggressive Dallas rush defense.
The Dallas defense has been stout against the run, allowing opponents just 3.7 yards per carry and only 94 yards per game. In their last three wins, they have held each opponent under 90 yards rushing, something they've accomplished five times this season. Cowboy defensive tackles Antwaun Woods, Maliek Collins, and David Irving have been underrated at winning the point of attack, but the true effectiveness of the Cowboys defense is due to it's linebacker play. Middle linebacker Jaylon Smith and rookie weakside 'backer Leighton Vander Esch, the team's leading tacklers, have been stars, and playmakers all over the field.
~ Matchup to Watch: Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara vs. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch ~
The Cowboys are without injured linebacker Sean Lee, the NFL's defensive version of Sam Bradford, but this young linebacking duo are as good as any two players in the league. They are smart, aggressive, and solid athletes. They will face a monumental challenge from the best 1-2 punch in the NFL at running back. Ingram and Kamara are tough inside runners, have the speed to get outside, and have outstanding vision at the line of scrimmage and in the open field. The Saints line must control Cowboy line at the point of attack, and get to the second level effectively to prevent Smith and Vander Esch from having a free run to the ball carriers. Both Kamara and Ingram are extremely active in the New Orleans passing attack, and even this Dallas twosome may not be able to keep up with them in the open field.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
On paper, the Dallas secondary looks like they are overmatched by Michael Thomas and the New Orleans receivers. Jones will likely try to lock up with Thomas in a key match up when the Cowboys do play man coverage, so the other Saints wideouts must find room against Awuzie, Brown, and Lewis. Despite Jones' ability, Thomas has not been held in check in back to back games throughout his three year, and could have a big performance on a prime time stage. The New Orleans line must not only create space for Kamara and Ingram to establish an effective running game, but must continue to keep a solid pass pocket around Brees against the heavy Cowboys rush. Brees has thrown for at least 298 yards in all seven of his meetings against the Cowboys as Saints quarterback, and although New Orleans has such terrific balance, they may again need such a big performance from their Hall of Fame quarterback to pull off a victory against the tough Dallas defense. The Cowboys have given up more than 25 points just one time this season, and have held five opponents under 20 points. While it seems unlikely that they'll have that kind of success against the proficient Saints attack, the game seems certain to be a tough physical battle. New Orleans has been more physical than every opponent they've faced this year, often bullying their way to victory up front by setting the tone on their opening drive.
What is the most important offensive match up for the Saints offense against Dallas?
This poll is closed
Saints OT's Ramczyk/Bushrod vs. Cowboys Edge Lawrence/Crawford/Gregory
Michael Thomas/Saints WR's vs. Byron Jones/Cowboys CB's
Alvin Kamara/Mark Ingram vs. Jaylon Smith/Leighton Vander Esch