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Saints at Cowboys Matchups: New Orleans defense vs. Dallas offense

This battle of division leaders could be decided in a match up of strength versus strength for the New Orleans defense.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The 10-1 New Orleans Saints bring their league best ten game winning streak to Dallas, TX this Thursday night to face the NFC East leading Cowboys. The Saints defense has been greatly improved from the start of the season, when they were routinely torched for big plays, particularly against the pass. New Orleans has risen to 15th in total defense, giving up 359 yards and 23.3 points per game. The Saints have given up 20 points or less in four of their last five games and seven times overall this year. They visit a Dallas team whose offense has averaged just 21 points and 334 yards per game, ranking 25th in the NFL. The Cowboys have won three straight with a physical running game and timely big plays, something that plagued the Saints earlier this season. Let's have a closer look at how the two teams match up when the Cowboys have the ball.

SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. COWBOYS PASS OFFENSE

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans ranks 30th against the pass, surrendering 286 yards per game. The Saints defense has started to force the mistakes that made last year's defense so successful though. Over the last five games, coordinator Dennis Allen's unit has forced 11 turnovers against the pass, including 8 interceptions. The Saints have 10 interceptions on the year so far, from eight different players, led by two apiece from safeties Marcus Williams and Chris Banjo. Williams has played extremely well over the last month after a slow start, and made a momentum changing play with his strip sack of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan last week. He's a prototypical centerfield safety, and has given the team's cornerbacks good deep support with playmaking anticipation. Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple have one interception each, and are aggressive and physical defenders who are expected to be able to lock up most wideouts in man coverage. Their ability to excel at that allows the defense to help third corner P.J. Williams in coverage. New Orleans puts excellent pressure on opposing quarterbacks with their defensive line and well-timed blitzes from it's linebackers. They have 61 hits on the quarterback and 30 sacks thus far, led by 8 from defensive end Cameron Jordan and 7 from tackle Sheldon Rankins, who are having seasons worthy of All-Pro recognition. Rookie first round pick Marcus Davenport, who has four sacks, returned to the lineup last week after missing time with a foot injury. Davenport had turned into an every down disruptive presence on the edge when he went down, and should be a big addition down the stretch into the playoffs. Alex Okafor (3 sacks) filled in admirably during Okafor's absence, and gives the line skilled depth.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas passing game has been underwhelming at times, ranking 28th in the NFL with an average of 200 yards per contest. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw for a season high 289 yards last week in a victory against Washington, but has only 13 scoring throws for the year, although he does have just five interceptions. Running back Ezekiel Elliott's 47 receptions leads the team, although the Cowboys did add a difference maker at wideout last month. The team dealt for two-time pro bowl receiver Amari Cooper at the trading deadline from the Raiders, giving their offense a bona fide outside threat. The Dallas receiving corps had struggled prior to that with the extended absence of the injured Terrance Williams. Cole Beasley is a productive receiver on intermediate routes, and has caught 46 passes for 459 yards and two scores. Rookie third round pick Michael Gallup has shown the potential to be a downfield threat, but has just 18 receptions for 304 yards and has not been consistent. Nor has offseason free agent signee Allen Hurns, who has only 17 catches. Prescott will also be without Geoff Swaim, his starting tight end, who will miss this game with a wrist injury. Prescott will need his receivers to get open quickly and make plays, because he has been sacked 38 times and often under heavy pressure. The Dallas offensive line is more adept at run blocking than in the passing game, and looks to be a bit banged up. Center Travis Frederick has been out, while left tackle Tyron Smith and guard Zack Martin have been very limited in practice, and could be slowed even if they manage to play.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

~ Matchup to Watch: CB's Marshon Lattimore, Eli Apple, and P.J. Williams vs. WR's Amari Cooper, Cole Beasley, and Michael Gallup ~

Cooper has 22 receptions for 349 yards and a team high 3 touchdown catches in just four games as a Cowboy, including eight for 180 yards and two long scores last week. Dallas paid a high price to get Cooper, and has high expectations for him down the stretch. Gallup looks like a promising young wideout and Beasley has been a trusted target for Prescott. The Saints secondary has solidified since the addition of Apple, a former top 10 draft pick in 2016. He and Lattimore, a Pro Bowl cornerback a year ago, form a solid duo but the player most offenses continue to target is P.J. Williams. The New Orleans defensive backs have made a number of big plays in recent weeks, and will likely need that trend to continue for victory.

SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. COWBOYS RUN OFFENSE

Los Angeles Rams v New Orleans Saints Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Saints recaptured the league's top ranking against the run by holding the Atlanta Falcons to a paltry 26 yards on the ground last Thursday. For the year, they have allowed just 73 yards per game rushing, and an average of only 3.6 yards per carry. Linebackers Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and A.J. Klein have been dynamic against both the pass and run games, forming perhaps the most complete linebacking corps the team has had since the Dome Patrol era. Davis leads the team in tackles with 76 and has transformed the defense with his pro bowl level of play. Klein has played consistently in his second year with the team, and Anzalone has been one of the defense's top playmakers in recent weeks. The linebacking play has been a perfect compliment to the outstanding play of the New Orleans defensive line, giving the team a very formidable front seven. The members of the Saints secondary are very good at run support, and all are solid tacklers.

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Cowboys will counter the Saints top rush defense with their own top-5 running attack that has averaged 135 yards per game and 4.9/carry. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is one of the top offensive weapons in the league, and has run for 1,074 yards and six touchdowns. The Dallas offensive line has been a bit banged up, but effective as a run blocking unit. Prescott is his team's second leading rusher, with 279 yards on the ground and five touchdowns. He is an extremely mobile quarterback who will not hesitate to make plays with his legs, something that has given the Saints defense fits even versus less athletic quarterbacks. His athleticism must be accounted for by the improved New Orleans linebackers in the open field.

Philadelphia Eagles v New Orleans Saints Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

~ Matchup to Watch: Saints defensive line vs. Cowboys offensive line ~

The Cowboys offensive line has been one of the best run blocking units in the NFL over the last few seasons, and are capable pass blockers if they can establish a balanced attack. The New Orleans defensive line has become one of the better units in the league. Cam Jordan and Sheldon Rankins are deservedly getting headlines, and Davenport was starting to create buzz before his injury. Defensive tackles Tyeler Davison and undrafted rookie Taylor Stallworth have been quietly playing outstanding football inside though, and Okafor is a reliable compliment on the outside.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR:

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas has scored over 30 points just twice this season, and have been held to under 20 points five times. Their offensive success is often dependent on whether Elliott can be effective. Elliott is one of the best backs in the league, but the Saints defense managed to limit another top back, the Rams Todd Gurley, to just 79 total yards. The Dallas run game versus the Saints run defense, both team strengths, is certainly a key battleground, but don't underestimate the match ups in the passing game. Amari Cooper's addition has given Prescott more confidence to make plays from the pocket, Gallup is a dangerous downfield playmaker, and the quickness of Beasley is a match up problem. The Saints have created momentum changing turnovers early in games in the last few contests, and have forced multiple turnovers in seven of their last eight games. New Orleans has done a nice job this season of making in-game defensive adjustments, and has often gotten better against the run and opposing pass protection as the games have progressed, although they will be tested by Elliott and the Dallas front. The Saints should be able to pressure Prescott, but must make sure that his mobility is contained, so may use Davis or Anzalone to shadow him at times. Their secondary must make sure that the Cowboy receivers don't get on a roll and create big plays, but Lattimore and his teammates are finally playing like the unit that many expected coming into the season.

Poll

What is the biggest defensive key for the Saints against the Dallas offense?

This poll is closed

  • 63%
    Saints defensive line vs. Cowboys offensive line
    (356 votes)
  • 14%
    Saints CB's vs. Cowboys WR's
    (82 votes)
  • 22%
    Saints LB's and edge vs. Prescott's mobility
    (125 votes)
563 votes total Vote Now