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Week 4 Preview: Saints vs Cowboys

Good morning, friends. It is finally the weekend, which means the prime time matchup between your New Orleans Saints and the undefeated Dallas Cowboys is nearly here. You guys are used to only seeing my work in a post-game setting, but I wanted to sit down and do an extended preview for this one. I put something like this out for the playoff games last year and used to do these on a weekly basis years ago when I wrote for another website. I would love to be able to deliver this to you guys prior to every game, time permitting, if y’all are in to it. PLEASE, give me feedback and let me know if you want more. Give me a shout on Twitter (@DCBilliotJr) or hit up Tyler or Ross. With that being said, let’s get going.

The Saints come in to this Week 4 matchup with a 2-1 record and in sole possession of first place in the NFC South. They are back home for the first time since the season opener, when they defeated the Houston Texans in a thriller on Monday Night Football. The black and gold spent the last two weeks on the West Coast, splitting their two game road trip with a loss to the Los Angeles Rams and a win against the Seattle Seahawks. In his first meaningful start since the 2015 playoffs with the Minnesota Vikings, Teddy Bridgewater led the Saints to a 33-27 victory in one of the toughest venues in the NFL. The win was one of the most complete team performances in the Sean Payton era, getting touchdowns on offense, defense, and special teams. With those sort of contributions not being something you can expect on a weekly basis, we will talk today about what New Orleans can do to avenge a rough performance the last time these two teams played.

With their first 3-0 start since 2008, the Cowboys come to the Superdome red hot. Dak Prescott is an early contender for league MVP, putting up numbers that have him near the top of numerous categories. They’ve put up 31+ points in each of their first three games, with an average margin of victory of 17.7 points. Last week against the Miami Dolphins, Dallas entered halftime with just a 10-6 lead, but scored 21 unanswered points in route to a 31-6 victory. Now, despite how impressive those numbers are, there are still questions over how good the Cowboys actually are. Why? Because the three teams they’ve beat have a combined 1-8 record, with two of them already making quarterback changes and the third likely not far behind.

Don’t get me wrong, the Cowboys are a good team, but the Saints will be, far and away, the best team they have faced so far in 2019. Even with Bridgewater at the helm. Both teams present challenges for their opponent that make this a fun matchup to look at. Last year, it was Dallas that broke New Orleans’ 10 game winning streak on national television. The Saints offense got bullied, which is part of the reason that Sean Payton decided to use the game as a motivation tactic, by playing the film on the locker room TVs at the team facility this week. Will that help? We’ll have to wait until 7:20 Sunday night to know for sure, but let’s dive in and see what we can expect.

Saints Offense vs. Cowboys Defense

Saints Team Offense

  • Total offense: 339.7 yards per game (21st in NFL)
  • Scoring offense: 24.0 points per game (11th)
  • Pass offense: 242.0 yards per game (17th)
  • Rush offense: 97.9 yards per game (19th)

Cowboys Team Defense

  • Total defense: 336.0 yards allowed per game (15th in NFL)
  • Scoring defense: 14.7 points allowed per game (3rd)
  • Pass defense: 246.0 yards per game (15th)
  • Rush defense: 90.0 yards per game (10th)

Pass Offense

Tomorrow night will essentially be Bridgewater’s fourth full game under center as the Saints every down quarterback. But, even with three games under his belt, we still haven’t seen the offense fully open up with him. His first game was in Week 17 of 2018 when the team had the #1 seed locked up, so many starters were resting and they ran a vanilla game plan. His second game was in Week 2 when he took over for the injured Drew Brees in the 1st quarter, but he was running Brees’ game plan that did not fit him, at all. Finally, his third game was last week, but thanks to special teams and defensive touchdowns, the Saints were in control the entire game. Therefor, they were able to stick to the basics of utilizing the rushing attack, making a few short throws, protecting the ball, and chewing up clock. While it would be naive to expect Sean Payton to try and have Bridgewater run the offense the same way Brees does, I still believe there will be periods over the next few games where New Orleans tries to be more aggressive. Alvin Kamara was as active in the passing offense last week as he was in the first two games combined. His 9 receptions were twice the amount that he had in weeks 1 and 2. He comes in with the third most receptions in the NFL among running backs with 17, while averaging 59.7 receiving yards per game. Michael Thomas’s 25 receptions are third most in the entire NFL with 88.7 yards per game. After Kamara and Thomas, it’s a shot in the dark as to who provides production. Ted Ginn had 7 receptions for 101 yards in Week 1, but has only managed to catch 2 passes for 15 yards since then. Jared Cook has gotten off to an extremely slow start as a Saint, recording just 5 receptions for 69 yards in 2019. Tre’quan Smtih was showing signs of improvement, but suffered a sprained ankle against the Rams in Week 2 and will be out for his second straight game. It appeared as if Taysom Hill was set to contribute in the passing game as a receiver, but the injury to Brees has caused Payton to have to protect him as the only backup behind Bridgewater.

Dallas’ pass defense has been middle of the road so far this year. It has been a slow start for their pass rush, averaging just 1.7 sacks per game after averaging 2.4 per game a year ago. Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence received a massive contract in the offseason, getting $105 million ($65 million guaranteed) over five years, but has only managed 1.5 sacks so far. Despite that being low, he is still the team leader in the category. The Cowboys added veteran Robert Quinn to the roster for 2019, who is another player capable of getting to the quarterback. This defense is home to what is, in my opinion, the best linebackers in the NFL. Jaylen Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee make up the trio that could give anyone fits. Their secondary is likely the weakest part of the defense, but that does not mean they are slouches. Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie are the cornerback duo, with Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods over the top as the safeties. Heath leads the way with 4 pass breakups, followed by Awuzie and nickel corner Anthony Brown with 3 each.

This defense of the Cowboys gave Sean Payton’s offense fits in the passing game when the teams squared off in 2018. That was with Drew Brees at quarterback, so, if you are Dallas, you have to feel pretty good with this matchup coming in to the game. After last week’s success utilizing Kamara out of the backfield, I would expect the stud linebacker duo of Smith and Vander Esch to try and take the running back out of the passing attack. Everyone is waiting for Jared Cook to finally have his break out game in black and gold, but I would not expect that to be this week due to those two. The Cowboys defense also got the best of Michael Thomas last year, limiting him to just 5 receptions for 40 yards. I expect to see Byron Jones lined up across from Thomas, again, along with some bracket coverage to try and take away the Saints’ top receiver. The potential for success for New Orleans could very much come down to guys like Ted Ginn, Austin Carr, and even Lil’Jordan Humphrey stepping up and making plays .

Rush Offense

The rushing attack of the Saints has been a one man show, aside from 30 yard touchdown run from Latavius Murray in Week 1. Other than that, it has been all Alvin Kamara. That is different from what we are used to with the Saints offense, that has always utilized multiple running backs in the Payton era. Kamara is averaging 70.3 yards per game with a 5.0 yards per carry average. His rushing touchdown last week in Seattle was his first and only of the year so far. Murray has only had 13 carries so far, including just two last week, which was odd considering New Orleans had a double digit lead for majority of the game.

I’m sure I sound like a broken record with how often I mention the Dallas linebackers, but they are truly just THAT good. Smith and Vander Esch lead the team in tackles with 27 and 21, respectively. Their defensive line is surprisingly not that active in run defense, with defensive end Christian Covington providing the most tackles of anyone on the front four with just five.

The high tackle totals from the Cowboy linebackers, in conjunction with the low numbers from the defensive line could mean one of two things. First, it could be the defensive front struggling to get off of blocks, opening holes for opposing running backs to get to the second level where Smith and Vander Esch clean up. It could also mean that the front four is actually clogging up the line of scrimmage, allowing the linebackers to fill those holes and make easy plays. It may be a little of both, but keep an eye on that situation tonight. The Saints will absolutely need to be balanced to have a chance in this game, so Kamara will get his opportunities carrying the ball. Should New Orleans find themselves with a lead in the second half, I could see Murray getting more touches while being at home in a more controlled environment.

Saints Defense vs. Cowboys Offense

Saints Team Defense

  • Total defense: 436.0 yards allowed per game (28th in NFL)
  • Scoring defense: 27.3 points allowed per game (26th)
  • Pass defense: 301.7 yards per game (29th)
  • Rush defense: 134.3 yards per game (25th)

Cowboys Team Offense

  • Total offense: 481.3 yards per game (3rd in NFL)
  • Scoring offense: 32.3 points per game (4th)
  • Pass offense: 302.3 yards per game (4th)
  • Rush offense: 179.0 yards per game (3rd)

Pass Defense

Following the first two weeks of the season, the Saints found themselves at the top of the league with 9 sacks. Trey Hendrickson had three of those, as he is in the midst of potentially breaking out in his third season in the NFL. Thanks to the elusiveness of Russell Wilson, the pass rush was unable to record a sack last week, dropping them in to a tie for 9th in the category. Failing to come up with a sack was not an accurate indicator of pressure on the quarterback, though. Cam Jordan had 11 pressures…ALONE. Marcus Davenport was also in the backfield causing Wilson to run for his life. Speaking of Wilson, his final stat line would indicate that he shredded Dennis Allen’s defense. That was not necessarily the case, though. He had just under 200 yards passing entering the 4th quarter, but finished with 406 yards due to the soft prevent defense being played by New Orleans with their huge lead. Eli Apple is off to a phenomenal start in 2019, having allowed just 4 receptions. Marshon Lattimore, on the other hand, is off to a slow start, having allowed 19 receptions for 342 yards and 2 touchdowns. Now, majority of that has come in zone coverage, which is not Lattimore’s strength and not what Dennis Allen’s defense typically runs, so I am not worrying too much just yet.

Dak Prescott has been awfully impressive as a passer so far this year. Averaging 306.7 yards per game, he has shown that he is much more than a mobile quarterback. His 74.5% completions ranks him at the top of the league, while he ranks 2nd in both touchdowns (9) and QB rating (128.0). His favorite target is Amari Cooper, who continues to pay dividends for Jerry Jones, who gave up the team’s 2019 1st round pick to get Cooper from Oakland during the season last year. Cooper is averaging 79.3 yards per game and is tied for 1st in the league with 4 touchdowns. Much like the Saints, the Cowboys see a significant drop off in production after their top pass catcher. Michael Gallup got off to a fantastic start, but will miss the game due to injury. Randall Cobb is the next receiver behind Cooper, playing in his first season away from the Green Bay Packers, who drafted him. Jason Witten ended his retirement after spending 2018 in the Monday Night Football booth for ESPN and provides Prescott a security blanket. Don’t overlook Ezekiel Elliott as a receiver out of the backfield. He had a career high 77 receptions in 2018, including a 6 catch for 60 yards and a touchdown performance against the Saints.

The two main factors in keeping Prescott from having his way through the air are the pass rush and Marshon Lattimore’s coverage on Amari Cooper. The pass rush has to find a way to get him on the ground and not allow scrambles that could lead to big plays. As I mentioned, there is a significant drop off behind Cooper, so if the secondary can keep him covered for a good portion of the game, you have to like your match ups in the other areas.

Rush Defense

After an abysmal start to the season where the Saints gave up 180 yards on the ground to the Houston Texans, they averaged 111.5 yards rushing allowed in their last two games. The numbers are still significantly higher than last year’s 80.2 yards per game average, but it is great to see improvements. A big part of the better performances in weeks 2 and 3 was the return of David Onyemata from his one game suspension to start 2019. More help is on the way today, as Sheldon Rankins is expected to make his season debut after spending the last 8 months recovering from a torn achilles tendon in the Divisional round playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Demario Davis has been a monster so far this season, especially last week where he was a factor on some key 3rd/4th and short attempts from the Seahawks.

You do not need me to tell you how good Zeke Elliott is. There’s a reason that he was awarded with a 6 year, $90 million contract extension right before the season started. He’s averaging 96.3 yards per game so far this year, which is good enough for 4th in the NFL. His 5.3 yards per carry is very impressive for a running back that gets the amount of volume as he does. Behind him is rookie running back Tony Pollard, who has also looked good through the first three games. He is adding in 49.7 yards per game, while also boasting a nice yards per carry average at 5.0.

The Saints will need their offense to be able to hold on to the ball and let the defense get proper rest, because this is a Cowboys rushing attack that can wear an opponent down. Their offensive line is one of the best in the NFL, with one of the best running backs in the game running behind them. The addition of Pollard gives Dallas the luxury of giving Elliott a few snaps off and still having the capability of running the ball effectively. If New Orleans can continue their upwards trend of getting back to the dominant run defense that they were a year ago, they can put the pressure on Dak Prescott to try and force more plays with his arm, potentially leading to some mistakes.

Conclusion

I have been back and forth on who I think will win this game all week. Prior to the Seattle game, I expected this to be a loss. But after last week’s impressive win, I do not believe there is a game that the Saints can’t win without Drew Brees. It is a tough task, but the black and gold are fully capable of avenging last year’s upset in Dallas if they can put together another solid team performance. This matchup is so close across the board, so I believe being back at home in the Superdome is the difference to give the Saints the slight edge. I can certainly see the game going either way, but I’m picking Sean Payton’s squad to come together once again for an impressive win.

Saints – 20

Cowboys – 17

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