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Final Thoughts: R. McClain's Impact; Saints' Weakness


IRVING, Texas – By Friday, we usually have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the team, as the week winds to a close and the game preparation is all in place. That's not the case this week, as the Cowboys brought several injured players back to the practice field ahead of Sunday's game against the Saints.

With that in mind, here's my final few thoughts on what to watch for this weekend when the Cowboys and Saints square off:

  • It's going to be important for Scott Linehan to really be on top of his game this week when it comes to getting his play calls in quickly to Tony Romo. Rob Ryan likes to try and disguise his blitz packages pre-snap, so Romo and Travis Frederick are going to need a few extra seconds to get everyone on the same page protection-wise to prevent those assignment area sacks.
  • The more I study how teams defend Jimmy Graham, the more I have come to the realization that you have to do it with more than just one man. To just put a corner or a safety on him full-time is not the best route to take. In the playoff game against Seattle in 2013, the Seahawks went with several different combinations. They singled him with Richard Sherman, then the next snap they had Byron Maxwell on him. Later in the drive there was a linebacker jamming him on the line and safety Kam Chancellor over the top. The Cowboys defensively don't have the personnel of the Seahawks, but the point I am trying to make is that I believe that approach is the similar one that you will see Rod Marinelli take in this game. Keep Sean Payton, Drew Brees and more importantly Graham guessing what coverage he might see. Don't give them a good read.
  • Saints running back Khiry Robinson might not be a household name, but in this offense he is tailored for how they want to run the ball. Payton has always been a coach that likes to use all his personnel, especially at running back. But with Mark Ingram out of the lineup, I expect Payton to ride Robinson in this matchup after seeing the Rams having success with Zac Stacy -- though for some unexplained reason they went away from him last week. Robinson is a physical, downhill runner that has the ability to get the ball around the corner on the zone plays they like to run. 
  • Rolando McClain practiced for the first time this week in hopes of potentially playing against the Saints on Sunday. If in fact he can answer the bell and come back after just missing one game it would be a huge boost for this defense, because of the physicality he brings to the table. But something to keep an eye on is if he is not able to go -- I feel that Anthony Hitchens could once again handle that starting responsibility in the middle.  Where things might be difficult for him as opposed to McClain is his experience in facing an offense like the Saints, particularly how many different formations he will see pre-snap.  Sean Payton likes to show you one formation then shift it to another to get to his play. This is the way the Saints take advantage of mismatch situations and put you at a disadvantage scheme-wise. How well this defense plays will be dependent on the communication between McClain and Hitchens to their teammates. [embedded_ad]
  • The Saints have made a change at cornerback this week with Corey White starting in place of 2010 first-round selection Patrick Robinson -- who, like Morris Claiborne, has had his share of struggles adjusting to NFL life. If the Saints have a weakness on their squad it is at cornerback. On tape I was not one bit impressed with the group of Keenan Lewis, Robinson and White. If this Cowboys offensive line and DeMarco Murray can hold up protection-wise their receivers will have a chance to find space down the field. Neither Lewis nor Robinson really like a hand in the physical side of the game when the ball is run in their direction. If I am Scott Linehan and Tony Romo I am making these Saints cornerbacks play in this game because there are some plays to be made there.
  • I am expecting a trick play or two from Sean Payton in this game, most likely involving receiver Brandin Cooks or a fake punt to change the momentum. Payton and I go way back to our days of working together in Philadelphia and here later with the Cowboys. He lives for these nationally television games where he can prove to the world what a brilliant coach he is. He will coach this game Sunday night like it's his Super Bowl and if I were Jason Garrett I would expect the unexpected.     
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