All you can ask for in this long NFL season is to be playing meaningful games down the stretch. When I observed this Cowboys schedule in April, I had a feeling that the game against the Saints was going to mean something for one of these two teams.
The Saints were a defensive stop away in San Francisco from hosting the Giants in the NFC Championship game and were poised to get back to that level coming into 2012. But the one thing you never really know is what an offseason will bring. For New Orleans, it brought turmoil, not only with its team, but also the general manager and head coach as well. When the league suspended Sean Payton for the season, it really set the tone for what they were going to be – a team that would struggle with consistency and focus.
When I do these weekly breakdowns of the Cowboys' upcoming opponent, I honestly give you what I feel are the problems they could face in the matchup or what they might be able to take advantage of. Dallas has faced three teams that are pretty close to what the Saints are talent-wise: the Giants, Falcons and Eagles with Vick in the lineup.
The Saints present a difficult challenge because they have incredible skill players, especially behind center. Drew Brees is physically not what you draw up when you think of a NFL quarterback, but despite being undersized, he is smart, decisive and is not afraid to take the ball and throw it as far as he can down the field. In this league, to make big plays you have to be ready to take big risks and he does that better than most.
Where Brees is at his best is when he is in shotgun. He is accurate and not afraid to put the ball in tight windows. He throws the ball well on the run, although he is not the type that will beat you with his feet. He'll move to buy time, but can also find throwing lanes to work the ball. Maybe his best trait is his ability to compete. Hard guy to kill his sprit. If he has a fault, he might try and do too much to make a bad play a good one.
The Saints play with a combination of running backs and all have different roles. Pierre Thomas plays with good initial quickness and burst. He is good enough to be an every-down back, but he doesn't have that ability to physically move the pile.
Mark Ingram is a tough downhill runner much like what the Cowboys have already faced this season. He, unlike Thomas, can move the pile. If Ingram has any weaknesses, they're that he doesn't do a good enough job as a pass protector and doesn't he make you miss in space. Chris Ivory was inactive against the Buccaneers last week, but he, too, is a physical runner. He does a nice job as a pass protector, but not a good pass receiver.
The most explosive player on the Saints offense is Darren Sproles, who may also be the biggest headache for Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Sproles functions in so many roles that he is hard to defend. He has an explosive burst and quickness, can get the ball quickly to the corner and can catch it out of the backfield. Sproles is a very hard guy to match.
I mentioned the Giants, Falcons and Eagles as those teams that the Cowboys have faced with explosive wide receivers. This Saints squad is a special group with Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore and Joe Morgan. Where these guys really hurt you is in their ability to get down the field and make plays. It doesn't matter for Brees,; he will send all of these receivers down the field and just lay the ball out there for them.
Colston is physically an impressive player. He is a big target and there are plenty of times where his size is a clear advantage when he is going for the ball. I would not call him a great route runner, but he uses his size for separation. He has good hands and will make contested catches look easy.
Henderson does a really nice job of catching in traffic but he is also a home run treat, a vertical player. Lance Moore is one of my favorite players because of how he is able to break down a defense. He is an outstanding route runner and can make the catch anywhere on the field. He has outstanding body control and can adjust in the red zone.
I honestly didn't know anything about Joe Morgan before I studied the Saints tape, but I know him now. Morgan went to school at Walsh and is one heck of an athlete and a big play vertical receiver. The one thing he can do very well is run fast. He shows the ability to separate deep, quickly.
The Cowboys defense has played some outstanding tight ends this season, and just go ahead and add Jimmy Graham to that list. Graham is a former basketball player that has initial quickness with outstanding size. He does a really good job of getting into his route. They will almost have to treat him as a wide receiver. I was impressed with his ability to catch the ball and he plays with good vertical speed and some suddenness. He uses his frame to create separation. If Graham is poor in an area, it's that he's not a dominate run blocker. In fact, he isn't very good at it. He has had some trouble in his career holding onto the ball at times as well. It will be interesting to see how Ryan tries to defend him.
I hadn't seen the Saints play many times this season except for some television games, and had heard that they were struggling to protect Brees. But in the games I watched, I thought they did a pretty solid job and that includes the matchup against the 49ers. If the offensive line has a weakness, it would be at right tackle and Zach Strief.
Left tackle Jermon Bushrod has come a long way since the last time he faced DeMarcus Ware. Bushrod has good size with some mirror and slide with the ability to punch and anchor down, although he really doesn't get very much push in the running game because he doesn't really snap on his blocks.
Strief has good size, but he doesn't play with much quickness and doesn't adjust. His pad level is really poor at times and he can become overextended. His game is that of get close to his man and try to maul them.
I think their guards are very solid with Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans. It's going to be another difficult matchup for Sean Lissemore and the Cowboys' inside linebackers, but if you can get the edge on them, you have a chance. Center Brian De La Puente is not a very big guy with average athletic ability. He is more about getting in your way than he is punishing you off the ball.
Where this Saints squad has had the majority of their problems has been on defense. In the game against the Buccaneers, they managed to play much better. Their pass rush was able to get more pressure than the other games, like in the Giants and 49ers. I thought the Giants did an outstanding job of blocking their front.
The strength of New Orleans' defense along the line is with their ends, Will Smith and Cameron Jordan. Smith will line up on the right side and Jordan on the left. Smith shows some nice quick feet to get up the field. He likes to try and use pass-rush moves as he gets up the field. His big move is to try and spin, and he'll chase the ball from the backside.
Jordan isn't as polished a pass rusher as Smith. He does play with some explosiveness, but will struggle at times to get off blocks. He'll see some action inside rushing from the tackle and has shown some good work from there.
A guy to keep an eye on at end is Junior Galette, who plays in the sub-packages. He does play with a good burst and is used as a speed rusher. He showed up in a couple of games I watched.
Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis are the starters at tackle and both are not very big, weight-wise. Bunkley was originally with the Eagles and I remember him as a guy who could give you a little inside push because of good hand use. Ellis is also active with his hands and also can get push with his power, but he will get caught on blocks at times. Where he gets caught the majority of the time is he doesn't always play with balance.
The Saints have a very average group at linebacker, with Curtis Lofton, Jonathan Vilma and David Hawthorne. Lofton lines up as the Mike and he does a nice job of reading and reacting quickly. If he struggles at times its because he is too aggressive. I have seen him struggle to get off blocks as well. He's not the best when it comes to coverage.
Vilma will run under blocks, trusting his speed, but this will get him in trouble at times. He's a physical player when it comes to taking on blockers, and is very aggressive on play-action. Hawthorne does a nice job of bursting to the ball, but where he has difficulty is when blockers get hooked up on him because he will struggle to get away. He is a much better player in zone coverage when he can react, whereas Vilma is better in man.
The Saints have really had their issues in the secondary. Jabari Greer, Patrick Robinson and Elbert Mack, with Roman Harper and Isa Abdul-Quddus have been attacked down after down because of the lack of a pass rush. I thought there was a time when these corners were playing the field and boundary, but Greer lines up usually against the opponent's best guy. I didn't feel like he was a great reader of routes and struggled to find the ball. There were times where separation was a problem as well. He has had a history of a guy that will gamble at times but I didn't like his ball skills and reactions.
Robinson looks like a good athlete with his movement, but I didn't feel like he was the toughest guy. As smooth as he is, not sure about his overall game in coverage, and I think you can take advantage of him. Mack will play as the nickel, but for being undersized, he plays with some toughness.
Roman Harper has some short-area cover ability but more against tight ends than receivers. He likes to be around the ball and play with toughness. As a group, they have had their share of trouble and if unable to get some pass rush help, they will be under attack.