It's not every season that we see a team ranked first in the NFC in points scored sitting two games below .500 in Week 16, but the New Orleans Saints have managed to do it this year. With one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, perhaps the league's most athletic tight end, and a stable of talented pass-catchers on the outside and in the backfield, the Saints' offense is dynamic to say the least. But they also have one of the league's worst defenses in a number of categories; they're ranked last in the NFC in run defense and second-to-last in pass defense.
With a defensive unit that has been decimated by injuries, the Cowboys will need to keep pace in what has all the makings of a shootout. Dallas will need to be careful to not overlook the 6-8 Saints in anticipation of their potentially monumental Week 17 matchup with the Redskins. New Orleans, a team with a 10 point-differential in 2012, could easily be in contention for a playoff spot. Despite the defensive struggles, the Saints have played well enough to be 8-6, whereas Dallas, a team with a -11 point-differential, can count their blessings that they're still in the NFC East race.
None of that matters on Sunday, of course, but this stuff does:
Putting on the Pressure
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's pass-rush has stepped up of late; without excessive blitzes, the Cowboys have been able to sack the quarterback on 7.0 percent of their pass plays, good for the eighth-highest mark in the NFL. We'll need to see more of the same from the Dallas D on Sunday because blitzing Brees could be trouble. On the season, Brees has posted a 102.6 passer rating and 8.9 yards per attempt (YPA) against the blitz. If the Cowboys blitz Brees and can't get pressure on him in a hurry, they'll be exceedingly vulnerable in the back end.
However, like most signal-callers, Brees makes mistakes with defenders in his face. If the Cowboys can find a way to get pressure on Brees without blitzing, it won't allow him to throw hot or buy time to find a wide-open receiver against a five-man coverage. Thus far in 2012, Brees has only a 56.7 passer rating when pressured. He's thrown a pick on 4.6 percent of his passes when pressured, about 50 percent higher than his overall rate. Look for Ryan to use more twists and stunts than normal – something he might be more inclined to do since New Orleans doesn't rush the ball often – in an effort to get to Brees with only four pass-rushers.
Airing It Out on Second-Down
One of the biggest outlying stats I've uncovered all season is the Saints' pass rate on second down. On a league-wide scale, NFL teams have passed the ball 58.0 percent of the time in 2012. The Saints have basically lapped the field on second-down passes, dropping Brees back to pass on 74.0 percent of their second-down plays. The Saints have passed the ball 228 times on second down and rushed it on just 80 occasions. The next closest team is Detroit with a 66.5 percent second-down pass rate.
Watch Out for Run-Fakes
The Saints are the perfect example of why play-action passes can work whether or not you run the ball often. New Orleans has rushed the ball less frequently than every team except the Jaguars, and that's really just because Jacksonville hasn't run as many total plays as the Saints. Despite their reliance on the passing game, the Saints have used play-action on 19.3 percent of their passes, about average for an NFL team.
And guess what? Since defenders typically react to play-action based on down-and-distance and personnel (not past running rate), the Saints thrive on play-action looks. Brees has totaled 9.3 YPA and a 102.2 passer rating on play-action passes this year.
You might think the Saints' ability to use play-action is because they're efficient on the ground; believe it or not, the Saints have totaled 4.5 yards per carry (YPC) in 2012, primarily because defenses focus so heavily on stopping Brees. However, play-action passes work across the league, regardless of an offense's rushing efficiency. Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and, yes, Tony Romo are among the quarterbacks who have seen play-action success on offenses with below-average rushing efficiency.
Setting the Edges
I mentioned that the Saints have rushed the ball pretty well in 2012, and the majority of that success has come outside of the tackles. On 78 runs to the edge, the Saints have totaled 577 yards, a stunning 7.40 YPC. Running backs Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram work together to form a versatile and underrated running trio. Still, you have to like how the Cowboys' run defense, led by outside linebackers Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware, matches up with the Saints. If Spencer and Ware can characteristically keep containment, the Saints will be forced to run to their weakness.