IRVING, Texas – Two of the guys you need to know ahead of this Saints game are about as obvious as it gets. Jimmy Graham and Drew Brees have killed the Cowboys the last two times these teams have played, and the Cowboys are going to have to find a way to deal with them – plain and simple.
The third guy is a little less obvious, as I think the Saints have the ability to stymy the Cowboys' rushing attack if this offensive line isn't on its game.
Here's the breakdown:
Weapon: Jimmy Graham, TE
There is no question that this will be the most difficult matchup for the Cowboys on either side of the ball. Graham's ability to create mismatches at all levels is what makes him so difficult to handle. Sean Payton does an outstanding job of lining him up in different spots in the formation, putting the defensive scheme in a bind trying to match him.
Where Graham has an advantage over defenders is the combination of size and athletic ability. He doesn't have a true burst off the line, but with his length and stride he can cover a serious amount of ground. He has outstanding reactions once the ball is in the air. He is able to put himself in positions to catch the ball even when he appears covered. He adjusts well in space and is not afraid to use his reach to put a hand into the defender to buy some separation.
Graham sees all kinds of coverages during a game and shows the understanding of how to work through them. Faces several different combinations – teams will try and play him with a corner then the next down a safety with a linebacker underneath. If there is an area that he tends to struggle in, it is when you knock him around at the line which makes him fight for space. Not sure he has the stomach to carry on if he is consistently getting hit in the mouth.
Nemesis: Drew Brees, QB
When this Saints offense is really humming, it's because of the work of Drew Brees. It is always impressive to turn on the tape and watch him go to work on a defensive scheme. His willingness to use all of his offensive weapons is really what sets him apart from the other quarterbacks in this league. Physically, you would not pick him first for your pickup game, but once he starts to play you are glad that he is on your team.
His awareness, anticipation and his ability to process information is legendary. He knows exactly where he wants to throw the ball and more than shows the accuracy to make the play work. He plays with poise and toughness. His arm strength is not elite by any means, but for those throws that he makes on a consistent basis underneath and intermediate, it handles the job. He has touch on screens and passes in the flat. It is rare that you will see a receiver or running back have to work for the ball.
Defenses that have had success against him in the past are ones that have been able to attack the pocket. His lack of height limits his ability to just be able to stand in one spot and deliver the ball. He needs to move and adjust to find throwing lanes and see the routes develop down the field. Knocking him around in the pocket will force his eye level to come down and that is the best chance to cause him problems.
Under the Radar: David Hawthorne, LB
There are several players on the Saints defense that grabbed my attention. The one I thought played the best of all of them was David Hawthorne at inside linebacker. In this Rob Ryan 3-4 scheme you have to have linebackers, especially on the inside, that have a nose for the ball and can make solid, dependable tackles at the point. Hawthorne can do just that.
He plays with outstanding range, with good lateral quickness and agility. What I really like about his game is how instinctively he plays. When he reads a block he is quickly off it and off to [embedded_ad]
the ball. He does a nice job of playing on his feet. You do not see blockers knock him back. His contact balance helps him get to plays. Blockers have trouble getting to him because of the way he reads and reacts. Hand use on blockers helps. These Cowboys offensive linemen are going to have to be careful with how they handle Hawthorne because of his ability to get to the ball and make plays.
On those zone plays, where they are required to get a man to the second level on Hawthorne, that assignment needs to be completed. If he is allowed to run to the ball with free access, then there are going to be issues moving the ball on the ground. Last week against the Rams there were several snaps where linebackers were left unblocked and the running game did not get going like we had seen the previous two weeks. David Hawthorne has the ability to make several plays if that were to happen again.