FRISCO, Texas – Film study is fun on days like today.
Obviously, it’s my job to watch the tape, regardless of how good, bad or ugly it is. But when the Cowboys turn in a defensive performance like that against such an explosive offense, it’s a joy to go back and see how they schemed it up.
The difference is in the details, and never was that more true than in the wrinkles of the defensive game plan on Thursday night. Dallas threw a lot of new looks at the Saints, stuck to their fundamentals and did the little things well. The end result was as impressive performance as we’ve seen in a long time.
Here’s my full game review, focusing mainly on that defensive dominance.
· Jourdan Lewis only played eight defensive snaps in the game, but every single one of them was huge. Lewis drew the assignment of covering Alvin Kamara and he couldn’t have played better. He ended the game with an interception, but he could’ve had another one early on in the action. Saints coach Sean Payton attempted to flare Kamara out of the backfield to pick up a third and long. Payton was trying to pick Lewis with Tre’Quan Smith up the field, but Lewis read it all the way and ran around it. Lewis was able to maintain his position while Drew Brees was feeling pressure from Randy Gregory and Tyrone Crawford. That forced him to just unload the ball, which Lewis almost came up with.
· It’s been a quiet season for Blake Jarwin, but he made a nice reception and run to get the offense off the goal line when it appeared that the Saints had them in a punting situation. It was a good call by Scott Linehan to get Jarwin open by using Amari Cooper as a pick to get him in the flat. Dak Prescott never hesitated getting the ball to Jarwin with no Saints defender within 10 yards of him.
· One of the questions that I had about Leighton Vander Esch was his ability to take on and shed blockers. There were snaps while at Boise where you would see him struggle to disengage, but that hasn’t been the case for him this rookie season. He has played this season with some pop. One great example of that was on the stop that they made on the goal line. DeMarcus Lawrence might have made the fourth down tackle, but it was Vander Esch who knocked Andrus Peat on his rear, then redirected to help on the play. Vander Esch has more than answered those questions that scouts had about his physicality.
· Facing a third and short, it was quite a play Daniel Ross to quickly beat the block by Max Unger and get up the field to capture Mark Ingram in the backfield for no gain. Leighton Vander Esch was also there in perfect position to help on the play, as he split the blocks of Andrus Peat and Larry Warford to clean up. It was a huge play to get the defense off the field.
· Clever design to get Ezekiel Elliott out on the screen off the fake of the ghost motion by Cole Beasley, as well as pulling Blake Jarwin across the formation. A key block by Zack Martin on Vonn Bell allowed Elliott to get around the corner, but it was the downfield block by Noah Brown that allowed Elliott to secure a first down and pick up an extra eight yards.
· It was good to see Chidobe Awuzie have some early success in coverage. I was worried that Drew Brees was going to attack Awuzie much like we’ve seen opponents do the last several weeks. On the ball to Michael Thomas, Awuzie played him well off the line as Thomas tried to knock his hands away. Awuzie didn’t give him much room, and when he read Thomas going up for the ball, he was right there to disrupt his hands so he couldn’t grab it at the high point.
· A couple of really nice double-team blocks by Cameron Fleming, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Joe Looney and Zack Martin, which sprung Ezekiel Elliott on his long run of the night. Dak Prescott helped as well with just enough of the fake on the read-option to hold Alex Okafor in place. Elliott hesitated for just a split second to allow the blocks to develop further before making his cut. Once in the open field, Eli Apple attempted to bring him down but with not much luck.
· Beautiful reception by Amari Cooper early in the game, along the sideline, with Marshon Lattimore driving on him. Cooper got Lattimore to turn around, creating separation. That was all Dak Prescott needed to get him the ball, allowing Cooper to get both feet down in bounds. Credit Cameron Fleming with a block on Marcus Davenport which gave Prescott a clean path to make the throw.
· Outstanding pass from Dak Prescott to Michael Gallup for a key third- and-long conversion. On the route, Gallup was able to move Eli Apple enough to the inside, which gave him the space to work on the outside. With pressure off the backside from P.J. Williams, Prescott hung in there just long enough to allow Gallup to make his break. The ball was in a perfect spot for Gallup to extend and make the reception.
· In scouting we talk about defensive tackles that play outside of the tackle box. When you watch these tackles play, the one trait they all have is the ability to chase the ball. It doesn’t matter who’s on the field, when the ball gets to the outside Rod Marinelli and Leon Lett have them on the move. Caraun Reid is one of those guys in the rotation that has been good when it comes to chasing that ball. The Saints tried to set up a screen, which Anthony Brown read right off the jump. Brown was unable to bring Mark Ingram down, but he got enough of him to slow him down. Reid saw this whole play develop and sprinted to his left, arriving just in time to keep Ingram from turning the corner for a sizeable gain.
· I am not sure I’ve seen a game where this Cowboys’ defense tackled as well as this. They played a comparable game at Lambeau Field in 2016, but this was as impressive of a show as I can remember. I believe it was their tackling which won this game for them. The Saints put a great deal of stress on your defenders to have to make plays in space. Whether it was Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch or Anthony Brown, they came to tackle. Down after down, as soon as the ball was in the hands of a Saints skill player, there was a white jersey there to bring him down. The Saints were never able to get anything going offensively from a big play perspective because the Cowboys didn’t give them the opportunity.
· You don’t need a former NFL scout telling you this, but Jaylon Smith is starting to play like he did at Notre Dame. The explosive player that was sideline-to-sideline in that game last night was the same player I saw in South Bend. When you watched Smith play before the injury, you could feel his tackles through the film. Ball carriers just folded when he hit them. We’re starting to see that more and more. And I’m not just talking about the hit he laid on Alvin Kamara on the sideline, as it has been a common theme throughout the season. Smith is now able to generate an incredible amount of speed and this has allowed him to deliver some wicked hits. A man running that fast and that powerful is going to cause opponents problems. The really scary thing is: given the improvement we’ve already seen this season, Jaylon Smith is only going to get better.