Spagnola: Saints Game To Answer Lingering Questions

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IRVING, Texas – Barometer game.

         No, not for eight or nine weeks down the road, not for what the Cowboys ultimately might be this 2014 season.

         For now, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Where Cowboys fans will get a second chance this season to invest in a team off to a 2-1 start, despite one arm tied somewhat behind its back, and prevent those rabid Saints fans, no matter if their team is 3-0 or a current 1-2, from filling the air with Who-Dats.

          We will get a better idea of who these Cowboys are and what they are.


         Are they this team turning the ball over seven times in the first halves of the first three games of the season, nearly burying themselves each time, falling behind San Francisco in the opener 28-3 in an eventual 28-17 loss and then 21-0 this past Sunday in St. Louis before rising up for an historic revival in a 34-31 victory?

         Or are they this team jumping out to a 16-0 lead at Tennessee in the second game of the season, managing to play virtually steady-Eddie football in the dominating 26-10 win?

         Is this team capable of averaging 25.7 points a game, maybe even more if it so happens to eliminate all these turnovers? Or is this defense, currently ranked 21st in the NFL, on the verge of heading down that same historically bad path of last season when the Cowboys resembled no more than a broken levee as the points and yards came pouring through?

         At this point, we just don't know, and again let's emphasize, at … this … point.

         Why?

         Well, this team by NFL standards is but a puppy, 34 of the roster's 54 players (63 percent) have no more than three years plus three games of experience. There are only 16 players on the current 53-man roster older than the 26-year-old Dan Bailey, who was born Jan. 26, 1988, meaning right at 70 percent of the players on this roster were not much older than 1 when Jerry Jones bought this team on Feb. 25, 1989.

         There is room to grow, but have these youngers grown enough already to handle Sunday night, a nationally televised game with all eyes on them for the first time this season against a formidable foe, the Saints' current 1-2 record notwithstanding, seeing that we should not forget this team went 11-5 last season, eliminated Philadelphia in a first-round playoff game on the road and had the final possession in a second-round 23-15 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, also on the road.


         Oh, and then there is this: These Saints whupped up on the Cowboys 49-17 last year, totaling 625 yards, an NFL single-game record 40 first downs and after the Cowboys got off to a 10-7 lead in their Big House off the Mississippi, the Saints swamped them by scoring 28 consecutive points.

         And … and … even if the roof is closed Sunday night there will be a cool Brees blowing through. Yeah, that guy again. We have spent a lot of energy this week talking about what Texas native Drew Brees did to the Cowboys last year, what with his 392 yards passing and four touchdown tosses. But have you looked at his combined numbers over the past two seasons, the Saints beating the Cowboys, too, in 2012, that time 34 -31 at AT&T?

         OK, if you must, just take a brief peak at his past two-game total: Completing 71 of 94 passes (75%) for 838 yards, 7 TDs, 0 INTs, 1 sack and a quarterback rating of … 127. Go ahead, cover your eyes again.

         Seriously, these numbers were triple-checked, so why, pray tell, all week long has there been this immense hand-wringing over how in the world will the Cowboys ever cover Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who, granted, ranks second in the NFL with 24 receptions in three games, just one off the lead?

         Someone has to throw Graham the ball for him to compile those numbers, no?

         The better question to me becomes how do these somewhat defensively challenged Cowboys possibly deal with Brees?

         Confuse him? Doubt that. With 14 years of NFL experience, there's probably not much he hasn't seen.

         Blitz him? Maybe, but if so, you better darn well get there, otherwise …

         Geesh, where is Nate Jones when you need him, he of the blitz and debilitating hit on Brett Favre that time in 2007 at Texas Stadium, forcing some youngster named Aaron Rodgers into the game the Cowboys hung on to win, 37-27, during his coming out party?

         See, this game of football really is quite elementary, dear friends. For the Cowboys to win this game, they had better outscore their current 25.7-point average. And to do that, they had better not turn the ball over their average of 2.3 times in the first half. They better not have one of these turnovers returned for 6 as they have in two of the first three games.


         And to score enough points, well, they better run the ball effectively and, figuring Rob Ryan will do everything he can to shut down the likes of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, and will bring pressure up the middle in Tony Romo's face, Terrance Williams must have a big game against these Saints since likely they will chance one-on-one coverage with him.

         And this defense, ah, this defense, better Get Brees.

         Easier suggested than done, evidently.

         First of all, in three games Brees has been sacked just three times, an average of once a game, though the Browns had two while defeating the Saints in Cleveland. All told, the Cowboys have only sacked him once in the past two games.

         And as we know, the Cowboys come into this game with only three sacks of their own, and not one guy on the defensive front has a full sack since Henry Melton and Kyle Wilber (rushing as a DE) shared a sack against Tennessee, meaning each has a half. That's it. So after three games only St. Louis has fewer sacks (one) than the Cowboys three.

         Get my drift.

         "It's a concern," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli says of a lack of sacks. "It's weekly, it's daily, you keep looking for different guys, different positions, and we're going to find it.

"Just rush – we have to get better."

Making matters worse, the guys owning half of the Cowboys' three sacks are listed as questionable to play Sunday night, and only have practiced on Friday. Melton, he of the half, appeared definitely out early in the week with a strained hamstring, only to work on a limited basis Friday. Rolando McClain, with the one sack, hadn't practiced since straining a groin against St. Louis two weeks ago until working on a limited basis Friday. He, too, is listed as questionable.

         Ugh, and not only is Melton listed as questionable inside at defensive tackle, so is Terrell McClain, who has been out with the effects of a concussion until being cleared to practice on Friday, and would seem to have an even chance of playing Sunday since he, too, is listed as questionable, as is fellow DT Davon Coleman, who missed last Sunday's game with a knee problem and then practiced on a limited basis for the first time Thursday and Friday.

         With all of those health questions at defensive tackle, Tyrone Crawford, who has started all three games at left defensive end, has worked at the 3-technique tackle spot all week, and might get some pass-rush help on nickel downs from starting right defensive end Jeremy Mincey.

         Great.

         And since this isn't baseball and there is a retractable roof on the AT&T that is expected to be open for Sunday night's game, praying for rain will do no good. Ah, but maybe praying that the expected return of defensive end Anthony Spencer, albeit on a limited basis, will be a raging hit will do some good. Yes, Spence, who is right at one year removed from microfracture surgery on his left knee, has practiced for the past two weeks – in pads twice, though – and is expected to go maybe a dozen to 20 plays, most likely as a pass-rush specialist from his accustomed left side even though he, too, is listed as questionable, but maybe not as questionable as the others. [embedded_ad]

         Ya think, just maybe …

         Well, you know, the Saints, who have beaten the Cowboys eight of the last nine meetings, haven't exactly been road warriors of late, losing eight of their last 10 away games if you count those two playoff games from last season. But then, who knows how many Saints fans might infiltrate AT&T Stadium Sunday night. If the season opener against San Francisco is any indication, Arlington might not be as away as you might think.

          We'll see, just as we'll see about these Cowboys in only the fourth game of the season. If they are good enough at this early point to win three straight for the first time since December of 2012 when it was these very Saints interrupting that little winning streak in Game 15.

         The answers to the who and what are on the way.

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