8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: New Orleans -3.0
High-powered offenses collide tonight at AT&T Stadium, as the Dallas Cowboys host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday Night Football. Touted by many to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, the Saints (1-2) have gotten off to a disappointing start thus far. Honestly, they could very well be 3-0 right now, but narrow losses at Atlanta (34-37) and Cleveland (24-26) have left them in an unenviable 0-2 hole. However, last weekend Sean Payton’s club was finally able to get into the win column, after defeating the Vikings 20-9 in their home opener. As usual, the offense, led by Drew Brees, was explosive as they jumped out to an early 13-0 advantage. Though the defense felt compelled to keep Minnesota in the game, allowing nine unanswered at one point, they were finally able to finish them off in the fourth quarter. That said, the defense hasn’t looked quite as sound as it was last season, leaving many to wonder if it in case will once again prove to be their Achilles’ heel as it has in years past.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was considered the toast of the town last season in turning statistically what was the worst defense in NFL history into an aggressive, attacking unit that finished fourth overall in both points allowed (19.0) and yards allowed (305.7). This season they have gotten off to a slow start; in the Opener they were shredded by Atlanta’s passing attack, yielding a ridiculous 568 yards, 445 of which came through the air, followed by 324 at Cleveland, who posted 202 yards via the pass and 122 via the rush. In both cases the defense was unable to get the opposition off of the field on Third Down. Facing Minnesota’s sluggish offense served as a remedy, as Ryan’s charges limited the visiting Vikings to a mere 13 First Downs on 247 yards, with 188 courtesy of the pass and just 59 off the run. Granted, it helped that Adrian Peterson was suspended for the evening, but New Orleans found the results it had searched for nonetheless. One of the biggest reasons they were so successful last Sunday was their ability to keep the Vikings’ offense contained; the defense allowed just one pass play of fifteen yards or more, with Matt Cassel and later Teddy Bridgewater completing 2-of-7 attempts of at least fifteen yards (8.3 yards/attempt). This was in stark contrast to the previous two outings, in which they were torched on 9-of-11 passing on such plays (20.4 yards/attempt). It should be interesting to see how they perform against Dallas’ offense tonight, which has been much more potent than their most recent opponent.
Speaking of the Cowboys, the last time they ran into these Saints it was an ugly affair. We’re talking history-making ugly. When these teams met last season in the Super Dome, the Saints opened up a can on the visiting ‘Boys, racking up an NFL-record 40 First Downs on their way to a mammoth 625 yards in a 49-17 debacle. Brees was flawless in the victory, completing 34-of-41 passes for 392 yards, while the ground game churned out a healthy 242 yards. The Quarterback has enjoyed what some would consider a solid career against Dallas, owning a 14-2 touchdown/interception ratio on his way to a 4-1 record, while topping 352 passing yards in four consecutive meetings. Even at 35 years of age, he continues to play at a Hall of Fame level, ranking second in the league in completion percentage (70.9%) and fifth in passing yards (863), and against Minnesota last weekend completed 27-of-35 passes for 293 yards. Tight End Jimmy Graham remains his most lethal target in the passing game, leading the Saints with 24 catches for 254 yards and two touchdowns, while rookie Receiver Brandin Cooks has emerged as a vertical threat with eighteen receptions for 168 yards. However, it’s not just a high-flying affair on this side of the ball, for Payton’s offense is as balanced as it’s been since he took over back in 2006; New Orleans ranks sixth in the league in rushing offense (140.3), led by former First Round Pick Mark Ingram and his 143 yards and three scores.
Meanwhile, after getting embarrassed in their home opener, the Cowboys (2-1) have quietly strung together back-to-back victories. Not many experts were picking Dallas to make much noise this season, particularly given their atrocious defense, aging Quarterback, and all-around penchant for self-destruction. However, through three games it appears that reports of their demise may have been premature, as Tony Romo looks solid coming off of offseason back surgery, and the defense actually looks respectable. With that said, Jason Garrett’s charges still have to prove that they can stop tripping over themselves; for example, in last weekend’s 34-31 victory over the injury-riddled Rams, the hosts had to put forth the greatest comeback in team history, erasing a 21-point deficit in the second quarter. Down three scores, Romo and Co. went to work, outscoring the visitors 34-10 the rest of the way in a game in which they shouldn’t have trailed by so much to begin with. The reason for such pessimism you ask? Dallas wasn’t facing Sam Bradford last Sunday, or even his backup Shaun Hill; they were facing third-stringer Austin Davis, leaving one to only wonder what kind of nightmare their defense will be in for against Brees and the onslaught that is the Saints’ offense tonight.
We shall see just how much the Cowboys have improved defensively against the same group that dumped all over them for 49 points, 40 First Downs, and 625 yards a year ago. Longtime Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli was hired to make some sense out of a unit that not only gave up 415.3 yards of total offense, including 286.8 against the pass and 128.5 against the rush last year, but also lost arguably it’s best player, Middle Linebacker Sean Lee to a season-ending knee injury, and it’s most recognizable star DeMarcus Ware in a cap-cutting release, during the offseason. However, at this early juncture of the campaign, the defense has been a pleasant surprise, ranking eighteenth in points allowed (23.0), 22nd in yards allowed (360.3), including 21st versus the pass (250.3), and fifteenth versus the rush (110.0). Furthermore, they have accumulated the fourth-most interceptions in the league (4). Linebacker Bruce Carter has been a playmaker in Marinelli’s Cover Two scheme, leading the team in tackles (19), sacks (1), defended passes (2), interceptions (1), and has even scored a touchdown. And after appearing to be out of football altogether, former First Round Pick Rolando McClain has found a new lease on life, accumulating 15 tackles, a sack, and a pick. This unit should also receive a shot in the arm as suspended Cornerback Orlando Scandrick was reinstated after the league’s new drug policy was passed last week, giving them another option in a Secondary that figures to be tested early and often.
Ironically, the defense owes a lot of it’s improvement to the play of their comrades on the opposite side of the ball, for the Cowboys have finally discovered a foreign term called balance this season. Garrett has been maligned for years for stubbornly eschewing the running game in favor of the pass, even though the offense, and by extension the team as a whole, has looked far more efficient when they have decided to hand the ball off to DeMarco Murray. However, there are a number of factors that have influenced this change; at 34 years of age, Romo isn’t getting younger and needs the complement that Murray and Co. provide, the defense was so abysmal that they need to limit the amount of time in which they are on the field, and after missing the Playoffs four years in a row, Garrett’s job is clearly in jeopardy. Through three games Dallas has averaged 363.3 yards (eleventh overall), with 156.7 courtesy of the run (third overall)on 470 carries, the fifth-highest total in the league. Murray, as a result, leads the NFL in rushing (385 yards) on a healthy 5.1 yards carry, with three touchdowns. This shift in philosophy has led to longer drives, with Garrett’s club completing the third-highest percentage of Third Downs (54.3%), in turn granting the defense more rest. And it’s also benefited Romo, who has completed 67.4% of his attempts for 674 yards, for four touchdowns and four interceptions. The veteran completed 18-of-23 passes against the Rams last weekend, for 217 yards a pair of touchdowns and an interception.