There might not be a more compelling game on this week’s NFL schedule than the Sunday night showdown between the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints (6-2) and the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys (5-4) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Both teams are jockeying for position in the NFC playoff race. They both offer offensive fireworks, led by the Saints’ Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham and the Cowboys’ Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. They’ve both got something to prove: The Saints will be focused on rebounding from their ugliest performance of the season in a 26-20 loss at the New York Jets; the Cowboys are looking to beat a team with a winning record this season.
There’s even a revenge factor. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after last season. And he's never been shy about expressing his displeasure with that decision.
ESPN.com’s Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer break down the matchup.
Triplett: Rob Ryan has been such a huge addition for the Saints. Players love playing for him. He’s putting them in good positions to succeed, and his versatile schemes have worked great for the most part. What wasn’t working for him in Dallas?
Archer: Injuries played a big part in his demise here. He was down six starters at the end of the season and DeMarcus Ware was playing with one arm. He had them competitive. But, honestly, Ryan played a big part in it, too. He tried to junk it up with so many different looks and schemes and packages that the players couldn’t just go play. They had to think. Maybe he felt like he had to junk it up because so many guys were hurt, but he left them unsound a lot of times. He was also way too emotional. He lacked poise when the defense needed it most. I think he was too worried about becoming a head coach. Maybe it has changed down there, or maybe Sean Payton has more control of him.
Is there any reason to think that what happened against the Jets could be the start of something for the Saints?
Triplett: The Saints have had a few nagging issues that all seemed to creep up at once in that Jets loss. Their pass protection has been inconsistent. Their run game has been nonexistent at times. The run defense has been up and down. But I think it was rare for the Saints to have all of those things come up and bite them at once at New York, and they were a little out of their element in some chilly weather against a physical team. Playing at home against the Cowboys seems like a matchup that suits them better. They’re more than happy to engage in a shootout.
What’s the biggest threat the Cowboys pose? I assume Romo and Bryant are involved?
Archer: Since they just don’t want to run the ball, after just eight carries last week (the ninth was a Romo scramble), I’ll go with Romo-to-Bryant, but the Romo-to-Jason Witten combination is pretty good. The Cowboys can throw the ball well even without a running game. They might be happy to get into a shootout as well. The last time the offense was good was a month ago, in their 51-48 shootout loss to Denver. Romo knows Brees is going to score points, so he’ll have to match it. Remember, the last time the Cowboys were at the Superdome they ended New Orleans’ run at perfection by being aggressive early. I can see them trying to do that again.
The Cowboys have allowed four 400-yard passers this season, and I’m penciling in Brees as the fifth. Calvin Johnson went for 329 receiving yards against the Cowboys a couple of weeks ago. What will Graham do?
Triplett: You could have been talking about the Saints when you said they “can throw the ball well even without a running game.” The Saints might try to establish the run a little bit since Sean Payton said that one of his biggest regrets in the Jets loss was that he was too unbalanced. But the Saints are always willing to exploit a shaky pass defense.
Some teams have been defending Graham with top cornerbacks (which worked for the Patriots but not for the Jets). But the Saints have clobbered teams whenever they leave Graham in single coverage. Meanwhile, if defenses sell out to stop Graham, Brees will happily throw to any open man. Two weeks ago, he completed passes to 10 different receivers. And it looks like Darren Sproles and Marques Colston may both be back from injuries Sunday.
Why has Dallas’ pass defense been so bad?
Archer: Mostly, it’s taken time for the players to get a grasp of Monte Kiffin’s scheme and it’s taken time for the new defensive coordinator to know how to best use his players. They have man corners in Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne, but they have played a lot of zone and been exposed. There have been just too many creases. The pass rush has not helped, either. They went into the season thinking Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher and Ware would be their rocks. Spencer played in one game. Ratliff didn’t play in any before getting cut. Ware has missed the last three but is set to return this week. Hatcher is having a career year with seven sacks. When they have played average quarterbacks they have held up. When they have played elite quarterbacks they have given up 400 yards. For the fantasy-football owners out there, go with Brees Sunday.
You get this every week, but play calling is a big topic here. How have things been different with Payton calling the shots again?
Triplett: You’re right to mention play calling in that question. Most people ask about Payton’s leadership, which is obviously a huge deal; he instills a lot of confidence in this team and seems to press all the right motivational buttons. But his greatest strength is his offensive brain. He’s so good at using a ton of different formations to find and exploit mismatches, usually with Graham and Sproles. The offense hasn’t quite hit its peak like it did in 2011, but it has been excellent at times.
You mentioned Ware coming back. Will he be close to 100 percent? Folks around here won’t soon forget how well he played in 2009, when the Saints didn’t expect him to come back from injury so soon. He singlehandedly spoiled their undefeated season.
Archer: I think so, but he has had a couple of nagging things this season (a stinger and strained back). Missing three weeks might have Ware as fresh as he has ever felt entering Week 10 of a season. They’ll need him to be the Ware of that night in 2009 to succeed. He looked great in training camp, overpowering Tyron Smith in practice all the time, but he hasn’t been as explosive when he has played. What he’ll do is make the other guys around him better because he’ll command so much attention.
Ware is making the move back to defensive end from outside linebacker. How has the Saints' defense transitioned from the 4-3 to Ryan’s 3-4?
Triplett: The transition has been outstanding, in large part because Ryan has adapted his 3-4 to fit the Saints’ personnel (after a ton of injuries this summer, including one to former Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler). As a result, the Saints have actually spent most of the season in nickel and dime defenses with a four-man front. Ryan likes to use three safeties at once in versatile roles, disguising what they do and sending them on occasional blitzes.
End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette are having breakout seasons as edge rushers. And veteran cornerback Keenan Lewis has been a great pick-up in free agency, too. He’s a bigger, long-armed guy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him shadow Bryant on Sunday night.
We've hit on Romo, Bryant, Witten and Ware. Any under-the-radar Cowboys who might have a big impact on this game?
Archer: I’ll go with Cole Beasley. He might get stopped by stadium security before the game because he just doesn’t look like an NFL receiver at 5 feet 8 and 180 pounds, but Romo loves the kid. He’s a real threat in the slot. He’s super quick, has a great feel for getting open underneath and knows how not to take a hit. He had six catches last week against Minnesota. The Cowboys’ third-down offense has been pretty bad, but Beasley can take some pressure off Witten and Bryant in the slot.