After two straight home games, the Saints take to the road for three straight away from the Dome. The first contest coming in Dallas against the NFC East-leading Cowboys. The Cowboys host the Saints at 6-5 with the league’s 3rd ranked scoring defense allowing only 19.4 points per game. The Dallas defense, or at least one of its defenders has already begun to talk a big game. While they have the league rankings to do so: 7th in total yardage and 5th in run defense, they’ve also not met up against the stiff competition New Orleans brings to AT&T Stadium. Though the same might be said about what Dallas’ offense has to offer in Ezekiel Elliott and newly-acquired WR Amari Cooper who are both incredible playmakers. It’s going to be an interesting match-up for sure and here are my 5 keys to victory for the Saints to remain undefeated on the road and become this year’s first NFL team to clinch a playoff berth.
1. Make good on early scoring opportunities
The Saints can quickly set the tone in this game. They’ve scored on their opening possession in most of the games this season and have opened with a few 10+ play drives. These help show the opposing offense that Sean Payton and his offense control the game. Dallas is going to try to keep hold of the ball as long as possible with their running game to keep the ball out of Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense’s hands. So when the Saints get their chances early in the game, they’ll need to strike. Otherwise, possessions might become limited if Zeke gets going.
2. Limit Zeke under 100 yards
When Zeke rushes for 100 yards or more, the Cowboys are 5-1. When he doesn’t, they’re 1-4. Seems like a pretty key ingredient to their game and it absolutely is. As I mentioned, the Cowboys will try to control the clock when they have the ball and the most reliable way they an do that is by feeding Zeke. If the Saints run defense can continue its stellar play, currently sitting as the number 1 rush defense in terms of both yards per game (73.2) and, more indicatively, yards per carry (3.6), they’ll be more than capable of getting the ball back to the offense. The Cowboys also struggle to convert on 3rd downs converting only 37.9% of the time. Good for 21st in the league. If the Saints defense can continue their success in the run game and the Cowboys continue to struggle to convert third downs, the Saints offense will be on pace for another big day thanks to their defense.
3. Frustrate Dak
The Cowboys might be without starting Tackle Tyron Smith tonight meaning that Cameron Flemming will have to step in to try to pace Alex Okafor and Marcus Davenport who will both be kept fresh due to their rotation. On the other side, La’el Collins who has already allowed 5 sacks on his own this season will be tested by Cameron Jordan. Collins has also committed 8 penalties on the Offensive Line as well. All of those ingredients mixed with the league’s best pass rushing linebacker in Demario Davis according to PFF and the eruption of Sheldon Rankins makes for the perfect storm to get Dak in his feelings. Not that he’s proven to be an emotional player or anything, but it’s easy to frustrate young QBs in this league especially if all of the conditions are perfect. A stifled run game with no time to pass? Sounds like the right gameplan to keep Dallas off-balance.
4. Lean on Boom & Zoom
The Michael Thomas – Byron Jones match-up is sure to be incredible, but I’m looking at Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara to make big plays tonight. Both in the passing game at that. Leighton Vander Esch has proven to be a DROY candidate and deserving so, leads the team in tackles and interceptions, and if 5th in the league in run stop % among LBs who have played more than 170 run snaps, per PFF. But his coverage has actually been suspect from time to time. As has Jaylon Smith’s on a consistent basis. Both allow a 100+ passer rating when targeted in coverage, but they particularly struggle in the slot, where Alvin Kamara excels. Look for Sean Payton to find ways to exploit this, getting Kamara in the slot on passing down (already takes 19% of his passing snaps from the position anyway) and use Mark Ingram in screens and flats. This, couple with downfield shots to Thomas/Kirkwood/Smith should provide more than enough firepower as the Dallas defense tries to keep up. Being able to establish a run game with these two will also help to alleviate the pressure that could otherwise be on the way to Drew Brees. Though I’m more than confident that Ryam Ramczyk can keep Demarcus Lawrence at bay.
5. Keep the Cowboys Below 20 Points
The Cowboys are sitting on top of the NFC East at 6-5. If you thought that 5-1/1-4 records with Zeke’s rushing stats was a clear formula, check this one out. The Cowboys are 6-0 when they score more than 20 points and 0-5 when they don’t. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Just so happens for the Saints that they haven’t allowed a 20-point opponent since Los Angeles scored 35. That’s three straight games. So recent history says that what the Saints are doing on defense is working and it’s already much to the ilk of the perfect combination of elements to keep Dallas limited, one-dimensional, and out of reach.