Saints vs. Cowboys: 10 Keys to the Game for Dallas
At 8-6, the Dallas Cowboys are surging. They're tied for the division lead and thinking about a playoff berth.
Only two teams stand in the way of that goal—the biggest being a Week 17 showdown with division rival the Washington Redskins. But first, the Cowboys must topple, perhaps, an even tougher opponent, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints have had a rocky 2012 season, let alone calendar year, and sit at 6-8 as a result, eliminated from playoff contention.
However, they're still a remarkably tough opponent, as their offense keeps them in every game.
The Saints are coming off their biggest win of the year, a 41-0 pounding of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So, they enter the contest with the confidence and swagger that made them champions only a few years ago.
Dallas has a bit of momentum going for it as well. The Cowboys have won three straight, including their pair of last-minute wins against tough AFC North foes.
The game will take place in Arlington, so the Cowboys will have 80,000 rowdy fans behind them. And they will need all of them in order to best New Orleans.
Here are the 10 things Dallas must do to defeat the Saints on Sunday and continue to move towards the postseason.
Tony Romo Stays Turnover Free
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When Tony Romo doesn't turn the ball over, the Cowboys win games.
It's that simple.
In Dallas' eight wins this season Romo has tossed three interceptions. In the team's six losses he's thrown 13.
Is it any wonder that Dallas lost those six games?
People can make all the arguments about whether Romo is elite or not—that's not the point here.
Fact is, when Romo doesn't make costly mistakes, he leads his team to wins. When he tries to do too much or suffers from unfortunate circumstances, the Cowboys don't.
There's really not much more to it than that.
If Romo avoids tossing the ball to any of the Saint defenders, the Cowboys will likely win, taking advantage of a terrible Saints defense.
If he doesn’t, the Cowboys' task becomes infinity more difficult.
Put Pressure in Drew Brees' Face
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It's hard to slow down Drew Brees.
The Saints average 27.8 points per game—fourth in the NFL—in large part due to Brees. If you need proof, the Saints are second in the NFL in passing yards and 24th in rushing, so their offense is pretty much Brees or bust.
And most of the time, he doesn't bust.
Few teams have found success stopping the Saints offense, and the ones that have did one thing in common: put consistent pressure in his face.
Dallas must have a similar showing to slow the Saints down.
That means DeMarcus Ware must wreak havoc and the Cowboys' three-down linemen must provide pressure of their own.
If they do so, the Cowboys should be in great shape, or at least hold the Saints under 30.
Pound the Ball with DeMarco Murray
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The Cowboys are a different team with DeMarco Murray in the lineup.
All you have to do is look at their win-loss record for proof.
In the seven games that Murray has played the entire contest, Dallas is 5-2; in the games he didn't, Dallas is 3-4.
Murray just makes an impact. His blend of speed and power cannot be matched by any of the Cowboys' backups, and his goal-line prowess is a huge boost. He's scored a touchdown in each of his last three games.
Murray should have a field day against a terrible New Orleans run defense. The Saints rank 31st in the NFL against the run and allow 146.3 yards per game.
Murray has made things happen against above average defenses like the Bengals and Steelers. He should run ramped against a bad one like the Saints.
Well, as long as the Cowboys ensure he gets plenty of touches.
Blanket Marques Colston
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At 6'4", 240 pounds, Marques Colston is everything a team could want at receiver. And Drew Brees agrees.
Colston, despite being plagued by minor injuries for much of the year, has been Brees' favorite target.
He's reeled in 68 balls for 949 yards and eight touchdowns—with many of those catches coming in traffic or with a defender on his back.
Colston is a playmaker on the outside and it will be up to Brandon Carr to shut him down.
Carr is the guy the Cowboys paid the big bucks to shut down receivers this offseason, and Colston will be yet another huge test for the corner a week after he made a win-sealing interception against the Steelers.
If Carr can limit Colston's production, it will go a long way to slowing down the Saints’ potent attack.
Steady O-Line Play
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It's no secret that Dallas' offensive line hasn't been great this season.
But, at least the last few games, it's been passable.
And against the Saints, the Cowboys must continue to see at least average play from the group to maintain their path towards the playoffs.
This means allowing Tony Romo time in the pocket and creating holes for DeMarco Murray up front. The trio on the inside, Ryan Cook, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, must continue to progress by gelling on the inside.
But more importantly, Doug Free and Jermey Parnell's rotation at right tackle must continue. It's been effective thus far, and anything that can help protect Romo's right side is welcome.
If Dallas can control the line of scrimmage, the Saints have no chance of beating the Cowboys.
Make Darren Sproles a Non-Factor
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The Saints aren't very effective running the ball, but part of the reasoning there is that their backs spend more time running routes than they do bursting through holes.
And no one of their squad epitomizes that role more than Darren Sproles.
The pint-sized back has only rushed for 195 yards and a touchdown this season, but he's caught 60 balls for 484 yards and six touchdowns as a wideout.
His speed and quickness out of the backfield make him deadly in the open field, and his route running ensures that he's a premium target in the passing game.
Sproles is Brees' safety net. Take him away underneath and it makes the Saints offense significantly less effective.
Danny McCray and Gerald Sensabaugh will have to be at their best in coverage to control Sproles.
Win the Field Position Battle
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When two high-powered offenses like the Cowboys and the Saints clash, points will be scored. But often, it's where these teams start on the field that determines how many.
This makes field position imperative in this matchup.
Dallas cannot give up short fields to Brees and the Saints offense. That would be just inviting New Orleans to score.
So, when Dallas can't get close enough to score, it means punter Brian Moorman must put the ball in the correct spot.
He doesn't have the strongest leg, which means punting directionally, and doing so accurately, is of the utmost importance.
Moorman has had his share of struggles over the past few games. Those can't continue against New Orleans.
Push the Ball Deep
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The Saints defense does just as bad a job against the pass as it does the run, so pushing the ball deep should be an option for the Cowboys.
And the Saints must make sure it is.
Dallas has the tools to throw it deep—a good quarterback and burners on the outside—why not take advantage of them?
Both Dez Bryant and Miles Austin are more than capable deep threats, and Romo has the touch to make the throw an effective tool.
The New Orleans defense has a tendency to allow the big strike, and the Cowboys must take advantage of this potentially demoralizing option.
Score Touchdowns in the Red Zone
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The Saints score the fourth-most points in the NFL per game. The Cowboys are 15th.
So, when the Cowboys enter the red zone, they must take advantage of every opportunity to put up the maximum number of points—something they haven't done with much consistency this season.
Dallas has only scored touchdowns on 46.67 percent of its red-zone possessions this year, the sixth-worst rate in the NFL.
With such a talented group of skill players surrounding Romo, the stat may be a little hard to believe. But, the Cowboys' lack of a rushing attack has held them back.
This can't continue versus the Saints. If the Cowboys don't convert on their scoring opportunities, the Saints will pull away, and do so quickly.
Romo Outplays Brees
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It may be cliché, but the NFL is a quarterback driven league.
And the Cowboys and Saints go as far as their star quarterbacks go.
If Brees plays well, the Saints rarely lose. The same goes for Romo and the Cowboys. And when both of these players play well, it usually means they’re limiting turnovers.
That won't be any different on Sunday. If Romo continues his current hot streak, the Cowboys will remain difficult to beat. However, if he reverts to his early-season form, where he threw pick after pick, the Cowboys have little to no shot of outscoring the Saints.
Brees is going to get his numbers. The Dallas defense just has to do its best to contain him.
The real task is for Romo and the offense: They have to outscore him.