Saints vs. Cowboys: Sketching out a Game Plan for Dallas

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 21, 2012

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 16:  Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys at Cowboys Stadium on December 16, 2012 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Who knows what you're going to get nowadays from the New Orleans Saints, who followed up a 25-point Week 14 loss with a 41-point victory in Week 15 and have both won five out of six and lost four in a row at different points this season. 

The Dallas Cowboys used to have problems like that. Now, despite a slew of injuries, the Cowboys have suddenly become consistent and clutch. Can they keep it rolling with their sixth win in seven games Sunday? Assuming the Saints show up, here's what Dallas has to do in Week 16.


Keep helping Doug Free and prioritize pass protection

The Cowboys offensive line has played much better of late and is probably coming off its best game of the year in terms of pass protection. With Jermey Parnell cutting into Doug Free's reps at right tackle, Dallas gave up only one sack, and that came on a late blitz. The line was responsible for zero hits on Tony Romo and only six total pressures. 

Free seems to have had a fire lit under him now that his starting job is in jeopardy. He played his best game of the year last week, with Parnell performing well whenever he replaced the highly-paid veteran.

The Cowboys have to keep up with this strategy Sunday against a New Orleans defense that made Josh Freeman's life miserable with a ridiculous 27 pressures last week against Tampa Bay, according to Pro Football Focus.

Free will spend the majority of the day matched up with Cameron Jordan, who leads the Saints with eight sacks and 40 pressures this season. Jordan sticks to the left side for most of his reps, with Will Smith on the opposite side. 

I have no doubt Tyron Smith can keep Will Smith under wraps, but Free has to get help. In fact, in addition to ensuring that Free is supported often by a tight end or a blocking back on the right side, the Cowboys might want to consider some jumbo formations with both Free and Parnell in the game.

That would give Romo plenty of chances to decide whether to use a size advantage by giving it to DeMarco Murray or to pick on the Saints' 31st-ranked pass defense with time to spare to hit Dez Bryant, Jason Witten or Miles Austin.


Go back to Austin and Witten

Dez Bryant is taking one for the team by suiting up despite a busted finger that requires surgery, but he clearly wasn't 100 percent last week and could have an unfavorable matchup on his hands with Jabari Greer this week. Greer had his best game of the season against the Bucs, and he was awesome against Roddy White in Week 13.

With that in mind, the Cowboys should take some pressure off of Bryant by shifting more of the focus to Miles Austin, especially if he can draw matchups with the very beatable Elbert Mack in the slot. 

Dallas did a nice job dividing up the targets and spreading it around against the Steelers. But Witten was targeted less often than Bryant and Austin in Week 15, and I'm thinking that should change in this game. 


Play it safe on defense 

The Saints might be having an off year, but they're still unbelievably dangerous so long as Drew Brees is at the helm. We had evidence of that last week, with New Orleans putting up 41 points in a shutout victory over the Buccaneers

Brees connected on three of four deep pass attempts in that game and completed eight passes against nine Tampa Bay blitzes. On the season, he leads the NFL in completions and touchdowns on passes that travel at least 25 yards, according to PFF, and has a 102.6 passer rating against the blitz.

In other words, Dallas has to avoid the temptation to send extra men. The Cowboys have been sacking the quarterback at a superb rate lately without a lot of Rob Ryan-esque exotic blitzes, so I'm confident they'll stay disciplined under Sunday's circumstances.