Heading into their Week 10 meeting with the New Orleans Saints, the Dallas Cowboys are coming off of a pivotal victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Had the Cowboys slipped to 4-5 with the Saints on deck, things probably wouldn’t be looking so pretty moving into their Week 11 bye.
In the Saints, the Cowboys will face a team that’s winning in an unusual manner. At 6-2, New Orleans has scored 216 points this year—the ninth most in the NFL. That’s still a quality ranking, but not one the explosive Saints are accustomed to seeing.
In place of a league-leading offense, the Saints have an overachieving defense leading the charge. The Saints have allowed only 146 points all season—the fourth fewest in the NFL. That defense is led by former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, so you know they’ll be fired up to take down Dallas this week.
Before diving into this week’s matchup, let’s take a look at the standings and injury report for the ‘Boys.
We’re nine weeks into the 2013 season and the Cowboys are still the only NFC East team to have scored more points than they’ve allowed.
|New York Giants||2-6||141||223|
Using their points for and points against, we can calculate each squad’s Pythagorean Expectation—the number of games they “should have” won based on their points.
|New York Giants||2||2.02||+0.02|
Based on their Pythagorean Expectation, every team in the NFC East has the record they “should have” through Week 9, except for Dallas. With 5.58 expected wins, the Cowboys’ most likely record at this point in the season is 6-3. They’ve underperformed their expectation by over a half of a win.
The Cowboys’ injury report looks quite similar to that in Week 9.
|DE DeMarcus Ware||Thigh||Week to Week|
|WR Miles Austin||Hamstring||Week to Week|
|CB Morris Claiborne||Hamstring||Week to Week|
|DT Jason Hatcher||Neck||Day to Day|
|S J.J. Wilcox||Knee||Week to Week|
|LB DeVonte Holloman||Neck||Week to Week|
Veterans DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin and Morris Claiborne are all fighting to get back to full health. The only addition to this week’s injury report is defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who reaggravated his neck injury in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win, according to ESPN. He might need to wear a brace, but it looks like he’ll be good to go against the Saints.
What Must Improve: Pass Protection
For the third week in a row, my choice for “what must improve” for Dallas is pass protection. Here’s why.
With 22 pressures allowed on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Cowboys had their worst day of pass protection all season. They yielded pressure on a season-high 43.1 percent of pass plays. Their previous season high came just a week earlier with a 40.0 percent pressure rate in Detroit.
The Cowboys allowed three sacks against the Vikings, but based on historic pressure-to-sack ratios, they should have allowed 5.5 sacks. They aren’t going to be able to keep winning if they’re allowing pressure on one-third of their pass plays (or more).
The top player who must improve is right tackle Doug Free. After starting the season on fire, Free has allowed 14 pressures in the past three games. On just 143 pass snaps, that’s a 9.8 percent pressure rate, which is horrific. In comparison, Free allowed a pressure on just 2.8 percent of his pass snaps prior to this rough three-game stretch.
Key Matchup to Watch vs. Saints: Interior Line vs. DE Cameron Jordan
While tight end Jordan Cameron has surprised some people this year, it’s the reverse—defensive end Cameron Jordan—who has really dominated. Jordan is a specimen at 6’4”, 287 pounds with sub-4.8 speed.
Most important, Jordan has ridiculously long 35-inch arms, which is by far the most predictive trait for pass-rushing success. That’s allowed Jordan to dominate as a pass-rusher in 2013, accumulating 26 pressures—more than J.J. Watt and the second most for any 3-4 defensive end in the NFL.
And he’s still just 24 years old, meaning there’s plenty of improvement to come. Take a look at Jordan’s development since entering the league in 2011.
The Saints use Jordan all over the field, so he won’t face off exclusively against the Cowboys interior linemen. Containing Jordan will really be a team effort, although it’s the Cowboys’ weakness—the interior trio of Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick and Mackenzy Bernadeau—that will see the most of him.