Heading into their Week 10 meeting with the New Orleans Saints, the Dallas Cowboys face perhaps their stiffest challenge of the season. Although the Saints have lost two of their last three games, they’re an undeniably explosive team with talented players across the board.
The Saints currently rank ninth in the NFL in yards, which would be their lowest rank ever under Sean Payton. During his six seasons calling plays in New Orleans, the Saints have finished third in the NFL in yards on three separate occasions.
Defensively, New Orleans has been rejuvenated by the addition of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Ryan’s final season in Dallas was an outlier marred by injuries and an unusually low number of takeaways, but he’s had better luck with the Saints. Only three teams have allowed fewer points.
To take down the Saints in Week 10, the Cowboys are going to have to find a way to slow down quarterback Drew Brees and Co. Here’s how they can do it.
DON’T blitz quarterback Drew Brees too much.
What makes Brees an elite quarterback? It's his accuracy and his intelligence—two traits that contribute to being able to beat the blitz. Blitzing Brees is so difficult because he immediately knows there to go with the football, looks off defenders with ease and has pinpoint accuracy.
Thus far in 2013, Brees has totaled a 69.1 percent completion rate, 9.0 YPA, and a remarkable 125.1 passer rating against the blitz, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He’s still good when defenses don’t send more than four rushers—he has a 97.5 passer rating—but he’s nowhere near the level of dominance he displays when defenses send extra pressure.
The Cowboys still need to mix things up defensively so that Brees can’t get into a rhythm, but it’s probably not smart to continually send five or more rushers.
DON’T let tight end Jimmy Graham get off of the line.
If there was any doubt that Graham is the league’s top tight end coming into the season, that doubt has been completely erased. Through eight games, Graham is on pace for a final stat line of 98 receptions for 1,492 yards and 20 touchdowns.
He’s also scored at least two touchdowns in four games this year. One of those contests was against the Patriots, who actually did an outstanding job on both Graham and Brees. The tight end had the two scores, but he caught just three total passes for 39 yards. Brees was held to only a 47.2 percent completion rate and 236 yards on 36 attempts (6.56 YPA).
Using NFL Game Rewind, let’s take a look at how the Pats played New Orleans.
In the third quarter, the Saints lined up in a shotgun spread formation that’s typical for them, motioning Graham prior to the snap.
The Patriots used cornerback Aqib Talib on Graham for much of the game, using him to bump Graham at the line. As Graham would get into his route, he was frequently contacted by a linebacker, as well, as was the case on this play.
Brees had all day to throw because New England rushed only three defenders—a tactic Dallas would be smart to mimic this week. Despite the time, there was nowhere to go with the football. Eventually, the defenders closed in on Brees.
He forced the ball out to avoid the sack, overthrowing Graham for the interception.
Brees and Graham are going to have their moments, but the key to this game for Dallas is doing everything they can to limit the Saints’ other-worldly tight end.
DO double-team defensive end Cameron Jordan.
Only one 3-4 defensive end in the NFL has more pressures than Jordan, according to PFF. He lines up all over the Saints’ defensive front, capable of beating offensive tackles with power or interior linemen with speed. Check out how Jordan’s pressure rate has soared in his third NFL season.
It can be difficult to double-team Jordan on pass plays because of his position, but it might be smart to keep a tight end in the backfield. The Cowboys use a formation called “Gun 3 Wide Pro” on which a running back and tight end remain next to quarterback Tony Romo in the backfield, and that might be the best way to help contain Jordan.
DO run more play-action.
Yes, I talk about the Cowboys’ play-action passing game every week. By now, you probably know the numbers: Romo has a 124.5 passer rating on play-action looks this year and posted a 109.1 rating in 2012. Part of that is because there’s no correlation between rushing efficiency and play-action effectiveness, so the idea that “you can’t use play-action without setting it up with the run” just isn’t true.
But instead of giving you more numbers this week, I’m going to show you how play-action passes affect the defense to create throwing lanes for Romo.
On a 1st-and-10 last week against the Vikings, the Cowboys lined up in a “Double Tight Left Ace” formation. Minnesota had seven defenders in the box.
I labeled two linebackers and a safety with the numbers one through three so that you can follow their movement on the play. As Romo showed a run-fake, all three defenders flew up to the line.
That allowed tight end James Hanna to immediately get behind the linebacker who was responsible for him.
Hanna was wide open and made an easy catch for 21 yards.
Don’t forget that the Cowboys called only eight designed runs in the entire contest. Outside of a 27-yard run by DeMarco Murray, the backs gained one yard on the other seven runs.
Yet play-action still works. Defenders play situations, not past-rushing efficiency, so the ‘Boys can and should use the play-action passing game as much as possible moving forward.