Cowboys vs. Saints: New Orleans Grades, Notes and Quotes

Zane BrownContributor IIIOctober 5, 2015

Cowboys vs. Saints: New Orleans Grades, Notes and Quotes

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    The New Orleans Saints earned their first win of the 2015 season Sunday night, toppling the Dallas Cowboys in dramatic fashion in overtime, 26-20.

    On the second play of the extra period, Drew Brees hit C.J. Spiller for the game-winning scoring pass. The 80-yard strike happened to be the 400th touchdown toss of Brees’ career.

    With the win, coach Sean Payton’s club snapped a six-game losing skid in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and improved to 1-3 on the season.

    Dallas (2-2) led 3-0 after its opening possession, but it was the Saints who found the end zone first. Brees hooked up with Josh Hill for a short touchdown pass to give New Orleans the lead near the end of the first quarter.

    This one would go back and forth, however, and Dallas, which was without injured stars Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, regained the lead on its next possession on a Joseph Randle touchdown.

    The two teams settled for field goals in the third quarter, with the Saints nailing two of them, but the scoring picked up in the fourth period.

    After New Orleans reclaimed the lead on Khiry Robinson's one-yard touchdown run, Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden led his offense on a 91-yard scoring drive to help tie it up at 20.

    In response, the Saints put together a march on their final possession of regulation, but Zach Hocker’s would-be game-winning field goal shockingly bounced off the upright from just 30 yards out.

    The overtime period was short-lived, however, as Brees found the wide-open Spiller for the winning score. The touchdown served to breathe some new life into the Saints’ season, which was heading south in a hurry before Sunday night’s victory.

    Read on for a closer look at New Orleans’ Week 4 win over the Cowboys.

Grades

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images
    QBA-
    RBA-
    WR/TEB
    OLC-
    DLB
    LBA-
    DBC+
    Special TeamsC
    CoachingB

    Offense

    After sitting out last week with a shoulder injury, Brees returned to action Sunday night. The New Orleans signal-caller turned in a solid overall performance, completing 33 of 41 passes for 359 yards and two scores.

    His passes were mostly in the short-to-intermediate range, and although he was usually spot-on, there were a few throws that were off-target.

    The New Orleans offensive line got off to a horrendous start in the game, as it struggled to provide Brees with adequate protection throughout the first half. Fortunately for the Saints quarterback, the unit’s pass blocking was improved in the second half, and he was afforded more time in the pocket.

    New Orleans only had six rushing attempts in the first half, as the Cowboys were committed to stopping the run to begin the game. The Saints' running game picked up in the second half, however, and the team finished with 103 yards while averaging 4.1 yards per carry.

    The presence of a respectable rushing attack helped the Saints’ offensive balance, although the passing game still had its difficulties.

    No. 1 wideout Brandin Cooks had a tough time trying to shake free from Dallas cover man Morris Claiborne. Cooks finished with four catches, but he was unable to break through and come up with a big play.

    Willie Snead took up the slack, however, as the former practice-squad player hauled in six balls for 89 yards. Snead has clearly gained the trust of Brees in the passing game, and he’s not too shabby in the blocking department, either.

    Defense

    On the defensive side, youth was unquestionably the theme of the night for New Orleans, as rookies at all three levels stepped up and made plays.

    Bobby Richardson replaced the recently traded Akiem Hicks in the starting lineup at defensive end, and the undrafted rookie appeared to provide an immediate upgrade. Richardson recorded six tackles, with two of them going for losses.

    Rookie defensive tackle Tyeler Davison also stood out, recording a second-half sack of Brandon Weeden.

    At linebacker, rookies Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha continued their progression with standout performances, while Delvin Breaux had a solid outing at cornerback. The former CFL star went toe-to-toe with Cowboys wideout Terrance Williams all game, and with the exception of Williams' diving fourth-quarter touchdown grab, Breaux had the upper hand for much of the night.

    Meanwhile, veteran corner Brandon Browner went through his ups and downs. He was a walking penalty machine throughout the first half, but he also came through for the Saints with a couple of fantastic tackles.

    New Orleans was especially tough on third down. Dallas was able to convert just three out of 12 third-down attempts, which typically isn’t a recipe for victory.

    New Orleans also displayed improvement with its pass rush. The Saints had struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks for the better part of the young season, but they finished the game with three sacks and four hits on Weeden.

    The Saints defense played with great energy for most of the game, and the lively crowd at the Superdome likely played a big hand in this.

    Special Teams

    One week removed from scoring his first NFL touchdown on a punt return, rookie Marcus Murphy was again impressive, ringing up 34 punt-return yards and 34 kickoff-return yards.

    The New Orleans coverage units were solid but not overly spectacular, while the kicking game was inconsistent.

    Zach Hocker connected on a 51-yard field goal late in the third quarter, but he missed a 30-yard chip shot that would have sent the Saints home with a “W.”

    The Saints kicker was forced into double duty in the second half after punter Thomas Morstead left the game with an injury. Hocker dropped a 44-yard punt inside the 10-yard line late in the fourth quarter, although Dallas proceeded to march 91 yards for the game-tying touchdown.

Brees Delivers Big in Return from Injury

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    There were no turnovers in this matchup, and the big plays were few and far between.

    Brees’ game-winning scoring pass to Spiller was without question the biggest play of the game. It gave him career touchdown pass No. 400.

    This praiseworthy accomplishment puts Brees in truly elite company, as only Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Dan Marino and Tom Brady have reached the milestone.

    Brees was extremely efficient with only eight incompletions in 41 pass attempts. He showed no lingering effects from his shoulder injury, although it should be noted he never attempted to stretch the field with a long ball. Instead, he took what the defense gave him and picked apart the Cowboys with a barrage of screens and other short throws, spreading the ball around to nine different receivers.

Saints Veteran Defenders Return to Action

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Brees wasn’t the only Saint returning from an injury Sunday night, as three veterans on the defensive side returned to action.

    Safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, none of whom had seen the field this season, all received playing time on the Saints' first defensive series.  

    The trio substituted in and out for the majority of the game. They weren't responsible for any game-changing plays, but the mere on-field presence of these accomplished veterans was a boost for a Saints defense that came into the contest ranked No. 29 in the league in yards allowed.

New Orleans Rookie Linebackers Continue to Make Strides

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    While New Orleans welcomed back the aforementioned trio of veterans, two young Saints defenders continued their steady improvement.

    Outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha and inside linebacker Stephone Anthony, both starters as rookies, had exceptional outings Sunday night. They finished the game as the Saints’ top two tacklers, and they both made head-turning defensive plays.

    Kikaha, a second-round draft pick, led the team with eight tackles, and he rang up one of the Saints’ three sacks. The former collegiate sack-master at Washington now has three sacks in four career games.

    Anthony, a first-rounder out of Clemson, made several noteworthy plays, and he also finished with a sack. He has 23 tackles and two sacks on the season.

    The future appears bright for this young linebacking duo, and their continued development will definitely be worth keeping an eye in the coming weeks and months.

Drew Brees on C.J. Spiller's Game-Winning Touchdown

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    The Saints had an advantage on the winning play in that they had C.J. Spiller matched up with Cowboys rookie linebacker Damien Wilson. The former Buffalo Bill made the most of the mismatch, and his first touchdown as a Saint made for quite the memorable moment.

    Brees gave his take on the play after the game, and he was quoted as follows by NewOrleansSaints.com:

    We had gone through this play several times before. We had thrown the ball to C.J. just out in the flat when they had guys who were late getting lined up, and that was one where we had a vertical route called to C.J., and I felt like, if we caught them in man again, and there was any confusion, we could have a big play, and sure enough, we did. I just tried to get to the middle of field, get it to C.J., and let him do the rest.

    Spiller was injured for the season opener at Arizona, and after being slowly worked into the playing rotation in Weeks 2 and 3, he was finally able to enjoy his breakout moment in a New Orleans uniform.

    The Saints made waves this offseason with the signing of the 2012 Pro Bowler in free agency. The explosive back is an ideal fit for New Orleans' fast-paced offense, which heavily involves its running backs in the passing attack.