Typically when the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints meet, it's the Saints with the high-flying offense and the Cowboys who have to keep pace. Not this time. Dallas has shot out of the gates with fury, as Dak Prescott and company seemingly can't stop denting stadium scoreboards. Meanwhile, the Saints are working with their backup quarterback.
New Orleans managed a win in Seattle last week with Teddy Bridgewater under center, an impressive accomplishment no matter the circumstances. But they'll have to get their offense going a bit more than they did last week if they want to move their record to 3-1. Let's break down what we're looking for on both sides of the ball on Sunday night.
Cowboys at Saints
- Date: Monday, Sept. 30
- Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
- TV channel: ESPN
- Odds: Cowboys -2.5, O/U 47 (via SportsLine)
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When the Cowboys have the ball
This offseason, we ran a series highlighting the moves several contenders needed to make in order to get themselves to the Super Bowl. I was assigned to . My No. 1 move the Cowboys needed to make was, "Empower Kellen Moore to make deep systemic changes to the offense."
Through the first three games of the season, Moore has made every single one of the suggested changes to this Dallas offense, and as a result, the Cowboys rank third in the NFL in yards per game, second in yards per play, fourth in points per game, third in points per drive (despite having the second-worst average starting field position in all of football), and first in offensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders' DVOA. Mission accomplished!
Much of this has been discussed ad nauseam already, but it's worth digging into the exact changes Moore has made:
- More play-action passing. Despite play-action throws being more efficient than straight dropbacks leaguewide and for Dak Prescott in particular, only 22.9 percent of his throws came after a run fake during the first three years of his career, per Pro Football Focus. This season, he's faked a hand-off on 39.4 percent of his throws and has a 137.4 passer rating on those plays.
- More deep passing. Prescott was arguably the single most effective deep passer in the league during his first three years, recording a 115.9 passer rating on throws that traveled 20-plus yards in the air, per PFF. But those throws accounted for only 9.4 percent of his total. This year, Dak has thrown deep 17.0 percent of the time, with a 114.6 rating on those plays.
- More RPO plays. Prescott threw a total of 11 passes on RPO plays last season, per Sports Info Solutions. Through the first three weeks of this season, he has a league-high 11 completions on RPO plays. (He's 11-11 for 100 yards.)
- Wider throwing lanes and attacking past the sticks. Last year, 17.7 percent of Prescott's throws went into tight coverage. This year that figure is down to 16.0 percent. Last year his average throw was 1.5 yards short of the line to gain. This year it has gone 0.8 yards past the line to gain.
- More pre-snap motion. Last year's Cowboys utilized pre-snap motion on only 31 percent of their offensive plays, per Sports Info Solutions, a rate that both ranked 24th out of the league's 32 teams and was well below the league average of 36.6 percent. This year they are utilizing motion (or formation shifts) on damn near every play.
Accordingly, Prescott's price looks like it's going up every week. So does Amari Cooper's. Ezekiel Elliott can't stop finding enormous holes through which to run. He and Tony Pollard each racked up over 100 rushing yards last week. Jason Witten is back to scoring touchdowns. Randall Cobb looks rejuvenated. Michael Gallup left the lineup and Dallas barely missed a beat. The offensive line, coming off a relatively disappointing season amid injuries to Tyron Smith and Zack Martin and Travis Frederick's season-long absence due to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, looks utterly dominant, allowing Prescott to be pressured on only 21.2 percent of his throws and sacked only twice, which also checking in third in PFF's run-blocking grades and second in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards.
It's this offense that the Cowboys will bring to New Orleans to face a Saints defense that has not exactly lived up to expectations so far. The Saints rank 28th in defensive DVOA through three weeks, sporting bottom-third units against both the run and the pass. The Saints have done a strong job of getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but their coverage downfield has left much to be desired. Cornerbacks Eli Apple (95.8 passer rating allowed), P.J. Williams (109.9), and Marshon Lattimore (140.6) are off to poor starts, and they have their work cut out for them this week. Lattimore will presumably be assigned to shadow Cooper, who is fresh off torching Xavien Howard and has a league-high four touchdown grabs this season. Williams will wrangle with Cobb in the slot, while Apple has to deal with deep burner Devin Smith, who has slid into Gallup's role.
As if all that isn't enough to worry about, the Cowboys sneakily debuted a formation featuring both Elliott and Pollard on the field at the same time last week, easily gaining 10 yards on a play-action swing pass to Pollard, who went in motion before the snap and ended up wide open. Dallas has been slowly working Elliott back up to his normal workload, while doling Pollard out in small doses over the course of the game. Elliott essentially looks like his usual self, averaging 96.3 yards per game on the ground despite handling a career-low 18.3 carries per game. Pollard, meanwhile, ranks second in the league in yards after contact per carry, and has already broken eight tackles on just 30 totes. He's really difficult to tackle.
This team looks like one that is just rolling right now, and while some of their success is due to the opponents they have faced (Giants, Washington, Dolphins), a whole lot of it is due to personnel and scheme and execution. And it's not as though New Orleans has done all that good a job of stopping anybody just yet.
When the Saints have the ball
The Saints presumably surprised at least some people by finding a decent amount of offensive success against the Seahawks last week. Teddy Bridgewater is one of the most highly-respected backup quarterbacks in the league, but going from Drew Brees to pretty much anyone is an obvious downgrade.
The Saints decided to pivot heavily into an Alvin Kamara-led offense in Brees' absence, and it worked like a charm. Kamara was on the field for a season-high 88 percent of the team's snaps, and he either touched the ball or was the intended target on 26 out of 56 of those plays. He didn't get too much going on the ground aside from his touchdown run (69 yards on 16 carries), but his nine catches went for an additional 92 yards and a pin-balling score.
The Cowboys contained Kamara pretty well when these two teams met late last season, holding him to 72 total yards on 19 touches, but the Jaylon Smith-Leighton Vander Esch combination has appeared a bit more vulnerable through the air this season than it was a year ago. Opposing running backs have caught 18 of 26 passes for 144 yards so far this season, and Kamara is considerably more dynamic than any back they have faced with the exception of maybe Saquon Barkley.
The Dallas defensive line has done a good job of getting pressure (fourth in Football Outsiders' pressure rate) and forcing check-downs, but A. checking down is largely what Bridgewater wants to do in the first place; and B. Bridgewater's check-down receivers (Kamara and Michael Thomas) are the two best players on the New Orleans offense. The Saints move Thomas all over the formation and Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard's defense has the Dallas corners play sides of the field rather than shadowing, so Thomas will likely work against Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and perhaps even Jourdan Lewis in coverage at various times throughout the evening. He has a size and strength advantage over all of them, but Dallas has given up only three passing touchdowns this season and all four of those guys are balling right now.
Bridgewater may also run into issues if he continues to be a complete non-threat on throws down the field. His average depth of throw last week against the Seahawks was just 3.55 yards and not a single one of his passes traveled more than 20 yards in the air. That's not sustainable. All it does is invite more players into the box, where Kamara and Thomas do most of their damage.
Perhaps more concerning than that is the difference in timing between Brees and Bridgewater. Brees is one of the small handfuls of elite quarterbacks in the league before the snap. He is an expert at pre-identifying coverages and knowing exactly which receiver will pop open quickest, and getting the ball to that guy as quickly as possible. As such, he is routinely among the least-pressured quarterbacks in the league.
Including this season, Brees has been the third, second, first, fourth, and third-least-pressured quarterback in the NFL over the past five years, never being sacked, hit, or hurried on more than 28.7 percent of his dropbacks during that time. Already during his short time under center this year, Bridgewater has been pressured on 24 of 63 drop backs, a 38.1 percent rate on par with that of Baker Mayfield, who nearly everyone in NFL circles agrees is playing behind an offensive line that could best be described as unacceptable. That's not a good sign against a Dallas pass rush that is getting a ton of pressure but not very many sacks thus far, but just got Robert Quinn back last week and is still not yet giving Demarcus Lawrence his full complement of snaps after his offseason shoulder surgery.
The New Orleans offensive line is one of the best in the NFL and should be able to hold up against nearly anyone, but quarterbacks bear a whole lot of responsibility for managing pressure, too, and Brees is far better it at than Bridgewater (or almost anyone else). This feels like another game where the Saints will have to lean extremely heavily on Kamara in order to get their offense going. A fumble-recovery-touchdown and two turnovers on downs that gifted them excellent field position last week masked what was a relatively muted offensive performance; they'll have to do far better to keep pace with the suddenly-explosive Cowboys offense.
Prediction: Cowboys 31, Saints 23