Cowboys vs. Saints: Prediction, preview, how to watch, stream, statistics to know for 'Thursday Night Football'
Everything you need to know as the NFC South leaders visit the NFC East's first-place team
Two first-place teams on Thursday Night Football? Yes, please!
Both the Cowboys and Saints played a week ago on Thanksgiving, with each of them coming away with a win over a division rival. Dallas has won three straight games after looking like their season might be over a few weeks back, and might be considered the NFC East favorite at this point with a lead over the Eagles and Washington in the midst of being ruined by injuries. The Saints, meanwhile, are winners of 10 straight games and look completely unstoppable.
It's always fun when Saints coach Sean Payton goes up against the team that let him leave for greener pastures (Payton was an assistant in Dallas under Bill Parcells), and the wily coach always comes up with some creative stuff against the Boys. The Saints have played consistently closer games on the road than at home, though, and the Cowboys have been uncharacteristically tough at Jerry World this season.
This should actually be a really fun game. Here's what you should be watching out for.
When the Cowboys have the ball
It's been talked about ad nauseam already but the difference in the quality of the Cowboys' offense since trading for Amari Cooper is pretty stark. Dallas averaged 20 points per game prior to Cooper's arrival in a trade from the Oakland Raiders, but that figure included a seemingly random 40-point explosion against the Jaguars. In the other six games, the Cowboys scored just 16.7 points per game. In four games since acquiring Cooper, Dallas is up at 23.5 points per game, and in the past three games after struggling while trying too hard to force the ball to Cooper in his debut, they're at 26.7 per game. No matter how you slice it, that's a nice improvement.
The effect Cooper's presence has had on the performance of his teammates is stark. Take a look at the following chart, which shows Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott's statistics prior to the Cooper trade, and since Cooper got to Dallas.
And now take a look at another chart, which shows the statistics for Cooper himself, and for Dallas' non-Cooper wide receivers, both before and after the trade.
A few things stand out in those charts:
- Dak Prescott has been far more efficient, in terms of both his completion percentage and his yards per attempt, and he's done a far better job of avoiding interceptions. And a lot of that efficiency has been driven by throwing to the holdover receivers less often and funneling those targets to Cooper. He's throwing touchdowns about as often, per pass attempt, as he did before the trade, but he's rushing for scores more often than he did before -- a sign that there are cleaner rushing lanes for him down near the end zone.
- Ezekiel Elliott has been better across the board since Cooper started wearing a star on the side of his helmet. He's averaging more carries (21.3 to 18.9), more targets (6.5 to 5.1), and more catches per game (5.5 to 3.6), and he is gaining more yards (160.8 to 113.4 per game; 6.01 to 5.06 per touch) and scoring touchdowns more often (3.7 percent of his touches to 2.5 percent) when the Cowboys get the ball in his hands.
- Cooper himself has been a far bigger part of the Cowboys' offense than he was with the Raiders. He already has the same number of targets in four games with the Cowboys as he did in six games with Oakland. He's got the same catch rate as he did with Derek Carr throwing him the ball, but, aided by his two huge plays on Thanksgiving, he's gaining far more yards per reception.
The Cowboys even kept things going last week against Washington despite the fact that the entire left side of their starting offensive line was out for the game. (All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith and rookie guard Connor Williams each missed the game due to injuries. Williams is out again Thursday, while Smith is questionable despite not practicing this week.) Considering how poorly they performed offensively when Smith was out last season, it has to be considered extremely encouraging that they were able to so easily move the ball against Washington for so much of last week's game with Cameron Fleming playing in Smith's place.
While one might think the Cowboys should easily keep rolling against a New Orleans defense that has given up a few big scoring performances, consider that New Orleans actually ranks 15th in both yards and points allowed per game and 14th in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA. Over the past three weeks, they've allowed just 38 combined points to the Bengals, Eagles, and Falcons. In those three games, they've allowed just five touchdowns and a field goal while forcing nine turnovers on 30 drives. Extrapolate either of those rates over the course of a full season and they would easily lead the league.
The Saints have also had arguably the NFL's best run defense all year, allowing just 3.6 yards per carry and ranking third in run defense DVOA. The Saints have stuffed 26.3 percent of opponent runs behind the line of scrimmage, per Football Outsiders, which ranks second in the NFL. They've also allowed opponents to convert only 52 percent of third or fourth down runs with two or fewer yards to go for a first down or touchdown, which again ranks second best in the NFL. The Cowboys' offensive line is a fantastic run-blocking unit (especially Zack Martin and La'el Collins on the right side) but this Saints run defense is legit.
And the pass defense has been far better of late. Marshon Lattimore has been solid, if not necessarily spectacular, for the balance of the season (83.1 passer rating against, per Sports Info Solutions), but the rest of their defensive backs have been far better lately than earlier in the year. Lattimore seems likely to see a whole lot of Cooper while Michael Gallup and Cole Beasley will get easier matchups, but it's something to watch out for.
When the Saints have the ball
Here's what we wrote about the Saints last week, before they easily hung 31 points on the Falcons in what was actually a fairly tame performance for their offense:
The Saints lead the NFL with a 37.8 points per game average, just 0.07 points per game behind the highest-scoring offense in NFL history – that of the 2013 Denver Broncos.
But these Saints have actually been even more efficient than that team on a per-play and per-drive basis. The 2013 Broncos gained an average of 6.3 yards per play. The 2018 Saints are at 6.4 per play as of this writing. The 2013 Broncos gained 36.2 yards per drive, scored 2.83 points per drive, and saw 47.9 percent of their drives result in a touchdown or field goal. These Saints are better across the board, with averages of 41.0 yards per drive and 3.57 points per drive, and 62.5 percent of their drives ending in some sort of score.
The 2018 season is the best offensive season in NFL history, and the Saints are playing offense about as well as it can possibly be played.
Yeah. They're good.
This week actually provides an interesting test for New Orleans, because this Dallas defense is as well set up as any in football to actually deal with the Saints' offense as constructed. The single best way to attempt slowing down the Saints is getting pressure with your front four while rarely blitzing, assigning a single cornerback to shadow Michael Thomas, and having athletic safeties and linebackers who can run sideline to sideline with Alvin Kamara. The Cowboys have one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL in DeMarcus Lawrence (third in the NFL in pressures, per Sports Info Solutions) and a cadre of supplementary pass-rushers who bring the heat alongside him. They have breakout cornerback Byron Jones, who ranks in the top-10 among qualified cornerbacks in catch rate, yards allowed per snap, and opponent's passer rating. And they have Xavier Woods, Jaylon Smith, and rookie Leighton Vander Esch, all of whom are absurd athletes for their respective positions.
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None of that is to say we should expect the Cowboys to shut down the Saints. That would be crazy. But they've got the infrastructure a team needs in order to at least make things difficult. Lawrence primarily rushes off the left side of the line and is one of the best in the league at doing so, but it will be interesting to see if the Cowboys swing him over to the right side of the line this week so he can rush against Jermon Bushrod (filling in for the injured Terron Armstead) rather than star right tackle Ryan Ramczyk. If not, then it'll be Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, and (if healthy) Randy Gregory rushing over Bushrod, and presumably getting a chip from a tight end or running back on occasion. The key for the Cowboys will be getting pressure up the middle and forcing Drew Brees to move off his spot. That's essentially the only way to get to him, because if the pressure comes off the edge he just steps up through the pocket and delivers. His shorter stature makes him more vulnerable to pressure up the middle, when he has to escape just a smidge sooner than other, taller quarterbacks who can stare down the rush and see over the top.
Of course, the Saints' offense is so well-designed and Brees' release is so quick that none of that pressure stuff really seems to matter against them. Brees is routinely among the least-pressured quarterbacks in the NFL, and this year is no different. He's been pressured on only 20.7 percent of his pass attempts, per Sports Info Solutions, and the only quarterbacks who have been pressured on fewer throws overall are guys who have missed at least one game. Every single regular starter has been under pressure more often.
And Brees is unafraid to spread the ball around to his non-elite targets. If Jones shadows Thomas and takes him out of the game, well, Brees will just throw touchdowns to Tommylee Lewis and Austin Carr and Dan Arnold and Keith Kirkwood like he did a week ago. (Thomas, by the way, is still doing insane things. He has 86 catches for 1,080 yards and eight touchdowns on 97 targets. That's an 88.7 percent catch rate, by the way, which is completely inhuman and makes me think we are living in a simulation.) And if the Cowboys for some reason devote attention to those guys, well, Kamara will eat them alive. That's the challenge against these Saints. There are just too many ways for them to beat you -- including with Kamara and Mark Ingram on the ground, where the Cowboys are more vulnerable than they are through the air.
Prediction: Saints 33, Cowboys 23
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