3TFO: Cowboys @ Saints, Week 10
While other stadiums are making claims to Guinness World Records, it’s still hard to find a more raucous atmosphere in the NFL than the Superdome in a primetime game. The New Orleans Saints host the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday night, and both division leaders are looking for some separation to start the second half of the season.
If the Cowboys can avoid slipping back to .500 for a fifth time this season, they’ll have a stranglehold on the weak NFC East. The Saints have led the NFC South since Week 1 and would like to keep the Carolina Panthers at arm’s length. New Orleans is undefeated at home, but the last time Dallas visited here in 2009, they upset the 13-0 Saints in primetime.
Here are three factors that could decide the winner of one of Week 10’s best matchups.
There are plenty of reasons for the Saints’ defensive turnaround this season, but the biggest might be Cameron Jordan’s classic third-year leap. After showing inconsistent signs of dominance in his two prior campaigns, he has spent much of this season as our second-highest graded 3-4 defensive end (behind the great J.J. Watt, of course). Though Rob Ryan’s new scheme has certainly helped, Jordan has actually generated 78% of his pressure from his traditional 4-3 left defensive end spot. That means that he’ll match up often on Sunday night with Cowboys right tackle Doug Free, who had a hot start of his own. Years ago, Free was one of our highest-graded left tackles, but the Cowboys switched him to the right side in 2012 in favor of the more heralded Tyron Smith. He struggled last season and led all NFL linemen with 15 penalties, but returned to top shape this September. After six games, Free was our highest-graded offensive tackle.
Unfortunately, both of these heavyweights have slowed down considerably in their last three contests. Jordan generated 28 quarterback pressures in his first five games, but has earned just nine in his last three. Free allowed just nine pressures in his first six games, but has surrendered another 14 since. So who is more likely to bust out of his slump this Sunday? The odds favor Jordan, as nearly half of his pressures have come on outside rushes while almost half of the pressures Free has surrendered have come via outside moves. If Free struggles to handle Jordan’s speed, Tony Romo will continue to miss the clean pocket that he enjoyed in his first six games.
Better Versus Bryant
Despite scoring an upset victory in Dallas in Week 16 of last season, at no point did the Saints show an ability to stop Dez Bryant. In the midst of a breakout season, the Cowboys’ receiver gashed New Orleans for nine catches, 224 yards and two touchdowns. His chief victim was Patrick Robinson, who allowed 198 of those yards and ultimately surrendered the most yardage in coverage of any defensive back last season. Bryant hasn’t slowed down since then, as he currently has the sixth-highest pass grade of any wide receiver and a stellar 110.6 WR Rating.
Nevertheless, New Orleans has a better chance to limit Romo’s top target this time around. Robinson landed on the bench (and eventually the injured reserve list) earlier this season, and in his stead Keenan Lewis has yet to allow more than four receptions or 44 yards in any game this season. Roman Harper, who earned the worst coverage grade of any safety last season, has been replaced by versatile rookie Kenny Vaccaro. And Malcolm Jenkins, after posting the worst overall PFF grade of any safety in 2012, has returned to respectability in a secondary that has allowed just seven passing touchdowns all season. Veteran cornerback Jabari Greer has suddenly become the weak link of this group, and was beaten for 128 yards and a touchdown by Brandon Marshall earlier this season. That gives the similarly-skilled Bryant some of an advantage, but it’s not as big as the one he enjoyed the last time he played the Saints.
Who Controls The Middle?
The Saints aren’t the only team who is hoping for a better defensive effort than they saw in Week 16 last year. With 253 combined yards from Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, Drew Brees ruled the middle of the field versus Dallas with a 128.7 passer rating on throws between the hashmarks. This season Graham not only leads all tight ends in receiving yards, but his 2.78 Yards Per Route Run make him one of the most efficient receivers in the entire league. Sproles has the highest pass grade of any running back, and we saw the New Orleans offense sputter last week when he left the game with a concussion. Thomas is a solid receiver in his own right and currently leads the NFL in yards after catch.
What Dallas was missing in that game, as it missed for most of last season, was one of the league’s best cover linebackers, Sean Lee. While the Cowboys’ secondary has been a mess at times, Lee has done a solid job of limiting opposing tight ends and running backs. He’s tied for the fifth-highest coverage grade of any inside linebacker, and has notched four interceptions and three passes defensed when targeted. Fresh off a selection to our Midseason All-Pro Team, Lee has been arguably the best all-around linebacker in the NFL this season. Brees may have dominated the middle of the field last time, but Dallas stands a much better chance now with their defensive captain patrolling it.
Follow Pete on Twitter @PFF_Pete