3TFO: Saints @ Cowboys, Week 16
The 8-6 Dallas Cowboys take on the 6-8 New Orleans Saints in a game with huge implications for the NFC East. The last time these two teams met was 2010 in the annual Thanksgiving game in Dallas — and it wasn’t Drew Brees versus Tony Romo, it was Brees vs. Jon Kitna, and the Cowboys still only lost by three points. This year Dallas is 2-1 against the NFC South (only loss in Atlanta), while the Saints are 1-2 versus the NFC East (only win at home vs. the Eagles).
While the Saints have been affected by ‘BountyGate’, the Cowboys have had to deal with tragedy (the Josh Brent incident) and multiple injuries to their defense (including starting ILBs Sean Lee and Bruce Carter). Dallas needs this game to stay in the NFC playoff race, but Brees and company are no pushovers, even with their horrific defense. Here are some key matchups that will determine the outcome of this contest.
Saints Receivers vs. Cowboys Secondary
A key to this game will be how Rob Ryan’s secondary performs against the Saints’ many receiving weapons. Marques Colston has caught eight TD passes and leads the team with 949 yards, while Lance Moore is not far behind with 890 yards, although he has more drops (seven) than TD catches (five). Undrafted free agent Joe Morgan hasn’t gotten more snaps than disappointing tenured Devery Henderson, but is in the process of taking over Henderson’s deep threat role, averaging over 42 yards per catch with three scores (including one of the highlights of the year Week 7 in Tampa Bay). There’s also Jimmy Graham, who’s been plagued by a wrist injury and leads all tight ends in drops (13). Don’t forget backup tight end Dave Thomas (a score in each of the past three games), or shifty running back Darren Sproles.
All eyes will be on Brandon Carr in this matchup. The former Chief had a great performance last week (only 60 yards conceded on 12 targets with two passes defended and the game-winning pick in OT), but has struggled in more than a few games this year. His worst performances came against the Bears, Ravens, and Redskins, and while he’s missed only five tackles in coverage, and surrendered only three TDs, his slip also played a large role in Pierre Garcon’s 59-yard catch-and-run score. The good news is that rookie Morris Claiborne should be back from a concussion this week — he owns the highest coverage grade among Dallas defenders not on injured reserve (+1.2). The lowest grade (-3.8) goes to Mike Jenkins, who has mostly played in the slot and will most certainly be gone in the offseason. The safeties are a mixed bag — Gerald Sensabaugh has been reliable, while Danny McCray has been anything but (he’s been on the wrong end of numerous highlights, including getting juked by Jacquizz Rodgers on a 3rd-and-5 pass at the end of the close Atlanta game).
DeMarco Murray vs. Saints Run Defense
The Cowboys must be grateful to have DeMarco Murray back. Murray is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and has 548 yards on 133 carries, while backup Felix Jones has only 378 yards on 106 rushing attempts. While the sophomore running back hasn’t had a 100-yard game since Week 1, he’s scored in the past three games since returning from injury. He also has a nasty side that is rarely seen from Jones (at 11:31 in the first quarter of last week’s game, watch him drive Larry Foote over 5 yards backwards with a stiff-arm).
Murray will be up against a defense that has been abused all year — but you wouldn’t know it from last week’s game against Tampa Bay. Rookie Doug Martin, currently fifth in the league in terms of rushing yards, was limited to just 16 yards on the ground, though part of that was because he only had nine opportunities. One defender the Cowboys should be concerned about is sophomore former first-round pick Cameron Jordan who, with 30 stops and only two missed tackles in run defense, is tied for seventh among 4-3 defensive ends in our Run Stop Percentage signature stat. Will Smith and Brodrick Bunkley have also been bright spots in this area, but other Saints defenders — especially FS Malcolm Jenkins with 14 missed tackles on running backs — should have a tough afternoon.
Romo vs. Brees
There shouldn’t be any argument that Drew Brees is an elite passer in this league. The same can’t be said about Tony Romo, though he has played well enough at times to perhaps justify being one of the Top 10 passers in football. It’s very possible whoever plays better in this game with emerge victorious, but both signal-callers have given the ball away numerous times this season.
Brees has 36 TD passes and leads the NFL is passing yards (4,335), but he also has 18 interceptions, including that dreadful five-pick performance on the road against the Falcons just three weeks ago. Meanwhile, Romo’s passing yards mark is third-best, although he has fewer scoring passes (22) and nearly the same amount of interceptions (16), while also suffering a five-pick performance (against the Bears in Week 4). He has only one interception in his past three games though, and that was in Cincinnati where he was under heavy pressure (on 23 drop-backs). Who turns the ball over more in this contest?
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