ReFo: Saints @ Cowboys, Week 16
The last time these two teams met, on Thanksgiving Day in 2010, the game came down to a thrilling finish with New Orleans barely pulling out a 3-point win. Likewise, yesterday’s game was competitive from the start as the Saints came away with a 34-31 overtime victory. The Saints won their second consecutive game and looked better than we’ve seen for most of the season. Though they were still mathematically alive coming into the game, it’s disappointing that it’s taken playoff elimination for the team to play up to its talent level.
The failed comeback was devastating for the Cowboys, but fortunately they remain very much alive because a win next week against the Redskins clinches the NFC East and a playoff berth. Before looking ahead to that exciting divisional matchup, let’s examine some key performances in this game.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
While Dez Bryant will surely receive a lot of hype for his performance in a losing effort, we can’t overlook the play of his Saint counterparts in Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham. Colston has had a fairly quiet second half of the season, but he certainly was impactful in Dallas. He caught 10 of 13 targets for 153 yards, none better than at 11:50 of the fourth quarter when he turned a pretty routine third-down completion into 60-yard gain that set up a touchdown on the next play.
Despite his achievements and ability to make some spectacular, acrobatic catches, Colston can also be surprisingly inconsistent, with more drops and fumbles than you would expect. You won’t see many worse drops than at 4:34 of the first quarter, when, with no defenders within 5 yards of him, he tried to turn and run before securing the pass. In overtime, his careless ball handling after the catch turned into a fumble that could have been disastrous. Fortunately for the Saints, neither play was drive-killing; in the case of the fumble, Colston received some help in the form of a big recovery by his teammate that set up the game-winning field goal.
Speaking of that teammate, Graham also played pretty well after a quiet start to the game, catching seven passes for 88 yards. However, like Colston, his play – both in this game and throughout the season – was marred by inconsistency. In addition to two false start penalties, he had an equally baffling drop in the third quarter that extended his season total to 14. With plays like that, it’s easy to see why the Saints have struggled on offense. In the end, though, Graham’s hustle provided the play of the game as his fumble recovery preserved the Saints’ victory drive.
It was not the best day for the New Orleans secondary, and Patrick Robinson (-1.8) in particular had a day to forget. Given the unfortunate task of shadowing Bryant the entire game, Robinson allowed 9-of-12 passes thrown his way to be completed – all but one to Dez – including each of his long touchdowns. And though he did have a big pass break up in overtime, the cornerback allowed a near-perfect QB rating of 156.3. In his defense, he was limited in practice all week with a groin injury, though that shouldn’t pardon him from a poor showing.
Robinson wasn’t the only Saint defender to have problems, as Elbert Mack (-2.7) and Roman Harper (-1.4) each saw their fair share of struggles. Though Mack allowed only three catches for 27 yards, he missed a pair of tackles on big DeMarco Murray receptions. Harper allowed only two passes into his coverage to be caught, but a long pass to Jason Witten put Dallas in the red zone with less than a minute left in regulation.
At Least They’re Consistent
We’ve mentioned Will Smith quite a bit in recent weeks, but he’s worth mentioning again. After his best game of the season in Week 15 against Donald Penn, Smith (-4.1) was back to being all but invisible as a pass rusher against the Cowboys. Despite playing 56 of 58 defensive snaps and rushing the passer a game-high 44 times, he managed just one pressure on Tony Romo. He was thoroughly dominated by Tyron Smith (+4.0), who, after a phenomenal rookie season at right tackle, has had a rough transition to left tackle. The second-year player was so good that he notched his second clean sheet this season, and the first came in a game in which he played only 16 snaps. But as good as Tyron can be, as evidenced by his rookie year, there’s just no excuse for Will not to produce more, especially given the amount the Saints are paying him.
Of course he can’t be entirely at fault when his teammates also are inept at getting to the quarterback. Cam Jordan had an equally poor game, registering no pressure in 39 rushes. Already a solid run defender, Jordan has improved as a pass rusher in his second year – his eight sacks lead the team – but the Saints need more out of a player in whom they invested a first-round pick. We might be beating a dead horse, but the Saints have to find some pass rush going forward. It might help to increase the playing time of players such as Junior Galette, who’s been extremely productive in limited opportunities, and produced a sack, hit and hurry against the Cowboys.
Dallas – Three Performances of Note
The second half of the season has certainly proved the Cowboys right for sticking with Dez Bryant (+4.1) despite his off-field issues. The enigmatic wide receiver has now scored a touchdown in seven consecutive games, following a magnificent performance in which he caught nine passes for 224 yards and a pair of 58-yard touchdowns. On the two second-quarter scoring plays, Bryant put his entire collection of skills on display. He flashed his ball skills on the first by jumping to snatch a deep throw and showed off his impressive strength and speed on the second, turning a short catch on a post into a long touchdown while breaking a pair of arm-tackles in the process. It may have taken a while, but it appears Bryant is finally playing up to his talent level with consistency – a frightening prospect for opposing defenders going forward.
For a quarterback who is routinely criticized for failing in late-game situations, Tony Romo (+3.6) put on quite the show in the fourth quarter. He torched the New Orleans defense for 416 yards and four touchdowns while leading the Cowboys from 14-down to tie the game with less than four minutes left in regulation, and those numbers could have been even more impressive if not for four dropped passes. The much-maligned quarterback certainly quieted some critics with his late-game heroics, avoiding the costly mistakes that have killed him late in past games. Credit the Cowboys’ offensive line, particularly the left tackle, for keeping Romo upright for most of the game. Pressured on 30% of his drop-backs on average this season, Romo faced pressure less than 18% of the time against the Saints. Pressure or not, the two back-shoulder touchdown throws to Dwayne Harris and then Miles Austin to tie the game were as good as it gets.
Often overshadowed by Demarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer is putting together an outstanding season, and entered this game as our highest-graded 3-4 OLB. You certainly wouldn’t know it, however, with the way he played against the Saints, grading negatively overall for just the second time. With Ware limited in this game, Spencer (-4.5) needed to pick up the slack but managed just three hurries in 35 snaps rushing the passer. That was part of an overall weak effort by the Dallas front seven that pressured Drew Brees on just 8-of-53 drop-backs. But beyond the ineffective pass rush, Spencer particularly hurt his team with penalties. In addition to a costly facemask penalty on Brees, Spencer inexcusably jumped offside on fourth down, helping the Saints extend a drive that resulted in a touchdown.
It wasn’t all bad for the Cowboys front seven though, as Jason Hatcher (+4.3) continued his fine season. Our fourth-highest graded 3-4 DE coming into the game excelled in run defense where his four stops were integral in limiting the Saints to just 3.1 yards per carry.
– With fullback Jed Collins out, Dave Thomas played a more prominent role in the Saints’ offense. He played 58% of the team’s snaps, up from his season average of 35.7%.
– Eighteen different Cowboy defenders played at least 20 snaps.
– Just 10 of Brees’ 49 aimed passes travelled more than 10 yards in the air, including just one over 20 yards.
PFF Game Ball
This one goes to Darren Sproles, who provided a dynamic presence for the New Orleans offense.