At Bleacher Report, I’ve been publishing a ton of Cowboys-Saints material. Here’s part of my game plan for Dallas:
DON’T let tight end Jimmy Graham get off of the line.
If there was any doubt that Graham is the league’s top tight end coming into the season, that doubt has been completely erased. Through eight games, Graham is on pace for a final stat line of 98 receptions for 1,492 yards and 20 touchdowns.
He’s also scored at least two touchdowns in four games this year. One of those contests was against the Patriots, who actually did an outstanding job on both Graham and Brees. The tight end had the two scores, but he caught just three total passes for 39 yards. Brees was held to only a 47.2 percent completion rate and 236 yards on 36 attempts (6.56 YPA).
Using NFL Game Rewind, let’s take a look at how the Pats played New Orleans.
In the third quarter, the Saints lined up in a shotgun spread formation that’s typical for them, motioning Graham prior to the snap.
The Patriots used cornerback Aqib Talib on Graham for much of the game, using him to bump Graham at the line. As Graham would get into his route, he was frequently contacted by a linebacker, as well, as was the case on this play.
Brees had all day to throw because New England rushed only three defenders—a tactic Dallas would be smart to mimic this week. Despite the time, there was nowhere to go with the football. Eventually, the defenders closed in on Brees.
He forced the ball out to avoid the sack, overthrowing Graham for the interception.
Brees and Graham are going to have their moments, but the key to this game for Dallas is doing everything they can to limit the Saints’ other-worldly tight end.
I also explained why the Cowboys need to keep throwing:
The Numbers on the Run/Pass Balance
Against both the San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions, the Cowboys remained relatively balanced early in the contests, only to lose down the stretch. In addition to being a poor running team in general, there are a couple reasons that rushing the ball often is a sub-optimal strategy for Dallas.
First, it shortens the game. The Cowboys have a quality offense and should want to run as many plays as possible in most situations. Running the ball decreases the number of potential plays.
Second, and more importantly, it keeps the game close when it shouldn’t be. We saw that against Detroit, but it was especially apparent last year in Baltimore.
Remember when Dallas ran all over the Ravens for 227 yards?
Many blamed kicker Dan Bailey for missing a last-second field goal for the loss, but the Cowboys shouldn’t have even been in that position. When you run the ball a lot, even if you run it efficiently, it keeps the other team in the game and can result in undeserved losses.
But here’s why we really know the Cowboys shouldn’t seek offensive balance in the traditional sense: It hasn’t worked in the past.
Yes, there are a million stats like “The Cowboys are 20-1 when they run the ball 35 times” or “Dallas is 2-20 when Tony Romo throws the ball more than 40 times,” but that’s only because teams that are already winning run the ball and teams that are already losing must throw it.
Offensive balance is often an effect of winning, not a cause of it.
Instead of analyzing final box scores, we should really be looking at how teams call plays earlier in games and how that affects their results. I’ve done that in the past. From an article on the illusion of balance:
“Since 2008, the Cowboys have won just 27.6 percent of their when they pass on greater than 57 percent of their offensive plays. Wow, better keep it on the ground, right?
Before jumping to conclusions, soak this one in: that rate miraculously jumps to 63.6 percent when the ’Boys pass on at least 57 percent of plays through the first three quarters, compared to only 41.9 percent when they pass on fewer than 57 percent of plays.”
When the Cowboys open up games by throwing, they’re a better team than when they keep it on the ground.
It’s not that offensive balance in the final box score is bad, because that can often signify winning. But really, the way to achieve final balance isn’t by remaining balanced early; it’s through passing efficiently to acquire a lead and then running late to close out the game.
One of the times when the Cowboys (and all NFL teams) should be passing more often is on first down. Check out the Cowboys’ first-down run rate after each quarter.
That final rate of 42.2 percent, while one of the lowest numbers in the NFL, is still much too high. Take a look at the efficiency of NFL offenses on first down runs versus passes.
That’s a pretty dramatic difference. Coaches justify running on first down because it’s safe and it “sets up manageable third downs.”
And finally, I explained what you need to know heading into Week 10:
What Must Improve: Pass Protection
For the third week in a row, my choice for “what must improve” for Dallas is pass protection. Here’s why.
With 22 pressures allowed on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Cowboys had their worst day of pass protection all season. They yielded pressure on a season-high 43.1 percent of pass plays. Their previous season high came just a week earlier with a 40.0 percent pressure rate in Detroit.
The Cowboys allowed three sacks against the Vikings, but based on historic pressure-to-sack ratios, they should have allowed 5.5 sacks. They aren’t going to be able to keep winning if they’re allowing pressure on one-third of their pass plays (or more).
The top player who must improve is right tackle Doug Free. After starting the season on fire, Free has allowed 14 pressures in the past three games. On just 143 pass snaps, that’s a 9.8 percent pressure rate, which is horrific. In comparison, Free allowed a pressure on just 2.8 percent of his pass snaps prior to this rough three-game stretch.
Key Matchup to Watch vs. Saints: Interior Line vs. DE Cameron Jordan
While tight end Jordan Cameron has surprised some people this year, it’s the reverse—defensive end Cameron Jordan—who has really dominated. Jordan is a specimen at 6’4”, 287 pounds with sub-4.8 speed.
Most important, Jordan has ridiculously long 35-inch arms, which is by far the most predictive trait for pass-rushing success. That’s allowed Jordan to dominate as a pass-rusher in 2013, accumulating 26 pressures—more than J.J. Watt and the second most for any 3-4 defensive end in the NFL.
And he’s still just 24 years old, meaning there’s plenty of improvement to come. Take a look at Jordan’s development since entering the league in 2011.
The Saints use Jordan all over the field, so he won’t face off exclusively against the Cowboys interior linemen. Containing Jordan will really be a team effort, although it’s the Cowboys’ weakness—the interior trio of Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick and Mackenzy Bernadeau—that will see the most of him.