The Dallas Cowboys are on a three-game winning streak, but they’re about to run into a buzz saw Thursday night. The team will host the New Orleans Saints to cap off a whirlwind of three games in 11 days. Head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees captain an elite offense that’s led them to 10-straight victories.
The Saints offense is as proficient and explosive on the ground as it is through the air. They consistently maul opponents with a beautiful blend of physicality and misdirection. This will be the defense’s toughest challenge of 2018.
Here’s a look at some of New Orleans’ concepts as well as a peek into coach Payton’s likely gameplan for this week.
The Saints do an outstanding job of catching defenses off-guard or forcing them into untenable situations. One of the ways they do this is to pass from run personnel groupings and formations.
From Week 9 to Week 11, New Orleans had 36 plays out of an I-formation. Overall, they ran the ball 27 times, a run tendency of 75 percent.
That’s not surprising since the I-formation is a running alignment. However, of the nine pass plays, seven occur in opposing territory. Based off that three-week sample, 77.8 percent of their I-formation passes happen across the 50-yard line.
Removing goal line plays, New Orleans had 17 I-formation snaps in opponent territory from Week 9 to Week 11. That meant they had a 41.8 percent pass rate when they lined up in the I as opposed to an 85.7 percent run tendency when on their side of the field.
When the Saints have the ball inside Cowboys’ territory, play-action or straight drop back passes are an increasing possibility. Safety Jeff Heath and the linebackers must be on their guard, or they could become victims of plays like the one below.
Speaking of Heath, look for Brees to target the tight ends or receivers guarded by the Saginaw Valley State alum. Although the former undrafted free agent has proven himself to be an athletic playmaker, he can struggle in coverage. A passer of Brees’ caliber shouldn’t have much difficulty placing the ball in a spot only his receiver can reach.
That was the case on this 17-yard catch by Benjamin Watson against the Rams in Week 9. The Saints lined up in a 3×1 set with Watson at the inside slot position. Los Angeles responded with man coverage and put Mark Barron, a current linebacker and former safety, on the tight end. The All-Pro quarterback recognized the matchup immediately and wasn’t fazed.
From the end zone angle, Watson gained inside leverage from the beginning, and Brees threw with excellent ball placement. Barron had no chance to make a play.
The play above could be a regular sight on Thursday unless DeMarcus Lawrence and his fellow Hot Boyz can generate consistent pressure.
As noted by Dallas Morning News contributor John Owning, Byron Jones has excelled covering vertical routes along the sideline. He’s been one of the best cornerbacks in the league in 2018 and team’s have responded by frequently targeting the side of Chidobe Awuzie.
I wonder when teams are just going to stop trying to attack Byron Jones on vertical concepts. Byron Jones does a great job of pinning the WR to the sideline and condensing the throwing window. This one never had a shot.
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) November 24, 2018
If and when the Saints do attack Jones’ side of the field, watch for them to do so on in-breaking and out-breaking routes as well as comebacks or curls. Two good examples come from New Orleans’ domination of the Eagles in Week 11.
On 2nd-and-9 late in the first quarter, wideout Michael Thomas and tight end Dan Arnold executed a curl-wheel combination.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins stayed in phase with the tight end’s wheel route while the cornerback maintained good positioning over the top of Thomas. But the buckeye’s route running and Brees’ timely throw beat him underneath.
Whether the defender is Heath, Xavier Woods or Leighton Vander Esch, whoever carries the route up the sideline should expect to be targeted.
On 3rd-and-2 to start the second quarter, Payton called a sprint right option. This is a West Coast staple and moves the pocket as a means of stifling the pass rush. The front side receivers were covered, but the Purdue alum patiently found rookie Tre’Quan Smith on the back side over route for a gain of nine yards.
Jones and Awuzie should see plenty of these types of routes throughout the night.
Kamara in Motion
A significant part of the Saints’ elite status is due to the talent-laden backfield spearheaded by Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Payton likes to place both runners on the field at the same time and force defenses into a bind. Because Kamara is so adept in the passing game, they could choose to defend out of nickel personnel. But doing so would make it easier for New Orleans to pound the ball on the ground.
As a further means of misdirection, Kamara is often put into jet motion. From here, the Saints can execute a wide array of concepts, both run, and pass.
At Cincinnati in Week 10, the second-year running back gained an easy 14 yards on a jet sweep.
The following week against Philadelphia, Payton regularly sent Kamara jetting across the formation. In the early second quarter, his movement influenced no less than three defenders out of position. This cleared space outside for Ingram who scored on a duo run from 14 yards out.
Near the middle of the fourth quarter, Ingram rumbled for 17 yards on a similar-looking play. This time, Brees flipped him the ball after faking the jet sweep to Kamara.
Here’s an incomplete pass near the goal line from the late first quarter. Notice how the formation and motion are the same or similar to the plays above. Also, notice that these plays are usually run out of a condensed formation. Jaylon Smith and Vander Esch must be on alert when they see this alignment.
Rod Marinelli is well known for his one-gap philosophy along the defensive line. Every practice, he preaches get-off and penetration. One way teams attempt to use that against him is with the trap run.
The trap calls for the offensive line to bypass one or more defensive linemen and immediately take on the smaller linebackers at the second level. At the same time, a blocker traps the initially unblocked defensive tackle. Because the blocker approaches from the side, less strength is required to seal the defender from the play. And when executed properly, the defensive front is caught at an awkward angle.
Watch how the blocks develop as Kamara knifes through the Eagles’ front for 16 yards.
Dallas has been outstanding at stopping these runs in 2018. However, with an offense as explosive and multi-faceted as the Saints, don’t be surprised if they’re gashed once or twice by the trap run.
The Dallas Cowboys have assembled one of the better defenses in the NFL. They’re good, maybe even very good. But they’re not elite.
The New Orleans Saints have powerful weapons and the perfect combination of coach and quarterback to wield them. If DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, and the rest of the defensive leaders can rally their unit to an elite performance, then they’ll have a chance to slow this juggernaut. But they’ll need the offense to keep pace in order to survive this Louisianan maelstrom. As improved as that side has been the past few games, that’s too tall a task for them.
Barring Brees and his teammates having an off night, the likely scenario is Dallas puts up a fight but ultimately sinks beneath a tidal wave of points.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.