It was only in part to avoid watching the Tennessee Titans defence for a third week in a row that I decided to watch the Dallas Cowboys defence limit the New Orleans Saints to ten points in their Thursday night win. Mostly I wanted to see how they had managed to tame one of the three elite offences that have so dominated the season so far.
Well it has to be said that the answer to this question was not born out of some complex scheme twist but rather solid play and execution, whilst exploiting one of the traits of the Saints’ offence.
I’ll start with what it was about the Saints’ offence that allowed the Cowboys to match up to them in a relatively straight forward manner, which is that the Saints have one excellent receiver in Michael Thomas, but otherwise the Saints really rely on the abilities of their all-star running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara and a raft of other players but their second receiving threat is probably Kamara.
The Cowboy therefore matched up to the Saints with a mixture of their base 4-3 defence and their nickel sub package, occasionally playing some dime on long third downs.. They generally only rushed four or five players against the pass and rarely used any exotic blitzes, although late in the fourth quarter they did get a sack from corner Anthony Brown who was blitzing alongside Jaylon Smith as Dorance Armstrong dropped into coverage. However, their success was mostly playing man coverage behind a four or five man pass rush and the ability of their linebackers. Now there were some strong moments individually from the linemen and rushing the passer but when facing a quarterback like Drew Brees it is perhaps not surprising that they only sacked him twice and got a couple more quarterback hits. What they did manage was to make him uncomfortable in the pocket and so the Saints couldn’t quite get in rhythm and Brees missed a couple of throws or had them disrupted. There were still moments where Michael Thomas could run a route and Brees would find him but sustaining drives was hard and I don’t remember seeing as many three and outs from the Saints as we did in the first half of this game.
The players that really jumped out at me were the fore mentioned linebackers and in particular rookie Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. For years it has felt like the presence or absence of Sean Lee has defined the ability of the Cowboys’ defence to remain competitive, but that is no longer the case. It looks like Jaylon Smith is finally fit enough to show that he can really play in the league after the knee injury that he sustained in his final college game dropped him out of the first round and some were worried he might never be the same given the nerve damage he suffered and the resultant drop foot. He might not have reached the heights of the player he was in college, but he was on the field for every snap in this game and clearly was a vital part in the communication of the defence. Playing next to him is Vander Esh whose range and ability as a tackler meant that the Cowboys defence was able to contain Alvin Karma to only seventy-two yards of offence, which is no mean feat given the way he has torn through defences this season.
The Dallas Cowboys defence now ranks seventh in the league by DVOA, very much helped by this game with saw them leap up from thirteenth but it seems to have found its way with its linebackers and defensive line rotation . What also helps has been the way the Cowboys have been playing complimentary football as their ability to sustain drives and keep the Saints offence off the field for long stretches of this game kept their defence fresh and able to either contain or at times dominate the Saints offence. I will be interested to see how the Cowboys fare in the coming weeks but if feels they have the momentum to win the division if they can beat the Eagles this week and this season they have the defence to do it.