It may sound strange for a team that's 6-2, but the New Orleans Saints are now in must-win mode ahead of their tilt with the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. As well as the Saints have played, they have now lost two of their last three contests and are in danger of losing their lead in the NFC South.
The Cowboys (5-4) are erratic as it gets. At times they can look like one of the best teams in the NFL; other times they look like a mid-level college squad. One thing’s for sure: Dallas will always have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL.
For them it's about eliminating mental mistakes and establishing an offensive identity. The Cowboys are one of the rare teams that can execute multiple game plans. They are talented enough to lead the league in rushing as a power-based attack, or they could finesse their way as a high-powered passing attack.
If the Cowboys are firing on all cylinders, they will be the first team that can match, or exceed, the Saints in offensive production.
Interestingly enough, Saints coach Sean Payton was Dallas' play-caller prior to its current head coach Jason Garrett. Both run West Coast offenses infused with vertical concepts, and both like gaining yards in chunks.
Dallas' quarterback Tony Romo is one of the most mercurial players in the entire league. If you ask the average fan, they would say he's not very good. In actuality, he's the fourth highest-rated passer in the history of the NFL (according to Pro Football Reference)!
Romo has a strong arm, uncanny mobility and the ability to improvise like no other. He can be breathtaking in one instance and heartbreaking the next. But one thing's for sure, he's one of the, if not the, most entertaining players in the history of the sport.
Romo's quick release and accuracy allows him to get the ball to one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. Receiver Dez Bryant is the very best at his position. His size, speed and physicality may be superseded only by his versatility.
At 6'2", 222 pounds, Bryant can break your ankles with his agility, or he can break a bone in your chest running you over. There's not a corner on the Saints roster who can match up with him one-on-one.
Or is there?
Saints' corner Keenan Lewis was charged with that task last season as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. At 6'1", 208 pounds, Lewis isn't at a physical disadvantage against Bryant, at least not height-wise.
But ultimately the jury is still out on whether Lewis has much to offer Bryant. In last year's game against the Steelers, Bryant was held to four catches for 59 yards. But it's hard to say how responsible Lewis for containing Bryant, though the corner did have his moments.
Here Lewis breaks up a fade (his only pass defensed of the game). He does a great job at getting into Bryant enough to where the Dallas receiver didn't have room to even attempt to jump. By contrast, Lewis jumps about 50 feet in the air! This was excellent technique against a pattern that's one of the toughest to defend, and especially against a player of Bryant's ilk.
For the majority of the game Lewis played off-man coverage against Bryant. This technique is Lewis' go-to move, but it's also a show of respect for Bryant's speed, which helps Lewis get a jump on downfield passes, something he struggles with to this day.
Here's a clear example of that. Lewis is in off-man, with Bryant running a 9-route. As Bryant eats up the cushion, Lewis fails to get into his hip pocket by positioning the right side of his body against the left side of Bryant's.
By doing this, Lewis would gain the sideline as an extra defender, and he would also put himself in position to get his head around to locate the pass.
Lewis plays this about as badly as you can. He never gets in correct position, which gives the quarterback an opening to make a back-shoulder throw. And Lewis never gets his head around to locate the ball in flight. When the receiver looks, you must immediately look as well.
Lewis is a good player who is one of the best corners in defending the short-to-intermediate game. But his play leaves a lot to be desired the further downfield the play goes. Still, he's taken advantage of some erratic throws, and his overall play has been solid for a team that was in desperate need of help at corner.
Going back to last season's battle, a 34-31 New Orleans win, Dallas had a number of missed opportunities that were due to Romo and Bryant's own mistakes rather than anything a Saints defender did. Romo was running for his life for the majority of the game, something I can see happening again against the Saints.
The Cowboys move their receivers around, so Bryant will be targeted all over the field. Rookie receiver Terrance Williams (28 catches for 477 yards and four TDs) is beginning to blossom into a star in his own right. Williams is a 6'2", 200-pound speedster with superb route-running ability and equally good hands.
I can see him giving the Saints fits much like Chicago Bears' receiver Alshon Jeffery did when he put up 218 yards receiving against New Orleans in Week 5. Making Bryant the focal point of the coverage will undoubtedly lead to one of Dallas' other threats having a big game.
Tight end Jason Witten is every bit as effective as Bryant. Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro will have his hands full if charged with defending Witten one-on-one. Witten's one of the craftiest players in the history of the sport. Despite lacking the athleticism he once possessed, he can, and will, get open with the best of them.
Receivers Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris are viable options if called upon. Fellow receiver Miles Austin used to be one of the league's best receivers, but injuries have diminished his production. It's not clear if Austin will play in this game, but if he does, he's a threat to take over a game if necessary.
The Cowboys have a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde complex. They have the ability—and personnel—to be one of the league's best rushing teams but often simply forget that. Running back Demarco Murray is big, fast and physical in the mold of Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. There aren't too many backs as talented as Murray, but he's often conspicuous by his absence.
When the Cowboys commit to the run, they are virtually unstoppable. They make use of creative play-calling and are good at using a defense's aggressiveness to their advantage. There isn't a team in the league better at running the delayed draw.
The offensive line is athletic and will maul you to death. But similar to the Saints, they can be suspect when it comes to pass protection. Left tackle Tyron Smith, former college teammate of Saints left tackle Charles Brown at USC, will be the best lineman on the field.
Watching Smith go against defenders Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan will be an absolute treat. As will watching defensive tackle Akiem Hicks go to battle with Cowboys center Travis Frederick.
If anyone knows how to slow down the Cowboys it would be Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Ryan was fired (unjustly according to him) by the Cowboys last season after getting only two seasons to implement his scheme.
The Cowboys brass claimed Ryan's scheme was too complex and opted for a simpler approach. Be careful what you wish for.
Dallas runs the least complex scheme in the NFL. Coordinator Monte Kiffin has installed his famed Cover 2 scheme, which has yet to yield the results one would hope for (unless you're Rob Ryan). As strange as it may sound, the personnel fits Kiffin's scheme better than it did Ryan's.
The Cover 2 is about the players; Ryan's multi-pronged attack is about the scheme. Dallas has athletes across the board, and it's only a matter of time before they take to pure zone principles.
The Cowboys defensive line has some extremely talented players on it. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher is not a household name, but after Sunday night...he just might be.
Hatcher (6'6", 299 lbs) is a rare athlete for a man his size. His ability to use finesse and power moves is unparalleled. Saints guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans were humiliated last week by defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson of the New York Jets, and I see that same scenario playing out with Hatcher.
Hatcher has 29 tackles and seven sacks on the season. Fellow tackle Nick Haden is pretty good against the run, but when is the last time the Saints have run the ball?
Dallas end George Selvie is a pass-rush specialist. He once led the NCAA in sacks and was considered a future star. After collecting six sacks thus far in 2013, that time may very well be now. Selvie is as quick as it gets and will give whoever lines up at right tackle for the Saints fits—especially if it's Zach Strief.
Fellow end Demarcus Ware needs no introduction; he's simply the very best at his position. Ware has registered 115 sacks since 2005, which is most overall in that time period. The move from outside linebacker in Ryan's scheme to defensive end in Kiffin's was easy as pie for Ware.
Ware has missed the past three contests but it's looking like he will return just in time for the Saints. You have to imagine Brown is having nightmares as we speak.
Dallas is horrible against the run mainly because its scheme calls for one-gap penetration. Meaning they want all linemen to play the run on the way to rushing the passer. This will be an issue for the Saints as they refuse to run the ball, even though they are horrible at pass protection.
If the Saints ever decide to run the ball, this would be the game to do it.
When they do run, they have to contend with the most athletic set of linebackers in the NFL. Sean Lee, middle linebacker, is the epitome of a Cover 2 linebacker. His speed and playmaking skills are second to none. He brings the thunder when he tackles and can sift out plays in a nanosecond.
Lee currently leads the NFL tackles with 90 and has added an additional four interceptions to boot. Fellow "Will" linebacker Bruce Carter has been a disappointment in the new scheme, but when you're as athletically gifted as he is, it's only a matter of time before you put it all together. Former top-10 pick Ernie Sims is every bit as good as Carter and would be a starter on most teams.
Strong-side linebacker Justin Durant is a solid player in his own right. But most of Dallas' defensive snaps are in nickel coverage, which eats into his playing time.
The corner trio of Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick looks as good as it gets on paper, but looks can be deceiving. Since moving towards the zone scheme, all three have looked completely lost for the most part.
Carr is the best of the three, his experience in the system has made for a smoother transition, but he has given up big plays at an inordinate clip. Last year's first-round pick Claiborne has been the worst. He has been benched and was the subject of trade rumors prior to the deadline.
From a talent standpoint, it's hard to find anyone superior. His size, agility and physicality made him the No. 6 overall pick in last year's draft. His confidence looks to be shaken, and he's right for the picking. A matchup with Saints rookie receiver Kenny Stills would be one to watch.
Scandrick is a speedster who is starting to come into his own. All three are better fits in man coverage but have the talent to adjust to Kiffin's system. Just don't expect it against the Saints.
Cowboy safeties J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church are very effective. But collectively this unit is on pace to break the Saints' record for futility set just last season.
This should be a more competitive contest than people are giving it credit for. Dallas has more talent; New Orleans has the better team.
The fact that it's in New Orleans may be the tipping point.
If you're not following me on Twitter, what are you actually doing?
Follow @ MurfBaldwin