Raise your hand if you saw that loss to the Cowboys coming. Anyone?
After a few close calls the last couple of weeks, the Cowboys put together a complete game against the Saints and gave them their first loss of the season. Why? How did the struggling Cowboys come to the Superdome and beat the mighty Saints?
It basically came down to two things-
1. The injury bug finally caught up with the Saints.
2. Dallas finished what the Redskins and Falcons couldn’t do. All three teams knew how to beat the Saints, but Dallas had the right personnel and finished the job they started.
Of course we all know the Saints have been hit pretty hard by the injury bug all season. This has changed the way the Saints have had to play, especially on defense.
For example, losing Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter has effected the way the Saints have had to play defense completely. Both Porter and Greer are excellent one on one defenders. Malcolm Jenkins, Mike McKenzie, Chris McAlister, Pierson Prioleau, and Randall Gay have been good enough at times, but they all have their faults. Jenkins is a rookie. McKenzie, McAlister, and Prioleau have been slowed by age and injury. Gay is getting back into game shape after losing time with a hamstring injury. To cover up for his battered secondary, Gregg Williams has called for a lot more Cover 2 than he had earlier in the season. What does that mean for the safeties? It means they are no longer allowed to be ball hawks, to run more freely in the secondary, dissect the play and break to the ball. They now have to play more like centerfeilders back there, waiting and watching for the action to come their way before they can make a play. That does not play to Darren Sharpers’ strengths. He can not sit back and watch and make plays like he used to. Is it a coincidence that he only has one interception (against NE) since Greer went down?
Starting DT Sedrick Ellis did not play against the Cowboys Saturday due to the lingering affects of an MCL sprain earlier in the season. The Cowboys ran well between the tackles, or right where Big Sedrick would have lined up. Ellis is by far the Saints’ best run stuffer and athletic tackle. He demands an opposing teams’ attention because he can be a productive blitzer as well. Double teaming Ellis means that there is one less lineman to protect the quarterback, which helps a blitz happy defense like the Saints. Is it a coincidence as well that the Saints run defense has allowed more yards in the five games Ellis has missed this season than in the eight games Ellis finished? In the five games Ellis has sat out, the Saints have allowed 748 yards rushing, or 149.6 per game. In the 8 games Ellis has played (not including the Miami game he got injured in), the Saints have given up 716 yards, or only 89.5 yards per game.
The loss of Jeremy Shockey affected some of the things the Saints could do offensively. A tight end like Shockey who can block and catch can help break down a 3-4 defense like the Cowboys. A 3-4 defense depends on linebackers to create pressure on the quarterback. If the tight end has the ability to run routes and catch the ball effectively, it is often a linebacker who has to cover the tight end. The Saints love running plays out of a two tight end set because they have the personnel to do almost anything with the formation. The tight ends can both be extra blockers on a run or recievers on a pass or one can go for the pass while the other stays in protection. They missed the big physical Shockey in the running game. Once the Saints fell into an early hole, they got away from the running game. This meant the Cowboys could come after Drew Brees with the Saints becoming one-dimensional. Again Shockey was missed in pass protection. He provides help for OT Jermon Bushrod, the weak link on the offensive line. It was Bushrod who was beaten by DeMarcus Ware on Ware’s sacks of Brees.
The other element to the Saints’ loss was the solid game plan and its execution from start to finish by the Cowboys. At this point of the season, every aspect of every team has been looked at and analyzed. By now, we know what every team’s strengths and weaknesses are. The Saints are no different. The Cowboys, Falcons, and Redskins knew how to beat the Saints-keep Brees and the offense off the feild by establishing the run, find the holes in the depleted secondary and keep Brees and the passing game off balance. Only the Cowboys had the personnel to keep the pressure up for the entire sixty minutes.
The Cowboys’ offensive and defensive lines dominated the Saints lines for most of the game. Dallas boasts the biggest offensive line in the NFL and they were able to get a good push in the interior of the Saints’ defensive line. This opened up holes for Marion Barber between the tackles and were able to seal the edges for Felix Jones to run free in the open field.
Often times, Tony Romo looked like the All-Pro quarterback in the Dome. His line’s play allowed him to torch the Saints for 312 yards and time to make several key third down conversions. For the game, the Cowboys converted 8 of 15 third down attempts. By comparison, the Saints only converted 1 of 7 third down conversions on the night.
The Cowboys jumped on the Saints early and forced them to depend on the pass to get back in the game. This allowed for more opportunities for the Cowboys’ rushers to get after Brees. The Cowboys’ secondary did a good job of jamming the Saints’ recievers and disrupting the passing game. By the time the Saints figured out the Cowboys’ secondary by throwing short in the second half, it was too late. Together, the Cowboys defense held the Saints passing attack in check.
The Saints did not execute well in all three phases of the game. The Saints completed 0 of 8 passes of 15 or more yards, including several dropped balls. They committed more penalties than usual. The defense missed to many tackles or were just a step out of position. However, despite all the mistakes the Saints had made, they still had a chance to tie at the end.
Should we worry about this loss? Not really. True, the Cowboys have developed a gameplan to beat the Saints, which will no doubt be copied by other teams around the league. But I don’t think any other team in the NFC has the team the Cowboys has.
At least now, the pressure of going undefeated is off the team’s shoulders. Often times I felt the Saints played not to lose last night. Now, the team can refocus on the next game and not worry about the media circus surrounding the pursuit of perfection.
And I feel pretty good about our team if it can get healthy. The healthy team we saw at the start of the season is a championship caliber team. A Saints win next week assures them of home field advantage throught the NFC playoffs, which means the Saints might be able to rest more players earlier to get them fully healthy for the playoff run.
Next up for the Saints..the Tampa Bay Bucanneers..and that just may be what the doctor ordered.