It took me a few days to write about this game because every time I thought about it, I would suddenly get tunnel vision and everything would go red, then black.
Once my rage blackouts subsided, I tried to examine what went wrong this game, and what Dallas did well. It was a combination of the two– some of the Saints’ mistakes were caused by great Cowboys play, and some were self-inflicted.
Let’s look at the major factors in what caused the Saints’ offense to sputter out Thursday night and only score ten points.
Dallas had a great gameplan and personnel for it.
The Cowboys have been focused on adding premium athletic talent on defense in the draft in recent years. 2014 pick Demarcus Lawrence (who the Cowboys traded up for at #34 overall) is playing on the franchise tag and has developed into an All-Pro-level pass rusher. Here are the other top-100 picks they’ve used on defenders who are still on their rookie contracts:
- Byron Jones, CB, 2015 (Round 1, Pick 27)
- Randy Gregory, DE, 2015 (2-60)
- Jaylon Smith, LB, 2016 (2-34)
- Maliek Collins, DT, 2016 (3-67)
- Taco Charlton, DE, 2017 (1-28)
- Chidobe Awuzie, CB, 2017 (2-60)
- Jourdan Lewis, CB, 2017 (3-92)
- Leighton Vander Esch, LB, 2018 (1-19)
Dallas has mostly hit on all of these picks, too. Six of them are full-time starters, Gregory is a substantial contributor, and Lewis had the key interception to end the game Thursday night. (Only Charlton hasn’t made much of an impact yet.)
One common theme here is that almost all of them are astoundingly athletic. Jones is an all-time great athlete. Gregory, Awuzie, and Vander Esch all tested among the top of the league at their positions. Collins tested well above-average for a defensive tackle, with great quickness numbers for a player his size. Smith was an astounding playmaker in college until a severe leg injury nearly cost him his career; he seems to have recovered the athleticism that gave him that ability.
That athleticism showed Thursday night, allowing the defense to keep up with the Saints’ best players. Smith and in particular Vander Esch did great work contianing Alvin Kamara and keeping him from breaking tackles and big plays. Jones played maybe the best game in coverage anyone has all season against Michael Thomas. And the pass rush, particularly Lawrence and Collins, gave Drew Brees difficulty all night; Collins clogged his interior passing lanes and vision, and Lawrence regularly beat Jermon Bushrod and even Ryan Ramczyk for pressures.
The defense made just enough mistakes that the offense couldn’t overcome.
The Saints were generally more successful on the other side of the ball. They sacked Dak Prescott seven times and largely contained Ezekiel Elliott, but two major issues thwarted the Saints just enough to lose: First, they gave up too many third-down conversions (Dallas was 7/14), especially considering how often Dallas was facing a long way to go. Elliott was instrumental in some of these, particularly through the air– he had 6 catches for 60 yards, compared to his 23 carries for 76 yards– but Dak Prescott also had a couple of long scrambles for first downs, and the receivers converted a couple as well.
That leads us into our second problem: Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper largely won their matchups. Eli Apple was the victim early on, as Gallup beat him easily for a big play and several other catches, as well as drawing a few penalties. Cooper caught all eight of his targets despite having Marshon Lattimore shadow him for most of the game; his arrival has provided Prescott with the reliable top target he needs for the offense to function.
Penalties weren’t just a factor early on in the game; the Saints were deflated at the end by two major miscues. A roughing-the-passer call on Vonn Bell on a third-down incompletion extended a Cowboys drive in the red zone with just three and a half minutes left in the game. After being bailed out with a sack-fumble three plays later, Brees threw a baffling interception and the Cowboys got the ball back. Sean Payton called a timeout before the two-minute warning in an attempt to save time, but this turned out to be a mistake because it allowed the Cowboys to throw the ball without fear of stopping the clock. And on that play, Marshon Lattimore committed pass interference in the end zone on Amari Cooper, giving the Cowboys a first down after the two-minute warning with the Saints out of timeouts, ending the game.
The offense made its own share of mistakes.
The pass rush may have had something to do with it, but Drew Brees was off from the start, placing balls low or in uncatchable places in uncharacteristic fashion. Given the receiving crew he was working with, it’s possible his sense of timing was off with young guys like Tre’Quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood. With Michael Thomas largely held in check by Byron Jones, and Leighton Vander Esch keeping Alvin Kamara from breaking big plays, the younger guys would have to step up, and they couldn’t quite get it done.
The Saints’ one goal-to-go possession underlined the problems they had all night on offense. In hindsight– given that the game was 13-10– kicking the field goal seems like the correct decision on fourth down. At the time, though I agreed with going for it. The drive went wrong on two plays in particular:
First, on first down, the playcall is great and executed well, and Brees has Tre’Quan Smith for an easy slant which almost certainly would have scored a touchdown. But Smith drops the ball. (And yes, despite Vander Esch’s hit there, I think that if Smith has the ball secured and isn’t slowing to look for it, his forward momentum carries him through or at least around Vander Esch and into the end zone.)
Then on fourth down, we suffer from a case of a poor playcall and poor execution. For all the effort Payton has gone into incorporating Taysom Hill packages into the offense, he neglected to use it here. Of all the times you’d want an extra man for the run defense to have to account for, fourth and goal in a close game seems like it. Instead, Payton, so often fond of misdirection and creativity on fourth down, ran a relatively straightforward handoff to Alvin Kamara– and not only that, ran behind the left side of the line, which had been struggling with Bushrod starting in place of Armstead. The run was stuffed.
(Ironically, Bushrod does a fine job on the play; it’s Andrus Peat and Max Unger who fail to get any push, and it’s an unblocked Demarcus Lawrence who comes all the way from the back side to finish off the play– probably a sign you shouldn’t leave Demarcus Lawrence unblocked even when you’re running away from him.)
And, of course, Brees’ ball placement on his interception was absolutely baffling, either the result of a total miscommunication or total misfire. Jourdan Lewis makes a great play to secure the ball before it hits the ground, but the pass is nowhere near where Alvin Kamara actually is.
The Saints will bounce back. No winning streak can last forever, and a Thursday game on the road against a young, athletic defense is exactly the sort of matchup that would cause the team trouble. The good news is, despite how badly the game went for the Saints, they still only lost by three points; better execution on as few as two plays (say, Smith catching the slant, and Brees not throwing the interception) and the Saints win.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saints come back fired up against Tampa Bay and try to blow them out. They’re on the road again, but a win would secure the NFC South, and the team must be itching to make a statement after their loss. Terron Armstead is practicing again and Marcus Davenport is off the injury report altogether, so hopefully the team is closer to full strength than it was against Dallas.
The really frustrating part is that even being at 10-2 now puts the Saints behind the Rams for the top seed in the NFC. The Saints can win out against their schedule, I think– beyond the Bucs game, a home-and-home with the Panthers remains, as well as a home game against the Steelers– but I’ll definitely be rooting for the Bears Sunday night, as the Rams’ best chance to lose again this season is in Chicago.