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Saints Pass Defense vs. Cowboys Passing Attack

A slumping New Orleans defense must rise to the challenge of an explosive Dallas offense to keep their dwindling playoff hopes alive.

The New Orleans Saints try to break a four-game losing streak when they host the 7-4 Dallas Cowboys this Thursday night. For the 5-6 Saints to snap their longest losing skid since 2015, they’ll need a much better defensive performance.

New Orleans has struggled all year offensively, but started the season strong on defense before slumping in recent weeks. The Saints rank 12th in overall defense, allowing an average of 22.6 points and 343.7 yards per contest.

The third ranked run defense has continued to be a team strength, despite a recent slump. A pass defense that ranked fifth in 2020 has struggled with consistency and getting key stops all year.

New Orleans now takes on a Dallas team with one of the league's most productive offenses. The Cowboys rank first in total yardage with an average of nearly 420 yards/game and second with 29.6 points/game.

Dallas has an adequate rushing attack that ranks seventh in the league with backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. It’s the explosive Cowboys passing game behind QB Dak Prescott and a deep corps of receivers that gives NFL defenses fits.

With an offense among the league's worst, it’ll be on the shoulders of the New Orleans defense to keep them in the playoff picture against one of the NFL's best offenses.

SAINTS PASS DEFENSE VS. COWBOYS PASSING ATTACK

Dallas receiver Amari Cooper (19) can not make a catch in the end zone against New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23). Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas receiver Amari Cooper (19) can not make a catch in the end zone against New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23). Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans ranks just 23rd against the pass, surrendered an average of 252 yards/game. The Saints have allowed four 300-yard passers. More concerning is that two of those were in losses to mediocre quarterbacks Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones and that Atlanta's Matt Ryan ripped them apart.

Opposing quarterbacks have completed over 64% of their throws against New Orleans coverage, having astonishing success in recent weeks.

The Saints secondary has shut down top wideouts like Green Bay's Davante Adams, Carolina's Robby Anderson, Terry McLaurin of Washington, Seattle's D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, Mike Evans of Tampa Bay, and A.J. Brown of the Titans. They've also allowed big outings to no-name receivers like Marcus Johnson of Tennessee and John Ross of the Giants.

Shutdown CB Marshon Lattimore is among the league's best, but has noticeably slumped over the last month. For the year, Lattimore has surrendered 58.5% completion percentage when targeted. Typically matched up on the opponent's top wideout, Lattimore has broken up 11 throws and has one interception.

Rookie CB Paulson Adebo and veteran Bradley Roby have proven to be a solid complement to Lattimore.

Adebo has started every game and is a physical defender with good man coverage skills. He has allowed a 63.8% completion rate against him, but has 2 interceptions and shows excellent potential. Roby is a proven starter with the ability to play man or zone.

Even with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson on injured reserve, the Saints have three quality safeties with versatility. Veteran SS Malcolm Jenkins is the team’s second leading tackler and has broken up five passes to go with an interception.

New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams (43) makes a game ending interception against the Cowboys. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams (43) makes a game ending interception against the Cowboys. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Williams has terrific range and ball skills from his free safety spot. He has 2 interceptions and is second on the team with 7 passes broken up. Versatile S P.J. Williams has a team-high 3 of the defense's 13 interceptions and is capable of playing in the slot or in deep coverage.

New Orleans has an athletic trio of linebackers who can be a force as blitzers and also dangerous in coverage roles. Rookie LB Pete Werner and veteran Kwon Alexander make plays all over the field. They've turned this position into the strength of the unit. Third-year LB Kaden Elliss provides strong depth.

The leader of the defense, and one of the league's most underrated players, is LB Demario Davis. The team's leading tackler, Davis also has 3 sacks, 7 QB hits, and 4 passes broken up. Davis, Alexander, and Werner can cover any tight end or running back all over the field and create havoc as pass rushers.

Thought to be a strength entering the year, the Saints pass rush has disappeared for key moments of this season. New Orleans has 25 sacks and 73 QB hits. However, injuries and inconsistencies along the defensive line have left their secondary in coverage for too long much of the year.

Fourth-year DE Marcus Davenport leads the team with 5.5 sacks, 4.5 and 8 QB hits in his last three games. Davenport looks like a budding star when healthy. However, he’s missed five contests this season and 17 career games with injuries. A shoulder injury that sidelined him last week has his status in doubt for Thursday.

The Saints may also be without DE Tanoh Kpassagnon (knee) for a second straight outing. Kpassagnon, who has 4 sacks and 11 pressures, was an underrated offseason addition to the defensive front.

Veteran DE Cam Jordan has come alive after a slow start. The 32-year-old Jordan has 4 sacks and a team-high 21 pressures. At this stage of his career, he’s most effective with a disruptive presence like Davenport at the other edge. DE Carl Granderson and DE/DT Jalyn Holmes will see more action if Davenport or Kpassagnon are out again.

Star DT David Onyemata suspended for the first six contests. Without him, the Saints weren't able to generate consistent pressure from tackles Shy Tuttle and Malcolm Roach, who is currently on injured reserve.

Onyemata's return has allowed the defense to pressure quarterbacks from the inside or edge without being forced to blitz. In the five games since his return, Onyemata has just a half sack but 7 pressures. He’s a terrific athlete with amazing strength that can change a game with interior disruption.

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Dallas Passing Game

Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott (4) makes a throw against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott (4) makes a throw against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys have the NFL's third ranked passing attack with an average of over 292 yards/game. Dak Prescott still isn't at full mobility from a gruesome ankle injury in 2020, but has completed 69.4% of his throws with 22 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions.

Prescott has four 300-yard games this season and has the luxury of perhaps the NFL's deepest receiving corps. Six Dallas players have at least 29 catches, with four players over 400 yards receiving.

By contrast, the Saints have only one player with at least 30 receptions, RB Alvin Kamara, and only one receiver with over 400 yards.

2020 first-round choice CeeDee Lamb leads the Cowboys with 50 receptions for 740 yards and 7 touchdowns. Lamb has six games with at least 80 yards receiving, including three 100-yard outings. He missed last week's game with a concussion, but is on track to play against New Orleans.

Veteran WR Amari Cooper has missed the last two games while on the Reserve-Covid list and is questionable to be cleared in time for Thursday. Cooper has 44 catches for 583 yards and five scores and is Prescott's favorite target.

If Cooper is ruled out again, the Cowboys still have plenty of weapons to break a game open. Fourth-year speedster Michael Gallup has missed seven of the first eight contests with injury, but has 13 receptions for 192 yards in the last three games.

Fourth-year WR Cedrick Wilson Jr. has been a consistent presence through the other injuries. A precise route runner, Wilson has 30 catches for 420 yards and three scores this season. Both Wilson and Gallup had 100-yard outings in place of Lamb and Cooper last week. Fifth-year WR Noah Brown has caught 14 passes for 170 yards in reserve duty.

TE Dalton Schultz has become a valued member of the Dallas attack. The fourth-year tight end is second on the team with 47 receptions, totaling 537 yards and 4 touchdowns. Starting RB Ezekiel Elliott continues to be a terrific receiver out of the backfield. Elliott and backup RB Tony Pollard have combined for 67 catches and 484 receiving yards.

The Cowboys offensive line has recognizable names and established Pro Bowl talent. However, they've struggled with injuries at the edge and inconsistencies along the interior. Prescott has been sacked 20 times this year, but been more pressured in recent weeks thanks to a stagnant running game.

Starting RT Terence Steele will miss Thursday's game because of a positive COVID test, but La'el Collins will step back into that spot. LT Tyron Smith and RG Zack Martin are both established Pro Bowlers. Where the Cowboys have had issues is with C Tyler Biadasz and LG Connor McGovern.

What to Watch

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) is sacked by New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata (93). Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) is sacked by New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata (93). Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans held Prescott and the Cowboys offense in check when these teams last met in 2018 and 2019. Dallas scored a combined 23 points in those two meetings, with Prescott getting pressured a total of 21 times. He was sacked 7 times in 2018, a 13-10 Dallas victory.

Cameron Jordan and David Onyemata were especially dominant in those two matchups. Onyemata had 4 sacks and five pressures, including 3 sacks in the 2018 game. Jordan added two sacks and 4 pressures of his own in the two contests.

The Saints will need that same kind of performance again from Onyemata and Jordan, especially if Davenport and Kpassagnon are sidelined. They'll also need a return to form from Marshon Lattimore, who’s struggled in recent weeks.

Lattimore, one of the NFL's top corners, was playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate over the first half of the season. Look for him, Adebo, and Roby to be physical with the star Dallas wideouts at the line of scrimmage. If they are successful, it should alter the Cowboys routes enough to allow extra time for the pass rush.

When Prescott takes shots down the field, FS Marcus Williams must make the proper reads and put himself in position for potential turnovers. Fellow safeties P.J. Williams and Malcolm Jenkins must also play well in deep support for their corners to play more aggressively.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) looks over the New Orleans defense. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY 

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) looks over the New Orleans defense. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY 

Expect Demario Davis and the linebackers to factor heavily in coordinator Dennis Allen's game plan. Davis, in particular, will probably be used on interior blitzes to bring extra pressure on Prescott. They’ll also need to lock up Schultz and the backs on coverage, so the secondary can concentrate on the Dallas wideouts.

Remember that Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy and three offensive assistants won't be at this game because of COVID-19 protocols. Look for Allen to come at Dallas with several different packages, challenging a short-handed Cowboys staff to make in-game adjustments. 

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