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Saints Run Defense vs. Cowboys Rushing Attack

For New Orleans to snap a four-game losing streak and stay in the NFC playoff race, a formidable Saints run defense needs to bounce back after two down performances on Thursday against Dallas.
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The New Orleans Saints (5-6) host the Dallas Cowboys (7-4) this Thursday night hoping to snap a four-game losing streak. It’s their longest losing streak since 2015, tying their longest under coach Sean Payton.

Offensive injuries and ineffectiveness have been major contributors to the team's tumble in the standings. The Saints' staunch defense has also been responsible for key letdowns during the losing streak.

New Orleans ranks 12th in total defense, giving up an average of 343.7 yards and 22.6 points per outing. Their 23rd ranked pass defense has been inconsistent most of the year. More surprising is a slump by their rush defense, typically one of the most dominant in the NFL.

The Saints take on the league's top-ranked offense in the Cowboys. Dallas averages nearly 420 yards and over 29 points per game. They are led by QB Dak Prescott and an explosive group of receivers, but can also attack defenses with a capable rushing attack.

Dallas will be without head coach Mike McCarthy and three offensive assistants because of positive COVID-19 tests. Will the slumping New Orleans defense be able to rebound against them?

SAINTS RUN DEFENSE VS. COWBOYS RUSHING ATTACK

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) fumbles against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) fumbles against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans ranks 3rd against the run, surrendering an average of 92 yards/game and a league-best 3.4 per rush. They held eight of their first nine opponents under 100 yards on the ground. However, the Saints have given up 355 yards rushing in the last two games, including getting gashed for 242 yards by Philadelphia two weeks ago.

When at their best, New Orleans dominates the line of scrimmage with a deep defensive line. In recent weeks, their depth up front has been compromised, with rookie DE Payton Turner on injured reserve and ends Marcus Davenport and Tanoh Kpassagnon being sidelined with injuries.

Neither Davenport (knee) or Kpassagnon (ankle) practiced on Monday, putting their status against the Cowboys in question. Backup LB Kaden Elliss was also held out of practice with a knee injury.

Pro Bowl DE Cam Jordan is one of the league's best edge defenders against the run. If Davenport or Kpassagnon misses another week, DE Carl Granderson and DE/DT Jalyn Holmes have to hold up as run defenders on the other edge.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) is tackled after short gain by the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) is tackled after short gain by the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Interior push is a key to the Saints' success against the run. Athletic DT David Onyemata has a rare combination of strength and explosiveness and plays with excellent leverage to beat double-team blocking.

Shy Tuttle doesn't offer much as a pass rusher but is an excellent complement to Onyemata against the run inside. With DT Malcolm Roach on injured reserve, the depth here is thin with Christian Ringo and undrafted rookie Josiah Bronson.

New Orleans has an outstanding crew of linebackers who play with good awareness, strength at the point of attack, and athleticism in space. Demario Davis is one of the NFL's best all-around defensive players and captains the defense.

Davis leads the team in tackles by a wide margin and has a team-high 11 of the unit’s 62 tackles for loss. He has elite instincts that allow him to diagnose plays and explode into opposing backfields.

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Veteran LB Kwon Alexander and rookie Pete Werner make plays all over the field alongside Davis. The athleticism of all three linebackers makes it tough for backs to get to the outside, with the strength of the entire front seven making yards tough to get between the tackles.

Veteran SS Malcolm Jenkins leads an active secondary that’s aggressive in run support. Jenkins, the team's second-leading tackler, often acts as an extra linebacker inside the tackle box.

Corners Marshon Lattimore, Paulson Adebo, Bradley Roby, and P.J. Williams cut down runners along the line of scrimmage as they get to the edge.

Dallas Running Game

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs the ball against New Orleans. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs the ball against New Orleans. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys' rushing attack averages 107.3 yards/game, ranking 13th in the league. Dallas started the year strong on the ground, averaging over 164 yards in their first six outings. They've been held under 100 yards four times in their last five contests and have averaged only 83.2 yards on the ground.

Six-year veteran RB Ezekiel Elliott leads the team with 720 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 4.5 per carry. Elliott had three games with at least 95 yards in the first six contests but only one game of over 50 yards in the last six.

Hampered by a knee injury, Elliott hasn't shown his normal burst and has seen his workload reduced. Third-year RB Tony Pollard, a dangerous kick returner, has split time with Elliott in recent weeks.

Pollard doesn't have Elliott's power between the tackles but has game-breaking explosiveness in the open field. He has one 100-yard outing and is second on the team with 531 yards rushing while averaging 5.3/carry.

Dallas has a big and physical offensive line capable of clearing out space for Elliott and Pollard. LT Tyron Smith and RG Zack Martin are two veteran Pro Bowlers. Second-year C Tyler Biadasz and LG Connor McGovern are better run blockers than pass protectors.

The Cowboys will be without McCarthy and three offensive coaches because of Covid and starting OT Terence Steele. La'el Collins is expected to start at right tackle after returning from a six-game league suspension last week.

What to Watch

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) versus New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) in the open field. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) versus New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) in the open field. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY

Dallas has one of the league's best passing attacks with Dak Prescott and his playmaking receivers. However, opposing pass rushers have been able to tee off on Prescott because of the Cowboys inability to run the ball over the last five weeks.

If either Marcus Davenport or Tanoh Kpassagnon can play, it would be a big boost to the defensive front. Even without them, the Saints have the defensive personnel to shut down the run. Depth could be a concern if the Cowboys can the control time of possession.

New Orleans hasn't played up to their usual standard of run defense over the last few weeks. A struggling pass defense could also have its hands full against Prescott and the Dallas passing attack.

For the Saints to have any hope of ending their losing streak and staying in the playoff race, they'll need to win control of the line of scrimmage and shut down the run to make the Cowboys one-dimensional. 

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