SCOUTING REPORT: To lasso the Cowboys and get back to .500, the Saints must stop RB DeMarco Murray and WR Dez Bryant — not just one of them
The chief concern heading into any game is how to take away the biggest threats the opposition presents.
If a team has two great receivers, as the Atlanta Falcons do, sometimes you have to pick your poison or take your best shot and play them honestly. Sometimes, as it did in the Saints’ season-opening loss to Atlanta, the plan backfires, and the secondary players pick apart the rest of the offense.
This week, the Saints will come up against another duo of great players in Dallas running back DeMarco Murray and receiver Dez Bryant. Unlike against Atlanta, the problem won’t be picking which one to stop. They’ll need to take care of both.
“I think it’s a fact that the balance makes it more challenging,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I think that it complements the defense and sets up the down-the-field play-action pass opportunities. Anytime a team is two-dimensional rather than one-dimensional, I think it makes it more challenging.”
Against a team like Minnesota, the Saints could operate primarily out of their base defense and still contain the passing attack with four defensive backs on the field.
Against a team like Dallas, which has a handful of quality receivers and a quarterback in Tony Romo who can air it out, the Saints likely will have to use a good amount of nickel formations. This means there will be one less man in the box, and Murray will have opportunities to run against soft fronts.
If the Saints are unable to contain Murray, who leads the league with 385 rushing yards, everything will become more difficult. Play-action attempts will open up, it will become more difficult to defend against the pass, and it will become more difficult for the defense to rush the quarterback.
“They’re 2-1 right now, so it’s working out pretty well for them,” pass rusher Junior Galette said. “If you run the ball, now you’ve got guys loading the box up because you want to stop the run.
“That’s when a good quarterback turns into an elite quarterback because of the running game.”
Know your opponent: Cowboys WR Dez Bryant
The Saints did a good job containing Dez Bryant during last year’s Week 10 matchup, limiting the receiver to one catch for 44 yards.
The key to shutting down the prolific Bryant was the play of Keenan Lewis. The cornerback shadowed Bryant around the field, lining up across from him on 20 of 27 passing plays. Corey White picked up five snaps on Bryant to start the second half and was targeted once for an incompletion.
Lewis took a physical approach with Bryant, providing tight coverage and jamming him at the line of scrimmage six times. The other key was giving him help over the top. On 12 occasions, the Saints either bracketed Bryant or had a safety shade over to his side of the field.
The approach is different from what we’ve seen out of the Saints cornerbacks this year. The team has favored more zone coverages and often has given the receiver a sizable cushion off the line of scrimmage. New Orleans also has not felt the need to shadow a single player, instead favoring to have the cornerbacks dedicated to defending one side of the field.
But given the success they had against Bryant, it would not be surprising if the Saints take the same approach as last year.
Three and out
1. Turnover battle — Dallas has had trouble protecting the ball this season, and the Saints have struggled to take it away from their opponents. There should be opportunities to force turnovers this week. The defense needs to be ready to take advantage.
2. Colston steps up — It may not be paramount to winning Sunday, but New Orleans needs Marques Colston to show signs of life and put together a consistent performance for the future health of this team. He has had some moments. Now he needs to have a good game.
3. Health at tight end — Josh Hill struggled as a blocker last week. If Ben Watson (groin) misses this game or is hindered at all, Hill is going to need to step up his performance in a big way, or the Saints could have trouble running the ball.
OUT: RB Mark Ingram (hand), S Marcus Ball (hamstring), FB Erik Lorig (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: CB Patrick Robinson (hamstring), TE Benjamin Watson (groin), C Jonathan Goodwin (ankle), LB David Hawthorne (ankle/knee)
-- Robinson missed practice Friday. Watson was limited Thursday and Friday after missing Wednesday. Goodwin missed Wednesday and Thursday and was limited Friday. Hawthorne missed Wednesday and Thursday and was limited Friday.
PROBABLE: LB Curtis Lofton (shoulder)
-- Lofton was on the injury report last week with his shoulder injury, and it didn’t stop him from dominating in Week 3.
QUESTIONABLE: DT Davon Coleman (knee), LB Rolando McClain (groin), DT Terrell McClain (concussion), DT Henry Melton (hamstring), DE Anthony Spencer (knee)
PROBABLE: WR Dez Bryant (shoulder), LB Justin Durant (groin), TE Gavin Escobar (knee), QB Tony Romo (back)
Ramon Antonio Vargas: Saints 31, Cowboys 24
The Saints’ 1-7 record over their past eight regular-season road games coincides with a stark lack of takeaways (five since Week 9 of last year). They’ll find their cure on that matter against a Cowboys team that has turned the ball over seven times in three weeks to pull themselves back to .500 and beat Dallas a fifth time in six tries since 2006.
Nick Underhill: Saints 31, Cowboys 27
It’s a road game. That has been bad news for the Saints dating to last season. If this team is to be taken seriously as a contender, they’re going to need to go on the road and make a statement this week. Losing isn’t an option. A third loss in four games would put the season firmly on the brink. Here’s guessing this team stays on track.
Scott Rabalais: Saints 33, Cowboys 30
Football is a complex game, but often games can be defined by simple issues. Sunday’s game is all about turnovers. The Saints have forced just one turnover in three games. The Cowboys are so mistake-prone they can turn it over before kickoff. The Saints need the Cowboys to help them beat them. Here’s betting they will. It’s just that simple.