WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Superdome
RADIO: WWL-AM, 870; WWl-FM, 105.3 in New Orleans; KMDL-FM, 97.3 in Lafayette; WDGL-FM, 98.1 in Baton Rouge
RECORDS: New Orleans 0-3; Dallas 2-1
COACHES: Saints, Sean Payton, 10th season (80-50); Cowboys, Jason Garrett, sixth season (42-32)
LAST WEEK: Despite all the injuries, Dallas jumped out to a 28-14 lead against Atlanta in the first half on the strength of its offensive line and running game, but the Cowboys’ defense capitulated, and the Falcons reeled off 25 unanswered points to hand Dallas its first loss in a star-crossed season so far.
Offense: Without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, the vertical element disappeared from the Dallas offense on Sunday, robbing the Cowboys of the run, play-action game that made their offense so dangerous in 2014. Brandon Weeden completed 22 of 26 passes, but he rarely tested Atlanta’s secondary vertically. Weeden completed 12 passes to running backs, six to tight ends and four to receivers, all but ignoring Terrance Williams, a proven deep threat who was targeted just twice. Instead, Weeden’s top receivers are third-down back Lance Dunbar (10 catches for 100 yards) and banged-up tight end Jason Witten (six catches for 65 yards). Witten, in particular, will pose a problem for a Saints defense that has given up big plays to both Arizona’s Darren Fells and Carolina’s Greg Olsen.
The Dallas offensive line remains powerful, but without DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys haven’t been as devastating on the ground so far this season. Dallas ranks 16th in the NFL in rushing at 105.3 yards per game, and despite some early fireworks against Atlanta, Joseph Randle — Murray’s replacement — is averaging just 4.2 yards per carry.
DEFENSE: Absence has affected the Dallas defense, too. Defensive end Greg Hardy and linebacker Rolando McClain remain suspended. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick and defensive end Randy Gregory are battling injuries. Without Hardy and Gregory, the Cowboys have just three sacks on the season, but the Dallas defense is still ranked No. 8 in the NFL, largely on the strength of a secondary that has held opponents to 6.4 yards per attempt. With the other big names out, weakside linebacker Sean Lee has been the star, producing 33 tackles, a sack and an interception.
But the Cowboys’ defense may have been exposed against Atlanta. The Falcons threw for 280 yards, rushed for 158 and generally overwhelmed the Cowboys. Without Hardy, Gregory and possibly Jeremy Mincey, the Dallas front four may be susceptible, provided that the Saints account for Lee’s whereabouts. When the Cowboys haven’t been playing the Eagles, the defense has looked merely average.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Dan Bailey is one of the NFL’s best, and punter Chris Jones has averaged 48.4 yards per offering so far, booming kicks that can be a field-position weapon. Kick returner Lance Dunbar, averaging 25.8 yards per return, is dangerous, but punt returner Cole Beasley has been pedestrian so far, averaging just 3.6 per return.