COWBOYS at SAINTS
7:30 p.m. Sunday, Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Radio: WWL-AM, 870; WWL-FM, 105.3; WDGL-FM, 98.1; KMDL-FM, 97.3
Favorite: Saints by 3
Top storyline: It’s time for the Saints to let C.J. Spiller loose
Sean Payton admitted earlier this week that he made a mistake during last week’s loss to the Panthers.
Fourteen snaps wasn’t nearly enough for C.J. Spiller. Not when team made such an investment in him and had big hopes for how he was going to be used.
“You want to get him opportunities in space,” Payton said. “I think he is a player that can square up the defense and bound in either direction, and kind of circle the defense.”
The Saints tipped their hand a bit in what their vision is for Spiller. He split out as a receiver on a handful of snaps and ran a variety of patterns out of the backfield, including a wheel route that resulted in a 19-yard gain.
Spiller said he isn’t bothered by how he’s being used. He will look to take full advantage of whatever opportunities he’s given.
“Every time I step on the field, it’s ‘What can I do to have an impact on this play?’ ” Spiller said. “If it’s running the ball, being a decoy or whatever the case may be, carrying out a fake, how can I affect the defense so we can be more successful?”
Some of the reason for the slow start is the time he missed during training camp with a minor knee surgery. The time off meant the team couldn’t install everything they wanted with him in the offense and stunted his ability to develop chemistry with his quarterbacks.
Because of that, the process is ongoing, and Spiller expects his role to evolve over the coming weeks. But things are starting to ramp up, and Spiller should have an expanded package of plays this week.
Spiller said his settling-in process is still taking place in both the running game and passing game. He’s still figuring out where to keep his eyes and get the timing of the offense down.
But those things are all coming. Spiller feels ready. Payton feels ready. This could be the week that it all starts clicking. Once it finally does, the Saints will have an element in their offense that has been lacking since Darren Sproles was traded away.
Know your opponent
Cowboys TE Jason Witten
What matters here isn’t necessarily what the opposition is capable of doing. It’s more about the Saints’ execution against tight ends. New Orleans tried to contain Panthers tight end Greg Olsen with zone coverage. It didn’t work, and he methodically picked apart the defense for 60 minutes. That can’t happen again. The Saints need to man up on Witten with safety Kenny Vaccaro and cornerback Brandon Browner.
Cowboys LB Sean Lee
The linebacker has excelled in coverage this season and even recorded a sack last week against the Falcons, his first as a professional. If the Saints look to use their running backs in the passing game, as they typically do, they’ll likely have to find a way to avoid Lee. He’s tough in the flats and excels when playing in space. They’ll also have to keep an eye on him in the running game.
Cowboys RB Joseph Randle Losing DeMarco Murray hasn’t really hurt the Cowboys much. Randle has stepped into the void and is fresh off an 87-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Falcons. That could be bad news for a Saints run defense that has allowed some big plays. Darren McFadden also figures in the mix at times, so the Saints will need to toughen up and hold their own against this rushing attack.
1. Brees back? Sean Payton said he expects to have his starting quarterback back on the field this week. If Drew Brees plays, the big question will be how effective he can be and whether he’s limited in any way. If Brees has to hold back a little, the Saints need to be smart and work within those limitations. Don’t push it.
2. Byrd up? Jairus Byrd also appears to be on his way back to action, which will put the Saints one step closer to fielding the team it designed during the offseason. If Byrd plays, it’s likely that he will be on a snap count of some sort until he works back into shape. Perhaps he only plays in nickel and dime packages.
3. Keenan back? There’s a theme developing here, and it’s that the Saints appear to be the healthiest they’ve been all season. Like Byrd, if Lewis plays, it’s likely that he’ll be limited to sub-packages until he’s fully up to speed following sports hernia surgery. Getting him back will be big for the defense.
4. Browner’s role If Lewis is limited, it wouldn’t be surprising if he plays in the base defense and gives way to Lewis in nickel packages. In dime, he could be tasked with covering Dallas tight end Jason Witten. The Saints have had issues covering tight ends, namely Carolina’s Greg Olsen. This would be one way to get everyone on the field.
OUT: G Jahri Evans (knee)
PROBABLE: QB Drew Brees (right shoulder), S Jairus Byrd (knee), LB Dannell Ellerbe (toe), CB Keenan Lewis (hip)
Brees practiced throughout the week, and it would be a bit of a surprise if he does not play after coach Sean Payton said he expects the quarterback to be on the field.
This is the healthiest the Saints have been all season, and getting back Byrd, Ellerbe and Lewis would be a big step for the defense.
It’s unlikely that any of the players will be used fully this week, but simply having them as options will help a young unit that struggled last week against the Panthers.
With Evans out, Senio Kelemete likely will start in his place. Kelemete performed well against the Panthers.
OUT: WR Dez Bryant (foot), DE Randy Gregory (ankle)
PROBABLE: G Ronald Leary (groin), DE Ryan Russell (groin), LB Kyle Wilber (hamstring), TE Jason Witten (ankle/knee), DE Jeremy Mincey (concussion), CB Brandon Carr (not injury-related), LB Andrew Gachkar (foot)
Nick Underhill: Saints 24, Cowboys 20
My natural inclination is to not pick the Saints until they actually win a game. But this is likely to be Drew Brees vs. Brandon Weeden. My mother didn’t raise a fool. You have to take Brees and the Saints in this equation.
Joel A. Erickson: Saints 23, Cowboys 20
New Orleans catches a break. Dallas, without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, had its defense exposed a bit last week by Atlanta. More importantly, Brandon Weeden offers the Saints’ defense a chance to work its veterans back into the rotation without much danger.
Scott Rabalais: Saints 24, Cowboys 22
The folks at NBC probably wish they had a mulligan for their “Sunday Night Football” pick. That said, they still may get a dramatic battle. I like the Saints to end their home/2015 skid with Drew Brees or Luke McCown.