There are no signs of slowing down for this 2018 New Orleans Saints team. As fantastic as the offense has been, a lot of credit for this success falls on the defensive side of the ball. That’s something that has not been said often in this 14-plus year Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. Fortunately, since the beginning of last season, the defense has made long strides to improve and become one of the best in the NFC.
Unlike 2017, the New Orleans defense has passed some difficult tests in 2018. Instead of falling to the Rams like they did a year ago, the Saints took care of them 45-35 this season. They were also able to sweep the Falcons, instead of splitting the season series, including a 43-37 shootout win in overtime in Week 3. The Saints also handled the defending Super Bowl Champs in 2018 (Eagles) much better than they did in 2017 (Patriots). But, arguably, their biggest test as a team this season awaits them Thursday night in Arlington.
Even though the Dallas Cowboys are just 6-5 on the season, they sit atop the NFC East division riding a three-game winning streak. They’re hot, and hosting the ball game, making this game already interesting enough. Add on the surgence of top runningback Ezekiel Elliot, resurrection of quarterback Dak Prescott, and the playoff implications, and we have one of the best Thursday night matchups this season. If the Saints win, and the Panthers lose or tie against Tampa Bay, then New Orleans will officially clinch the NFC South crown in Week 13. Here are three keys to victory if the Saints want to do their part for that equation.
Proving to be the number one rush defense
Outside of Saquon Barkley and Todd Gurley, the Saints have not faced a top-tier runningback thus far in 2018. Even against those two, the defense gave up a total of 112 yards and two touchdowns. Those weren’t flukes, either: the Saints have had the number one rush defense for just about the entire season now. All across the board, New Orleans’ numbers prove the dominance we have all seen. They lead the league in rushing yards per game sacrificed (73.2), attempts (224), total rushing yards allowed (805), and they are second behind Chicago in yards per attempt (3.6).
For the Cowboys offense, fourth-year runningback Ezekiel Elliot has turned into the top-five player at his position most expected him to become. Currently, Dallas is sixth in the NFL in total rushing yards with 1,479, and their 11 rushing touchdowns rank ninth. 1,074 of those yards and six of those touchdowns come via Elliot. He just barely leads the league in yards over Gurley, and ranks tied-seventh in touchdowns.
So, New Orleans is facing a prominent, but not completely dominant, rushing team this week. With Dak Prescott’s matchup against the Saints secondary unpredictable, the Saints will need to make sure they continue to excel at stuffing the run. If so, that will put them one step closer to clinching a playoff spot come January.
Protecting Drew Brees from a top defensive line
This was an important factor even before left tackle Terron Armstead was ruled out for the third consecutive game (pec). Luckily, defensive tackle David Irving’s absence for Dallas comes close to cancelling that out, but the Cowboys are still loaded. Besides Armstead, the rest of the Saints’ offensive line is in great health, and backup Jermon Bushrod is a veteran that can handle his own. The Saints were able to do a great job the last two games with Armstead absent, but they will face an entirely different test this week.
If defensive end Demarcus Lawrence’s comments from earlier this week are accurate in any fashion, the Cowboys frontline will be coming after Drew Brees non stop. The Cowboys are hungry, especially that defensive line, which features Lawrence along with Randy Gregory and Tyrone Crawford. On the season, the Cowboys tank 12th in the NFL in total sacks (31.0). For reference, the Saints are right behind them at 13th with 30.0 sacks in 2018.
Tied with Indianapolis for least sacks sacrificed on offense (11) lies New Orleans. It will be extremely difficult to slow this offense down, especially if the main pipeline for that is getting to Brees in the backfield. However, protecting the future Hall of Fame quarterback should be the number one priority of the offense regardless, so let’s hope that is the case on Thursday.
The NFL has never seen a third string quarterback quite like Taysom Hill before. The NFL hasn’t seen ANY player like Hill, if we’re being honest. Name me another player who takes significant snaps on special teams, has pages worth of offensive plays that run through him, gets the chance to throw the ball like a quarterback and run the ball like a power back. Hill does it all, especially working the run-pass-option set for the Saints offense.
Don’t be surprised if that exact play is ran ten or so times on Thursday. As stated before, the front-seven for Dallas is monstrous, and extremely skillful. It would be smart if Brees took some more plays off to let the defense become concerned about Hill and the many possibilities he brings in shotgun. Whether Hill keeps the ball a majority of the time, or hands off to Kamara, his placement in the game will refresh the offense and keep the Cowboys on their toes.
If Sean Payton can implement a couple of passes by Hill as well, a play or two could break open for the Saints. All of that combined with Hill’s tackling ability on special teams could result in a 7-14 point swing, which is absolutely huge in a primetime game such as this.