SAINTS // COWBOYS OVERVIEW
The first-place Saints will take their 10-game win streak on the road this Thursday night against the “first-place” Cowboys and their three-game win streak (fifth longest in the NFL at the moment) — and these teams are a lot more similar in the way they approach their games than most probably realize. The Cowboys rank 25th in pace of play, which would not surprise most — but the Saints rank even lower, at 30th (and contrary to the argument most would make: they rank 31st in situation-neutral pace of play). The Cowboys are one of the run-heaviest teams in the NFL, ranking 27th in pass play rate, while the Saints (as you surely know by now — subscriber to this site that you are) rank 30th in pass play rate. These teams both rank in the top five in run defense, introducing some interesting elements. When these teams pass, neither focuses on a downfield approach, with Drew Brees producing the eighth lowest average depth of target in the NFL, and with Dak Prescott producing the 10th lowest.
Of course, the similarities end when we get to the efficiency portion of the conversation, as Brees is completing 76.4% of his passes (compared to 65.2% for Dak), and he has 29 touchdown passes and only two interceptions (compared to 13 touchdown passes and five interceptions for his counterpart). The Saints are 100% capable of dominating games when forced to win through the air. For the Cowboys, this can be a struggle.
I tried to guess the Vegas numbers in this game before looking, and off the top of my head I came up with New Orleans -9.0 with an Over/Under of 49.0. I wasn’t far off. New Orleans is favored by 7.0 on the road, and this game opened with an Over/Under of 51.5. Each team will benefit from a full week to prepare, as each played last Thursday as well. This strongly favors the superior coaching staff of the Saints, and even with this game being on the road, they project to be the team that dictates how this game shapes up.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE
The (incorrect) public perception of the Cowboys is that they boast a tough pass defense — but realistically, this pass defense is extremely similar to the Colts, who we have likened all season to a better version of the Bucs, with Tampa 2 concepts that aim to force shorter throws and tackle well after the catch. In fact, the Bucs and the Colts are the only teams in football that allow a higher catch rate than the Cowboys — a setup that could not play more perfectly into what the Saints aim to do: primarily working the short areas of the field with a crisp, precision-oriented attack that mixes in a few downfield throws each game with an otherwise “march the field” set of route combinations and passes.
The key piece in this attack for the Saints is Michael Thomas, whose targets have suffered as a result of the Saints taking the air out of the ball so early in games the last three weeks (three straight blowout wins). Through 11 games, Thomas already has five games with five or fewer targets. (Last year, Thomas had only one such game — with only two games all year below eight targets.) If the Cowboys fail to keep this game competitive, Thomas’ volume will likely suffer once again — and with a maximum of one downfield target most games, this would put him at high risk of price-considered disappointment. Thomas has only one game in over two months of double-digit targets, and that came in the back-and-forth affair with the Rams. That was also his only game with more than 92 receiving yards since Week 3. Bolstering Thomas’ upside is a big red zone role, as only three players have more red zone targets than Thomas, and only one player has more targets inside the 10.
The major value that Tre’Quan Smith brings to this offense is his ability to work a defense deep, which meshes poorly with a Dallas team that has allowed the third fewest pass plays in the league of 20+ yards. Matchup hardly matters for a Brees-quarterbacked offense, but the likelihood of Smith seeing a spike in downfield targets is low in this spot. He’ll likely need to do damage on shorter throws or on limited downfield looks. As he showed against Washington a few weeks back (3-111-2 on only three targets), he still carries upside if volume slips, but the floor obviously becomes low.
Making this game difficult on the Showdown is the fact that this team spreads the ball around with the best of them, as Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr, both running backs, and all three tight ends are involved in the pass game — and as we saw on Thanksgiving, Brees can pile up four touchdown passes to four otherwise-fantasy-irrelevant players. Carr is a slot receiver who has contributed only nine catches for 97 yards all season, in spite of two touchdowns across the last two weeks. Kirkwood has played 55 out of 127 offensive snaps for the Saints the last two weeks (43.3%), running 12 and 18 pass routes. He has seen five and three targets the last two weeks and is a low-floor, bet-on-touchdown play. Josh Hill (31 snaps last week // eight pass routes // zero targets), Benjamin Watson (18 snaps last week // nine pass routes // two targets), and Dan Arnold (12 snaps last week // 11 pass routes // six targets) continue to split time. Don’t read too much into Arnold’s target spike last week, as the Saints are one of the more opponent-specific offenses in the league, and either he or Watson could see a spike in work on a given week.
There is a case to be made that Sean Payton and Drew Brees (who care about stats and records more than just about any other coach/QB tandem in the NFL) are trying to win the NFL MVP for Brees this year (an award he has, incredibly, never won before), which could continue leading to more passing touchdowns than rushing touchdowns for this team, even as passing volume remains limited. That should not be a major contributing factor in roster decisions, as it is merely conjecture, but it is at least interesting to note, with Brees tossing 11 touchdown passes across the last three weeks on only 77 attempts.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE
The Cowboys have presented one of the most challenging run defense matchups in the NFL, but they have been extremely easy to beat through the air, with the eighth most receptions allowed to the running back position, on a completion rate of 83.5%. With the Saints deploying one of the most creative run schemes in the NFL and ranking top three in adjusted line yards, this offense should still be able to produce at least acceptable numbers on the ground, but this would also be a good spot for the Saints to pull Alvin Kamara back up to the four to five targets he had been seeing since the return of Mark Ingram (instead of the target counts of 1 // 1 that he has across the last two weeks).
Here are the updated snap numbers for Kamara // Ingram since the latter’s return:
Kamara — 31 // 39 // 38 // 41 // 34 // 44 // 37
Ingram — 36 // 35 // 23 // 34 // 31 // 30 // 27
Kamara has 94 carries and 26 targets in this stretch. Ingram has 90 carries and 15 targets. Kamara is the more explosive back, giving him more upside, but the gap is much closer than most people think (there are a lot of fantasy and NFL writers with a lot of time and energy and public outspokenness invested into the idea that Kamara was “the guy” in New Orleans this year, and that Ingram would be nothing more than a back-burner piece — and these people have had a hard time moving off this position, which is affecting the way that most of the fantasy world is perceiving this backfield). Each guy has a shot at explosive plays and touchdowns in this high-powered offense. Kamara has a higher chance of posting a big game, and with his larger pass game role, he is less likely to dud.
COWBOYS PASS OFFENSE
In four of their last five games (with only the game against the Rams left out), the Saints have recently held the Falcons to 17 points, the Eagles to seven points, the Bengals to 14 points, and the Vikings to 20 points — but this has not impacted wide receiver production as much as some might assume, with highly efficient stat lines allowed across their last five games of:
11-147-0 on 14 targets to Julio Jones
4-74-0 on four targets to Mohamed Sanu
8-93-1 on 13 targets to Calvin Ridley
3-65-0 on four targets to Tyler Boyd
6-114-1 on eight targets to Brandin Cooks
5-89-1 on six targets to Cooper Kupp
5-71-0 on nine targets to Robert Woods
7-103-1 on seven targets to Adam Thielen
10-119-1 on 11 targets to Stefon Diggs
Only the Eagles receivers have been shut down by the Saints across their last five games, and as one of the man-heaviest coverage teams in the NFL, there will be opportunities for Amari Cooper to shine in this spot as the only receiver for the Cowboys to heavily target. Outside of his five-target Week 11 dud, Amari has target counts with the Cowboys of 8 // 10 // 9. The Cowboys will likely find themselves chasing points in this spot — a good setup for another eight to 10 targets for their number one receiver.
The Saints have been repeatedly burned by slot receivers for big yards-per-reception days (see Sanu // Boyd // Kupp // Thielen above), though Cole Beasley will have to have his route tree adjusted in order to take advantage, as he sees most of his looks within three to 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and carries an aDOT of only 7.1. If the Saints take a big lead early, it won’t be crazy to see Beasley pile up six or more targets with a bit more intermediate work than normal against a Saints team that adds more than 4% to the league-average aDOT.
Behind Beasley, Michael Gallup is a dart throw — with recent target counts of 6 // 3 // 5 // 6, but with only eight receptions on these 20 targets (40%), and with yardage totals in this stretch of 51 // 34 // 10 // 19.
No tight end on the Cowboys has topped 25 yards in a game in nearly two months. The Saints boast one of the toughest tight end defenses in the NFL, making the Blake Jarwin // Dalton Schultz combo difficult to bet on. Jarwin played 35 snaps last week and Schultz played 42, though Jarwin ran 25 pass routes to Shultz’ 10. Rico Gathers (who is supposedly glued to the sidelines for his blocking deficiencies) played 15 snaps and ran only three pass routes — being asked to block the other 12 times.
COWBOYS RUN OFFENSE
The Saints rank top five in fewest yards allowed per carry, in DVOA against the run, and in adjusted line yards on defense, creating a difficult spot for a Cowboys team that likes to win with Ezekiel Elliott at the forefront. Through 11 games, no running back has reached even 70 yards against the Saints — though the only two quality running backs this team has faced (Todd Gurley and Saquon Barkley) both failed to top 13 carries — with Gurley going 13-68-1 on the ground, and with Saquon going 10-44-1. The last time a running back topped even 13 carries against the Saints was all the way back in Week 3. Volume should be viewed as a bigger concern than matchup for Zeke and this typically dominant run game. Zeke has added a strong receiving floor across the last month, and he has not finished below 15 carries all year. He should be fine for a solid score in this spot, with potential for volume to keep him from an elite game, but with his upside certainly still intact if the Cowboys keep this game close enough for the volume to be there.
The Saints lead the NFL right now in points per game, ahead of both the Chiefs and the Rams, which should create plenty of touchdown opportunities in this spot — with the best bets being (in order) Michael Thomas // Alvin Kamara // Mark Ingram // the rest of the team. Drew Brees could have a difficult time piling up yardage if the Cowboys fail to hang tough in this spot, but he has a strong shot at being involved in most of the touchdowns that are scored.
Amari and Zeke both have a shot at the top score on the slate, putting them very much in play. Amari is attached to Dak, and Zeke is at risk of game flow lowering his volume, but with floor concerns on all of Thomas, Kamara, and Ingram as well, these two are very much in the Showdown conversation. Game flow is likeliest to go in Amari’s favor, but the Cowboys depend on Zeke enough that he should continue seeing touches throughout the game no matter what happens, giving him plenty of opportunities for touchdowns and/or his signature big plays.
Behind these guys, Dak has potential for a solid game while chasing points, and it would not be crazy for Beasley to become viable (even if his raw projections fall behind all the other skill position players mentioned above). The Saints are an attacking defense against a team that has taken the most sacks in the NFL. There is opportunity for that unit to matter in this game. The kickers, as always, are in play on the Showdown slate as well.