The New Orleans Saints offense will have to perform better this Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys than it did last season. In that week 13 showdown, New Orleans finished with just 176 offensive yards, their lowest yardage output since 2001. It was only the second time the Saints had been held under 200 offensive yards since Sean Payton became head coach in 2006.
Overcoming the Cowboys excellent defense could be even more of a challenge this time around. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will start in place of the injured Drew Brees, and number three wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith is also expected to miss Sunday’s contest.
Fortunately, the Saints still have the offensive talent and coaching to devise a more effective gameplan for this rematch.
Here are three ways the New Orleans Saints offense can overcome the Cowboys defense.
Three Strategies for the New Orleans Saints Offense Against Dallas
Get a Third Receiver Involved Early
By now every defensive coordinator knows the ideal way to beat New Orleans is by limiting both Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara in the passing game. For most teams, that’s easier said than done, but the Cowboys actually did it last year.
Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch spent much of the game covering Kamara and limited yards gained by the elusive back after the catch. Vander Esch seemed to anticipate the direction Kamara would take on choice routes and rarely gave him separation. While Kamara hauled in eight passes, he gained just 36 yards.
Thomas was held to five catches for 40 yards. The Cowboys frequently bracketed Thomas and physically contested him for nearly every pass thrown his way. The rest of the Saints receiving corps struggled to find space or match the physicality of the Cowboys secondary, giving Dallas no reason to take attention away from Thomas or Kamara. The other four players Brees threw to combined for five catches and 51 yards, on nine targets.
Early in the second quarter, tight end Dan Arnold fumbled on his way to the end zone after making a catch down the seam. Fortunately, it was recovered by Thomas, but on the next play Smith dropped an easy catch on a perfectly executed screen pass at the Cowboys seven-yard line. New Orleans ended up turning the ball over on downs following three run plays.
In order to take attention off Thomas and Kamara, Saints coaches need to script some plays for another receiver to get hot early on. Simply forcing the ball to their stars didn’t work last time.
Who Could Step up?
Fortunately, New Orleans has two additional assets for this rematch, both of which did not play in the last game. Wide receiver Ted Ginn missed much of last season due to injury, and his ability to stretch the field should help spread out the Cowboys secondary. Tight end Jared Cook should be a valuable option for Bridgewater against such a physical defense, but he’s had a slow start to the season with just five catches for 69 yards.
If Cook wants to live up to his high expectations in this offense, Sunday would be an ideal time to step up.
Use More Personnel Variation and Less Predictable Play Calling
In terms of play-calling, the Saints did little to keep Dallas on their toes. Per Sharp Football Stats, New Orleans lined up with 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) on 71 percent of their plays, a 28 percent higher rate than their season average. They ran 24 of their 29 pass plays with 11 personnel, making it easy for Dallas to predict the Saints intentions in these formations.
New Orleans should attempt more passes from 12 (one running back, two tight end) personnel this time. Last season Dallas allowed a 104.1 passer rating, a 7:1 touchdown-interception ratio, and recorded just three sacks on 114 passing plays from 12 personnel. New Orleans threw just four passes from 12 personnel in the last meeting, one of which was the near-touchdown to Arnold. Dallas has improved against these plays in 2019, but they’ve yet to face an effective passing offense.
Passing less and running more in 11 personnel should also benefit the run game. So far in 2019, Dallas has allowed an alarming 5.6 yards per carry on 42 runs from 11 personnel. Meanwhile, opponents average just 2.3 yards per carry on their combined 16 runs from other personnel groupings.
Hopefully, the Saints plan on being less predictable in this rematch and these are a few simple ways they can add effectively add variation to their approach.
Run More Option Plays
The unpredictability of option plays can often foil aggressive defenses like the Cowboys. The Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, and Carolina Panthers all have some of the highest run-pass option usage rates in the NFL. Dallas played each of these teams last season (including two games against Philadelphia) and went 2-3 against them.
New Orleans has never run many option plays with Brees, and they’ve obviously been fine without them. With Brees out though, coaches should be open to new methods. They also happen to have Taysom Hill, one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league.
While several of Hill’s highlights have come on option plays, New Orleans mostly saves these for critical moments like third and fourth downs. For whatever reason, Hill wasn’t really involved in the gameplan last year. He played just seven snaps and it was one of just four games where Hill didn’t record a rush or a catch.
Hill also saw limited action last week despite the expectation that he’d see more playing time with Brees out. He caught one pass for five yards and rushed once for another five yards. Still, it’d be surprising if Payton doesn’t unleash him at some point in the time Brees is absent.
The Cowboys caused Brees to rush a lot of throws last year with a consistent pass rush. RPOs can force defensive fronts to play less aggressively to be more prepared for runs. If New Orleans can get Bridgewater involved in some RPOs as well, it should give him more time when he does drop back to pass.
Outlook for New Orleans Saints Offense
While the Saints win in Seattle last week was an impressive feat, they faced a struggling defense and benefited from both a defensive and special teams touchdown. Dallas presents a much stronger defense and New Orleans can’t depend on its non-offensive units to consistently score points. They also can’t keep relying so heavily on their best players to move the ball.
This is the first real test for the New Orleans Saints offense minus Brees, and it’s time for them to shake things up.
Embed from Getty Images