The Cowboys looked like an offensive juggernaut through the first three weeks of the season (their competition may have had a little bit to do with that). In Week 4, however, they met a defense in the New Orleans Saints that was able to effectively combine scheme and execution to hold them to just 10 points.
The passing game sputtered pretty much all night for Dallas. Saints Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen made sure to take away what they do best. He had his best cornerback, Marshon Lattimore, follow Amari Cooper all over the field, whether in man or zone. He used coverages that took away the short easy passes over the middle on 3rd down and even double-teamed tight end Jason Witten at times. The most critical aspect of Allen’s gameplan, however, was his healthy use of disguise. This prevented Dak Prescott from getting into the best play to beat the coverage at the line of scrimmage.
On the first drive of the game, with the Cowboys facing a 3rd-and-10, the Saints crowded the line of scrimmage before the snap. They were showing blitz initially before backing out one player at a time. The Saints would actually rush 3 on this snap and drop into zone coverage. They played Tampa-2 to the three-receiver side, and quarters to the back side.
The extra man dropping in coverage helped double-team Jason Witten (Below – 2nd receiver from the bottom).
Prescott dumped it off for a short gain, and the Cowboys had to punt.
Later in the first quarter, the Cowboys were in the red zone and faced another 3rd down. This time, the Saints showed 7 men on the line of scrimmage, another blitz look, and held the look until the snap.
Once again, they would end up rushing just 3 and attempting to win with coverage. They dropped into quarters. Their main focus was in the middle of the field, where the Cowboys had tight ends Jason Witten and Blake Jarwin to either side of the formation.
New Orleans made sure Dak would not be able to target his two security blankets over the middle of the field. Look at the attention they drew.
The Saints were also clearly comfortable with cornerback Marshon Lattimore handling Amari Cooper 1-on-1 (top of the screen).
The Cowboys had to settle for a field goal.
Throughout the night, the Saints alternated between man coverage looks and these 3-man rush/2-deep safety coverages on 3rd down. Pre-snap, Dak Prescott was not sure what he would actually see as a result.
The purpose of disguise is not always to confuse the quarterback and make him look like a fool. It’s great if that happens, but that’s not the only way disguises can be effective. They can be just as impactful if they prevent the entire offense from seeing the field the same way or if they keep the offense from getting into the best look against the coverage.
Later in the game, as the Saints continued their back and forth between man and zone coverages, the Cowboys faced a 3rd-and-2 with 11 minutes remaining in the 4th quarter. The Saints were again showing a blitz look. Wide receiver Randall Cobb motioned across the formation, and nickel cornerback P.J. Williams followed him. This was an indicator of man coverage.
The Cowboys had dual crossing routes called – great routes for beating man coverage.
But, as you probably guessed, the Saints weren’t playing man here. They once again dropped 8 men into zone coverage.
Dak Prescott targeted Randall Cobb on his crossing route. However, he threw the ball a bit behind Cobb. This was because he recognized the zone coverage post snap and saw the corner to the left side of the field sitting in the flat. He (correctly) wanted Cobb to settle down in the zone. Cobb kept running as if it was man coverage, though.
The disguise did just enough to keep the quarterback and receiver from being on the same page.
On the Cowboys’ next drive, they faced another 3rd-and-2. The Saints, once again, looked to be playing man coverage.
Hard to trust that they would stay in this coverage, right? Well, as it turned out, the Saints would actually stick with man here. The Cowboys did not have a pass play called with great man-beating route concepts, though. The Saints had tight coverage across the board, forcing Prescott to scramble and try to make a play. Dallas wasn’t able to convert, and again had to punt.
The Saints didn’t only have success against the Cowboys’ passing game. They shut down Ezekiel Elliott as well, holding him to just 35 yards on 18 carries. They played great team defense, with their front-7 consistently staying in their gaps all evening. They were also spearheaded by the play of defensive tackle Malcom Brown. You can see the impact he had below:
Watch Brown (#90), aligned over right guard Zack Martin (#70), penetrate quickly into the backfield and chase this play down from behind.
Here, Brown (again aligned over Martin) fought through a double team to make the tackle in the backfield.
And finally, here is Brown aligned in the A-Gap quickly penetrating into the backfield before Martin could reach him.
Despite Dak Prescott’s great start to the season, the Cowboys Offense is still based off of their running game. Take that away, and everything else becomes exceedingly more difficult.
The Saints, on the other hand, are 2-0 without Drew Brees. Their defense has been the primary reason. If they continue to play like they have, New Orleans will remain in striking distance until Brees returns later this season.
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