Dallas' Sunday Night Defeat Was A Loss In More Ways Than One

The Saints gave the Cowboys a good, old-fashioned reality check on Sunday Night Football

Keith Allison, Flickr
  • The Dallas Cowboys dominated lesser competition in their first three games of the season but faced a clear uptick in competition on Sunday night against the New Orleans Saints.

  • Final score: Saints 12, Cowboys 10

  • The Cowboys offense still must prove it can compete against the best teams, as they managed just one touchdown on nine possessions against the Saints. 

  • The Cowboys defense was led by middle linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith who had five sacks and seven tackles for losses.

  • Dallas’ six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith exited on a cart and was seen in a walking boot after the game. His absence could be devastating for the Cowboys offense moving forward.

  • Head coach Jason Garrett could find himself on the hot seat if the team suffers more primetime losses in the near future.

Pregame Situation

Through three weeks, the Dallas Cowboys looked like one of the best teams in the NFL. The Cowboys played three of the worst teams in the league, but they defeated them easily and thoroughly, silencing their naysayers in the process. In their three wins over the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins, the Cowboys offense looked to be firing on all cylinders.

Dallas had the fourth-highest-scoring offense at 32.4 points per game, they ranked third in total yards with 481.3 yards per game, and they had the best third down conversion percentage at 58.1 percent in the league. The Cowboys came into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with a chance to make a statement in primetime against undoubtedly their best competition of the season: the Drew Brees-less Saints. 

After a dramatic week one shootout victory over Houston, Brees was injured in the highly-anticipated NFC Championship rematch against the Rams in Los Angeles as the Saints were trounced 27-9. Backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater got his first start of the season last week in one of the toughest places to play in the league, CenturyLink Field, and led the underdog Saints to an upset win over the then-undefeated Seattle Seahawks.

The Saints jumped out to a 20-7 halftime lead and held on to win behind Bridgewater’s 19 completions on 27 attempts for 177 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. After Saints fans were panicking during the week after losing Brees for around two months, New Orleans was pleasantly surprised to see Bridgewater lead the team to 33 points and a road victory against the Seahawks, especially as the Saints only averaged 3.8 yards per carry. 

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The Saints came into Sunday night’s matchup playing with house money. If they were to beat the Cowboys, then they would have done so against maybe the best team in the NFC East without Brees. If they were to lose against Dallas, then it would not have been a cause for concern because certainly the Saints would have done better with Brees leading the way. 

How It Played Out

All eyes were on the offensive playmakers for each team entering this Sunday night matchup, but the defenses stole the show in a 12-10 slugfest win for the Saints. The high-powered Cowboys offense came into New Orleans on a roll, but the Saints defense came to play. The Saints limited Ezekiel Elliot to just 35 yards on 18 carries (1.9 yards per carry) and forced Dak Prescott to make plays to win the game. The Saints secondary stepped up with four passes defended, seven quarterback hits and a sack. 

Cornerback Marshon Lattimore was one of the stars for the Saints as he was often lined up against Cowboys star receiver Amari Cooper. Lattimore not only had a game-high two passes defended (as many as the entire Cowboys team on Sunday), but he also limited Cooper to just five receptions on eight targets for 48 yards. Lattimore kept Cooper in check and did not allow any big plays as Cooper’s longest reception went for just 14 yards while averaging just 9.6 yards per catch, his lowest average of the season thus far. Elliot led the team with six receptions, but no Cowboys player had more than 50 yards receiving. 

The Saints started the game with an interception on their first possession and set up the Cowboys near midfield after a first series punt. The Cowboys then marched into the red zone but had to settle for a field goal to take a 3-0 lead. The Saints got back on track offensively with field goal drives on each of their next two possessions to take a 6-3 lead while forcing a Dallas three and out in between. The Cowboys then fumbled on their final two possessions of the first half, one by Jason Witten and another by Elliott with less than two minutes to play at the Dallas 43 yard line. 

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The key play on the last first half drive was a seven yard completion to Blake Jarwin on third and eight which set up the fourth and one where Elliott fumbled. Jarwin ran to the first down marker but came back one yard to catch the ball and was short of the line to gain. On fourth and one, Elliott appeared to pick up the first down, but the ball began moving just before his elbow was marked down. The ruling on the field was a fumble, and much to Saints’ fans’ surprise, New Orleans  got the call to stand and go their way. This set up a field goal and a 9-3 halftime lead for New Orleans. 

The Cowboys defense forced a three-and-out to start the second half and set the stage for Prescott to lead an 11-play, 84-yard drive for a touchdown to take a 10-9 lead after a one-yard Elliott touchdown run. The Cowboys gained as many first downs on this drive (six) as they did in the entire first half. The Saints answered back immediately with a 15-play drive that bled over nine minutes off the clock.

The Saints got into the red zone but couldn’t punch the ball into the endzone and instead settled for a field goal to take a 12-10 lead with 13:41 to play. The next four combined possessions went for no more than 17 yards on either side, and the Cowboys received the ball with 1:39 to play on their own 14 yard line without any timeouts remaining. 

The final drive went poorly for Dallas. On the first play, Prescott was sacked (his only sack of the game) while left tackle Tyron Smith was injured. Smith, a Pro Bowler each of the last six seasons, would leave on a cart and would not return. As a result of the injury, Dallas was given a 10-second runoff. Dallas could only advance to their own 48 yard line with two seconds remaining. Instead of lining up for a 69 yard field goal (which would have set an NFL record), the Cowboys elected to throw a Hail Mary which was intercepted by Marcus Williams as time expired.

BetQL's Model

Some might have been surprised by Saints’ win on Sunday night, but BetQL’s model not only projected the upset, but labeled the Saints (consensus underdogs by 2.5 points) as one-point favorites. They won by two. Not bad, right?

The strong Saints rushing defense which held Chris Carson in check in Seattle last week (52 rushing yards on 3.5 yards per carry) came up huge against Dallas at home. New Orleans’ offense clearly is not as explosive with Bridgewater leading the unit as it was with Brees, but for the second week in a row, he did a nice job of managing the game and not trying to do too much. The Cowboys were locked in on Alvin Kamara rushing the ball as he gained a respectable 69 yards while rushing for 4.1 yards per carry. Michael Thomas was indisputably the star on offense for New Orleans as he caught all nine of his targets for 95 yards, nearly twice as many receiving yards as any other player in the game. Bridgewater did just enough to bounce back from his first possession interception, and Saints fans should feel comfortable with him and the defense leading the way in Brees’s absence. 

The Saints will host the Buccaneers on Sunday. Find out who BetQL’s model likes in that game and read about how Tampa Bay stole America’s attention in Week 4 with their huge win over the Rams.

What The Loss Means For The Cowboys

What did we learn about the Cowboys on Sunday night? Their dominant offense still needs improvement before they can claim to be the best unit in the league, but the Cowboys defense led by Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith is legit.

Dak Prescott took a step back in this game. Through three games, Prescott had a 74.5 completion percentage and threw three touchdowns per game. Against New Orleans, he completed just 66.7 percent of his throws and threw zero touchdowns. Prescott’s numbers declined as the Cowboys could not establish the run against the Saints.

Ezekiel Elliott averaged 5.25 yards per carry and had zero fumbles entering Sunday night. He rushed for just 1.9 yards per carry and his key fumble at the end of the first half likely resulted in at least a six point swing. Amari Cooper also had his worst performance of the season as he had averaged 79.3 receiving yards per game through three weeks, but only gained 48 yards through the air this week and failed to do any damage down the field as his longest reception of the night went for just 14 yards. The Cowboys now also must regroup after losing left tackle Tyron Smith as he left in a cart and was seen wearing a walking boot. 

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As disappointing as the offensive performance was for Dallas, the defensive performance was just as impressive. Vander Esch led all players with 11 tackles and together with Jaylon Smith, minimized the electric Alvin Kamara’s impact. Smith also added nine tackles of his own including a sack and two tackles for loss. The Cowboys only gave up one sack on offense, but they sacked Bridgewater five times and recorded seven tackles for loss. Vander Esch and Smith led the NFL in tackles last season and are making a statement as the best linebacking duo in football. 

Head coach Jason Garrett once again failed to win a big game in primetime, but this one hurts especially bad because the Cowboys were thought to have one of the best players in the league at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, but each player had his worst game of the season. 

Not only is this a contract year for Dak Prescott, but Garrett is also in the last year of his deal. Despite the 3-0 start, Jerry Jones has not committed to signing Garrett long term (unlike how he has claimed to be nearing a deal with Prescott). If the Cowboys cannot find a way to win big games like this with the talent they have on offense and defense this season, Garrett’s days as head coach will be numbered. 

To make matters more concerning, Dallas hosts the surging Green Bay Packers this week.