A look at the New Orleans Saints' snap counts in their 38-17 loss at the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4:

OFFENSE (61 snaps)

Quarterback -- Drew Brees 61

Running back -- Pierre Thomas 23, Khiry Robinson 18, Travaris Cadet 18

Fullback -- Austin Johnson 9

Receiver -- Marques Colston 53, Brandin Cooks 50, Kenny Stills 45, Robert Meachem 17

Tight end -- Jimmy Graham 51, Benjamin Watson 15, Josh Hill 6

Offensive tackle -- Zach Strief 61, Bryce Harris 52, Terron Armstead 9

Guard -- Jahri Evans 61, Ben Grubbs 61

Center -- Jonathan Goodwin 61

Thoughts: I was surprised to see Thomas with more snaps than Robinson since Thomas only wound up with four touches (two runs, two receptions). It was a surprisingly quiet performance for the normally-go-to veteran. … Colston was much the same. Even though he led all Saints receivers in snaps, he finished with just five catches for 50 yards on 10 targets. Colston dropped at least two catchable passes -- as did tight end Jimmy Graham. … Goodwin’s snap count was very impressive, considering he said that both he and the team orthopedist thought he wouldn’t be able to play as of last Monday. But his ankle sprain healed steadily. Goodwin said he was a little sore but expects to heal even more now with another week. … Harris played even more than I realized after Armstead left early with a concussion. And he held up extremely well considering most of his snaps came when the Cowboys knew New Orleans would pass. Coach Sean Payton made a point to single out Harris as one of the lone bright spots in Sunday’s loss. But Armstead’s status has not been determined yet this week.

DEFENSE (66 snaps)

Cornerback -- Keenan Lewis 65, Corey White 65, Brian Dixon 16

Safety -- Jairus Byrd 66, Kenny Vaccaro 66, Rafael Bush 28

Outside linebacker -- Junior Galette 52, Parys Haralson 38, Kasim Edebali 14

Inside linebacker -- Curtis Lofton 66, Ramon Humber 56

Defensive end -- Cameron Jordan 58, Akiem Hicks 48, Glenn Foster 21, Tyrunn Walker 15

Defensive tackle -- Brodrick Bunkley 36, Brandon Deaderick 16

Thoughts: Once again, the Saints used three and four linebackers a lot (if you count Galette as an outside linebacker). But it didn’t help much as they still got gashed by running back DeMarco Murray. … Rookie Dixon more than doubled his snap count while serving as the Saints’ dime back. But he got beat for a touchdown pass. … I give up trying to figure out the pecking order at defensive end. Foster was inactive in Week 2, but he played more snaps than Walker this week.
Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT for ESPN’s NFL Nation TV’s Spreecast as episode No. 25 will take a look at the first quarter of the season. Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter), co-host Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and new regular Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) are joined by Todd Archer (Dallas Cowboys reporter), Josh Weinfuss (Arizona Cardinals reporter), Mike Triplett (New Orleans Saints reporter) and Scott Brown (Pittsburgh Steelers reporter) to talk biggest surprises and disappointments thus far. Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature and vote for your first quarter NFL MVP.

 
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints seemed to have the proper mix of anger/frustration/confidence/realism/focus on Monday after a 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that sent them reeling back to 1-3 on the season.

But they were the first to admit they won't really know if they're reacting the right way until they start to see real evidence on the football field -- beginning with Sunday's home date with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Here's what we can't do: We can't continue with the exact same preparation plan and expect different results, right?" Saints coach Sean Payton said. "And so you've gotta constantly look at tweaking the approach coming into the next week.

"Look, we'll find out a little bit about this team here. When you start the season 1-3 and you get punched like that, very quickly we'll find out a little bit about what we're made of."

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Sean Payton
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images"Here's what we can't do: We can't continue with the exact same preparation plan and expect different results, right?" Saints coach Sean Payton said.
"Every team is different," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "This team is different from last year, and that team was different than the year before. And this team has not figured out how to win yet."

I know a lot of Saints fans are eager to pinpoint some grand, big-picture theme that can explain this inexplicable start.

I've heard countless theories, from this team buying into its own preseason hype to tuning out Payton's message to having a "country club" training camp in West Virginia to just plain not wanting it as much as the Cowboys did on Sunday night.

And none of those theories can be dismissed outright since, as Payton suggested, everything should be on the table when looking for a solution. Payton said he'll look closely at all factors with the staff and veteran leaders on the team.

But when I asked leaders such as Payton, Strief, Junior Galette and Keenan Lewis on Monday if they see any such big-picture reasons that could point to their slide, they said they genuinely didn't think so.

"There's no lack of fire. We practice our ass off," Galette said. "I feel like we practice harder than any other team I've been here with in five years. We practice harder than any of those teams, and we have more talent than any of those teams as well.

"You have to be realistic and know that we're not as good as we thought we were. We have to get better and improve drastically. It's very humbling, but we still believe in our team, and we still believe the sky's the limit.

"We're in a rut right now. Coach always talks about the rut and the groove, and we're in a rut. We've got to get in that groove, and once we find it, we'll keep our foot on the gas."

Strief said he can't guarantee that nobody was reading news clippings -- but he knows from experience they don't mean a thing, whether you're predicted to be good or bad.

"And do I feel that the idea of going somewhere to save guys' legs for the season is causing us to lose games? No," Strief said of the training camp theory. "Having three turnovers is causing us to lose games. Getting behind 24-0 before halftime is having us lose games. Not finishing drives in the fourth quarter had us lose games."

Payton agreed that it's important for the Saints to take a hyper focus on what's preventing them from winning -- including the "laundry list" of on-field problems that were on display Sunday night.

"That's all of us looking at the tape closely and looking at the specifics in regards to assignment technique and then us as coaches looking at, 'Are we asking the players to do things we feel like they can do well?'" Payton said.

And Payton stressed the "sense of urgency" that's needed isn't just about showing up on game days, but showing up on the practice field and in the film room.

"This is a win business, so when you're not having success, that challenges everyone. That challenges the players, the coaches. You have to dig down deep. It's a gut check," Payton said. "And I'm certain we will."

Whether or not the Saints did lose their proper focus or motivation or any other intangible you want to consider early in the season, it's clear there's no excuse for those things to be lacking now.

"I'm definitely angry," Lewis said. "I didn't picture us being 1-3, the team battling even to get to .500. So it hurts. And I'm going to try and challenge my teammates and get it going.

"The first two losses, you lose by 2-3 points, you look back and say we could have done more. But a team comes in and puts up 38 points, dominating from start to finish. It's definitely head-scratching, and we gonna get it fixed.

"We can't be waiting around saying, 'It's still early.' We've gotta start kicking the door in."
METAIRIE, La. – There were no updates available Monday on New Orleans Saints left tackle Terron Armstead’s status for this week's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after he left this past Sunday night’s game early with a concussion.

Coach Sean Payton said Armstead will go through the NFL’s mandatory concussion-evaluation protocol during the week, and “we’ll wait and see where Terron’s at.”

Armstead
Payton did confirm that third-year pro Bryce Harris would remain Armstead’s replacement if needed, after he said Harris was one of the few bright spots during the Saints’ 38-17 loss at the Dallas Cowboys.

“I thought Bryce did a pretty good job of stepping in there. Looking at the tape, he played pretty well,” Payton said of the 6-foot-6, 300-pounder, who made his NFL starting debut at left tackle after starting one game at right tackle in both 2012 and 2013.

It was especially impressive that Harris held up in a situation where the Saints were forced to throw the ball on almost every snap as the game wore on.

If Armstead can’t play, however, the Saints will have to identify an even less-proven backup option for Harris. They have two backup guard/centers on the roster in Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete, but neither was cross-trained at tackle this summer. Rookie Tavon Rooks could be activated from the practice squad. Or the Saints could look elsewhere for help.
Thomas MorsteadTim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsThe Cowboys stopped Thomas Morstead for a 2-yard loss on the Saints' ill-fated fake punt.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- To be fair, there is no such thing as a high-percentage play when you are down 31-17 and facing a fourth-and-9 with 7:45 remaining in a game.

But a fake punt clearly wasn't the answer. And New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said after the game that "hindsight probably was 20-20" after punter Thomas Morstead was sacked for a 2-yard loss. The Dallas Cowboys scored soon afterward to ice their 38-17 victory.

Payton said he is not sure he would have gone for it in that situation, though. He likely would have opted to punt instead with two timeouts still remaining.

"It’s something we’d had up for a while. Even versus their 'safe' look, it was something we thought would have a chance," Payton said of the play, which began with a fake handoff to running back Travaris Cadet -- but the Cowboys didn’t bite.

"There was some misdirection involved. They played it pretty well," Payton said. "Hindsight probably was 20-20. I had kind of gone back and forth with it. It was on the hash mark we wanted, and they covered it pretty well."

Morstead said the Saints had been practicing the play for a while, but the Cowboys simply didn’t bite.

"No one was open, so I didn't throw it," Morstead told reporters. "I think they had three guys covering the two that were options for me to throw to, and I just didn't feel like it was there. I decided instead of going 0-for-1 with an interception, I'd try to extend the play, and it just didn't work."

It was hardly the only special teams gaffe of the night for the Saints.

Kicker Shayne Graham missed a 41-yard field goal wide right in the second quarter to help set the tone in an "everything that could go wrong ..." game.

It was Graham’s first field-goal miss of the season, but he also missed an extra point last week in a 20-9 victory against the Minnesota Vikings. Graham later made a 30-yard field goal Sunday and is 4-of-5 on the season.

UPDATED: Payton reiterated Monday that the blame for the failed play was "on me for being impatient" when asked if he would have liked to see Morstead at least throw the ball up for grabs.

"No. Listen, that's on me. That's not Thomas or that's not Cadet," Payton said. "It's a play designed for misdirection. Credit Dallas, they were in a punt-safe. I kind of felt like they would be, and really that's on me for being impatient. I thought we were at a point in the game once we got to two scores, if I had to do it over again, I'd have punted. Thomas did what he was supposed to."
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In one sense, the New Orleans Saints' offensive performance in Sunday night’s 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys wasn’t really all that different from their first three this season.

It still wound up being a pretty equal mix of some impressive drives and some paralyzing lulls. But the biggest difference was that this time, the Saints weren’t facing a team like the Cleveland Browns or Minnesota Vikings, who lulled along with them. This time, the Saints were playing an offense that was capable of leaving them in the dust.

You know – the kind of killer-instinct offense that we’re normally used to seeing from the Saints themselves.

Quarterback Drew Brees correctly pointed out that the Saints actually got off to a decent start, with their first two drives crossing midfield before his tipped-pass interception late in the second quarter sent Sunday’s game off the rails.

“It’s a game of momentum, and when you’re on the road, it’s even more so,” explained Brees, who pointed out what a fine line it was between 10-7 and 17-0.

But in a sense, Brees had it backwards.

The storyline of the Saints’ first two losses at Atlanta and at Cleveland, both of which came down to the final seconds, was that they were just one or two plays away from a different outcome.

As we saw Sunday night, the Saints’ offensive high-wire act this season also left them one or two plays from this kind of implosion.

They’ve been way too stop-and-start all season, even though the overall numbers and efficiency have ranked among the NFL’s best.

And sure enough, things got a little exciting and interesting in the second half Sunday night, too, once the Saints had to hurry up and start firing away. They flashed that quick-strike ability that still hasn’t gone away with two touchdowns that brought the score within 14 points. And Brees’ final numbers bordered on fantastic (32-of-44, 340 yards, two touchdowns and one interception).

But clearly something is missing.

The most glaring absence so far has been the deep ball – which wasn’t a big problem until Sunday night, when Dallas also shut down the run game and corralled tight end Jimmy Graham in the first half.

I don’t see any concerns about Brees’ arm strength, which some people have asked about. When he did fire deep, he still had some authority and accuracy. But clearly, Brees is either not seeing what he needs to see down the field, or he’s not getting comfortable enough in the pocket to take those shots.

Once the Saints started forcing the ball downfield Sunday, it led to as many bad results as good ones: Brees’ interception into a too-tight window, fumbles by Graham and running back Travaris Cadet and at least two dropped passes each by Graham and receiver Marques Colston while the defense was repeatedly hitting them hard in the open field.

A 62-yard run by running back Khiry Robinson in the fourth quarter wound up making this game look even closer than it really was. Other than that run, the Saints gained 36 yards on 11 carries by running backs.

The Saints actually had the most efficient offense in the NFL through three weeks, according to a formula developed by ESPN Stats & Information. They earned that grade through a number of long drives that chipped away with the run game, underneath passes and third-down conversions.

Those numbers, however, masked just how thin the Saints’ margin for error was.

“So for us offensively, what do we need to do?” Brees said. “Well, we need to be ultra-efficient, score more points and take care of the football.”

It can be done – especially with seven home games remaining on the schedule. But as Brees said best of all Sunday night, “We’ve got to play better.”

Saints don't hide from harsh reality

September, 29, 2014
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- New Orleans Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said it best: You can't jump in a hole and hide from 1-3.

The Saints’ two last-second losses were frustrating. And they took their problems seriously. But they still had that sense of, "Oh man, if just one or two things had gone differently we could have been 3-0."

Sunday’s 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys? That was downright disturbing.

[+] EnlargeCowboys
AP Photo/Tim SharpTerrance Williams caught two of Tony Romo's three TD passes against the Saints as Dallas amassed 445 total yards in its 38-17 rout.
It was disturbing because the defense imploded so badly that folks who cover the Cowboys were comparing it to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's demise in Dallas two years ago.

It was disturbing because the offense was just as bad, getting shut out in the first half for just the third time since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006.

And it was disturbing most of all because this was the Saints’ chance to show who they really were on the national “Sunday Night Football” stage.

Maybe that is exactly what they did.

"We can talk all we want about talent or expectation or any of that stuff. Right now we’re not a good football team. We didn’t do anything right," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "You’re glad it’s the fourth game of the year and it’s not just decided (at the end of the season that) you were a bad team. But right now, we’re a bad team."

So how do they deal with that revelation?

"There’s one way to work yourself out of these holes, and it’s cliché to anybody that hasn’t experienced it, but you’ve got to work your butt off," Strief said. "I know guys feel like they’ve worked hard, and I know sometimes it looks like you’re working hard. But we have to find more. Somewhere, in really every department, we’ve got to work harder than we have and maybe harder than we ever have before."

Secondly, it has to start with some very real X’s and O’s corrections.

On defense, the Saints have a laundry list of fixes to make, but right at the top has to be figuring out how to generate more pressure with their four-man pass rush. That was maybe their biggest key to success last season, and it has virtually disappeared this season. That could lead to those badly needed turnovers and alleviate pressure on the secondary.

On offense, the Saints need to figure out how to hit on some deep passing plays. It was OK for three weeks when their offense was still very efficient. But those big plays were sorely missed against a Dallas defense that was also corralling Jimmy Graham and shutting down the run game at the same time in the first half.

On special teams, the Saints need to decide whether kicker Shayne Graham is still their guy, and they could use a little juice in the return game.

"It’s challenging, it’s disappointing, it’s frustrating. But that’s on all of us right now," Payton said. "It’s on me, it’s on our staff, it’s on the team. Obviously it’s not where you want to be, and we’ve got to make sure we look closely at the reasons why we’re not winning."

Last but not least, those fixes have to pay off immediately with a Week 5 win at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (also 1-3) before the Saints head into their Week 6 bye.

They don’t get much more "must-win" than this. The Saints haven’t lost a home game with Payton on the sideline since 2010 (not counting his 2012 suspension). And they certainly can’t stop now.

"We had a bad day today. That’s clear. Everybody sees it, everybody sees the score. You know, we’re disappointed and slightly embarrassed," Lofton said. "But at the same time, this is the first quarter of the season. We’ve still got a lot of season left. We’ve gotta go get this game against Tampa, get away from the bye and get on a roll.

"What we have on this team, the character of these guys, we’ve got to put more into the process. And we’ll get this thing corrected."
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- So which was the anomaly? The New Orleans Saints' stunning defensive turnaround in 2013? Or their stunning regression this season?

Sunday night's debacle in Dallas shouldn't be pinned on the Saints' defense alone. The number of guilty parties after their 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys was roughly equal to the number of seats on the team plane. And nobody was shying away from that fact after the game.

But the Saints' offense has a track record that offers hope and optimism going forward. Heck, they even tried to turn this one into a real game with two quick second-half touchdown drives.

It's the defense that remains the biggest question mark after yet another meltdown Sunday night. It let Tony Romo throw for 262 yards and three touchdowns, while DeMarco Murray ran for 149 yards and two scores.

"Definitely, I think now, after these couple games, it is a big deal now," said safety Kenny Vaccaro, one of many who had started to chafe at the constant line of questions about what was wrong with the Saints' defense after the first two losses. "First, it's like, 'OK, we're starting slow.' But once you're 1-3 it's like, 'OK, now we gotta ...' The first 25 percent of the season's over. So I don't know."

Those questions were especially hard to ignore this week in Dallas, where so many people who follow the Cowboys were asking both before and after the game if the bloom was off the Rob Ryan rose?

Ryan was hired as the Saints' defensive coordinator last year after being fired by the Cowboys following a disappointing second season as their defensive coordinator in 2012.

It seemed as though Ryan got the last laugh on the Cowboys when New Orleans routed them 49-17 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last season. But now Ryan has admittedly found himself in a spot once again where he needs to "prove it."

The New Orleans defense was supposed to be more loaded than it has been in any time in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. They finished fourth in yards allowed and points allowed last year, and then added Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd for good measure.

Instead, they're currently ranked 29th in the NFL in yards allowed, 27th in points allowed and 31st in turnovers forced (one, which came way back in the first quarter of Week 1).

"It's nothing about the scheme," Saints middle linebacker and captain Curtis Lofton said. "What it comes down to is you gotta whup the man across the line from you. And if you don't do that, then you're not gonna be successful. If you gotta man him up, then you man him up. If I gotta tackle the running back, I gotta tackle the running back. It's plain and simple. There's no magic schemes. You gotta whup somebody in front of you."

So what is it, exactly, that's not working for the Saints' defense?

The only correct answer is, "Everything."

They haven't been able to force turnovers. The pass rush has been practically non-existent -- this may be the biggest head-scratcher of all since both Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette emerged as 12-sack guys last season. Blitzing hasn't worked, and not blitzing hasn't worked.

They missed tackles in bunches in both Week 1 at Atlanta and Week 4 at Dallas. They had breakdowns in their coverage assignments during the first two weeks before Ryan simplified his checks and adjustments last week. And that seemed to work in a 20-9 win over the Minnesota Vikings. But it sure didn't work at Dallas. Nothing did.

"I felt like we were heading in [the right] direction, we took a small step. But we took three steps back today, and that can't happen," said Lofton, who insisted confidence hadn't wavered -- but that reality hasn't disappeared, either.

"You can't run from 1-3," Lofton said. "So when you watch film, we don't point fingers around here, we use thumbs. The first thing I'm gonna do is see how I can get better and help this team win. If each guy does that and is accountable to each other, then we'll get where we need to get to."
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Cowboys reporter Todd Archer's game ball goes to defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who guided the Dallas defense through a little bit of a scare in the second half to hold off the Saints. Drew Brees gets the honor from Saints reporter Mike Triplett.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys:

No sugar-coating: There were no real fiery speeches in the Saints' locker room. But there was a whole lot of harsh reality. The Saints (1-3) were cautiously optimistic after their first two losses came down to the final seconds. But they were a lot more matter-of-fact after this blowout saw Dallas jump to a 31-3 lead:

Strief
"We have to be realistic right now with ourselves. Right now we're not a very good football team," offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "You're glad it's the fourth game of the year, and it's not just decided -- it's the 15th [game], and you were a bad team. But right now we're a bad team."

Added safety Kenny Vaccaro: "It is a big deal now. First, it's like, 'OK, we're starting slow.' But once you're 1-3 it's like, 'OK. Now we gotta ...' The first 25 percent of the season's over. So I don't know."

"There's not going to be much good to see on this film," coach Sean Payton said. "We're 1-3 right now, and that's about how we're playing."

Why the fake punt? The Saints did just about everything wrong Sunday night, but the most inexplicable decision seemed to be their fake punt in the fourth quarter when they had closed the gap to 14 points. If you're gonna try for a miracle, why not at least have Drew Brees throwing it instead of punter Thomas Morstead on fourth-and-9?

Payton said, hindsight being 20-20, it was the wrong decision. But it was a play the Saints had considered for a while, and they had the ball on the hash mark they wanted. But the Cowboys covered it well.

Effort and energy? Payton has never been shy about calling out his team when he feels like the effort and energy aren't there. But he stopped short of doing that this time.

"I don't know, necessarily," Payton said. "We'll grade that when we put the tape on. I thought they came in with the right mindset. Obviously, though, it didn't match what Dallas' was."

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

September, 28, 2014
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 38-17 loss Sunday night to the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.

What it means: Nothing good.

The Saints are now 1-3, but this loss was much more disturbing than the first two. This one didn't come down to the final seconds. This one was an implosion -- on both sides of the ball. You name it -- it went wrong, from getting blown up on both lines to missing tackles to dropped passes to turnovers to coaching, etc., etc. All this in a game in which the Saints were supposed to finally be getting on a roll after "breaking the seal" this past week, as Drew Brees put it.

Of course, it's not over for the Saints -- especially in an uninspiring NFC South division in which the leaders sit at 2-2. The Saints have seven home games left. It would be foolish to give up on this offense that has such a proven track record.

But the defense has become a serious concern at this point, when it was supposed to be a strength. And this was supposed to be a Super Bowl contender, not a team hoping to scratch together 10 wins.

Stock watch: After taking one step forward this past week, the Saints' defense stumbled two giant steps back. It was reminiscent of Week 1 in that they made sure Dallas' biggest threat, Dez Bryant, didn't beat them deep. But they failed to do anything well underneath. The pass rush was virtually nonexistent. They once again forced zero turnovers (15 quarters and counting). And the Saints were once again plagued by missed tackles, as running back DeMarco Murray kept gaining steam as the game went on.

Deep trouble: The Saints' lack of deep passes wasn't a huge concern before Sunday night because they had been making teams pay with underneath throws and a solid run game. But it was disconcerting to see the Saints couldn't count on the deep ball when it was sorely needed Sunday, while the underneath stuff wasn't getting the job done, either. The Saints showed glimpses of it during a late rally -- but not nearly enough.

Even punter Thomas Morstead couldn't find anyone open on an ill-fated (and ill-advised) fake punt attempt in the fourth quarter.

Game ball: Brees. In a game in which no one really deserved it, Brees gets the nod for catching fire briefly during a late rally. He finished with 340 yards and two touchdowns -- but his first-half interception was a dagger when the Saints were falling behind 31-3.

What's next: The Saints, at least, have a great opportunity to reboot over the next two weeks. They get the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home next Sunday (a must-win if ever there was one). Then they get a bye week.

W2W4: Saints at Cowboys

September, 28, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. -- Who are these guys?

The New Orleans Saints (1-2) and Dallas Cowboys (2-1) have both learned to embrace their run games this year. And their potent offenses have become much harder to defend as a result.

Here's What 2 Watch 4 when they meet Sunday night in Dallas:

Pick your poison: When you think of Dallas, you think about dynamic receiver Dez Bryant first and foremost. But the Cowboys have stubbornly stuck to their run game this year -- even when they were down 21-0 last week at the St. Louis Rams before rallying for a victory. DeMarco Murray leads the NFL in rushing yards (385) and carries (75).

That means the Saints' defense will have to be on its best behavior. They struggled with things like missed tackles and blown assignments in their first two losses. They can't afford either at Dallas.

Meanwhile, the Saints offense has been making defenses pay for sitting back in deep coverage to guard against big plays from the likes of Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Brandin Cooks. New Orleans ranks sixth in the NFL with 140.3 rushing yards per game, using a committee of Mark Ingram (who is out for Sunday night with a hand injury), Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson.

Dallas' defense has been hit and miss this year -- though it's better than last season, when the Saints set a NFL record with 40 first downs in a 49-17 victory over the Cowboys in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Get the ball: Forcing more turnovers has been arguably the Saints' No. 1 objective since the offseason, when they signed ball-hawking safety Jairus Byrd in free agency. But they have a grand total of one takeaway so far this season -- which came in the first quarter of Week 1.

The Saints inexplicably have just five takeaways over their past 14 games. Asked what they can do differently, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said, "That's a great question."

"Right now, man, nobody's doing worse than the Ryan brothers," Ryan said of his brother Rex, whose New York Jets have forced only two turnovers this year. "We might say we are two of the best coaches, and I believe that, and I know that. We're doing everything we can to do it, but we have to do more. There's got to be something else out there.

"We keep emphasizing it and all of that, but that's lip service. We need to start getting turnovers and it needs to start happening this week."

The Cowboys could provide an opportunity. They've turned the ball over seven times, with four interceptions by Tony Romo.

Bryant vs. Lewis: This is a potential "get your popcorn ready" matchup. Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis has quietly become one of the NFL's best cover men -- and one of his signature performances came against Bryant last year, when he stymied him with press coverage while a safety often shadowed behind. Bryant said this week that he was surprised by that double coverage, but he has plenty of respect for Lewis.

It will be curious to see, however, if the Saints stick with that approach, which could leave them vulnerable against weapons like Murray, tight end Jason Witten and speedy receiver Terrance Williams. In Week 1, the Saints actually used Lewis in man coverage against the Atlanta Falcons' No. 2 receiver, Roddy White, while using more double teams on No. 1 receiver Julio Jones. Although the Saints got burned in that game by underneath throws, they didn't get beat deep much by those potent weapons.

Who's who?: Although the Saints have faced Dallas in each of the past two years and four of the past five years, they've got to get used to a lot of new faces in the Cowboys' front seven. Longtime pass rusher DeMarcus Ware is now in Denver. Fellow pass rusher Anthony Spencer is questionable for Sunday night. And standout middle linebacker Sean Lee is on injured reserve.

The Cowboys' front is now led by free-agent newcomers like end Jeremy Mincey, tackle Henry Melton and middle linebacker Rolando McClain (though Melton and McClain are also questionable with injuries).

"I think more than anything, they're playing really assignment sound," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "When we watched the tape from last year I think there was a lot of indecision, linebacker reads coming slow, which let us get to the second level. You don't see that with them this year."
New Orleans Saints defensive tackle John Jenkins didn’t make the trip for Sunday night’s game at the Dallas Cowboys. The team said it was non-injury related but didn’t announce any specifics. Teams are required to announce when players don’t make the trip.

Jenkins
Jenkins could have missed the trip for any number of reasons, so it may have nothing to do with football.

The second-year pro has taken a step back this year after a strong rookie season. He has been a healthy inactive for two of the Saints’ first three games this season after missing all of OTAs and part of training camp with a pectoral injury.

But Jenkins seemed to have a positive outlook on his demotion when I asked him about it Thursday.

“You know what, I can’t really say that I’m battling frustration. If anything, I’m using this opportunity to get better and work on things that I wasn’t good at last year and be able to pinpoint my flaws more,” Jenkins said. “There’s a place for me, and right now I just need to make sure when they do call my name and they need me, that I’m ready like I was last year.”

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said “the biggest thing with John is that he missed all of that time due to injuries.”

“When you’re a big guy missing that kind of time, it’s hard to get back,” Ryan said Friday. It’s hard to [miss] the sweating in training camp and all of the hard knocking and all of that. It takes a while for a defensive lineman. [Brandon Deaderick, who moved ahead of Jenkins], is doing a great job playing. [Jenkins] is working really hard, he’ll get back, but it’s a long process.

“You can’t play this game on your own terms; so if you’re hurt it’s hard to get out there and play it. If you miss all of training camp it’s a hard thing to do, especially for a defensive lineman.”

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