FRISCO, Texas — Rod Marinelli has a difficult job this week.
As the Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator, he has to unlock the mysteries of the New Orleans Saints offense. No team averages more points than the Saints (37.2), and they are fifth in yards per game at 416.6.
Alvin Kamara is 11th in the NFL in rushing with 706 yards, but he is second in the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 11. Mark Ingram has 440 rushing yards and four touchdowns despite missing the first four games because of a suspension.
The Saints have had 15 different players score at least one offensive touchdown this season.
“We’ve got to make the complex simple for them,” Marinelli said of his defensive players. “The irregular regular, and once that happens they can play with speed. Because that’s our weapon — our speed and our athleticism.”
Marinelli opened his dissertation about the Saints’ offense on Brees.
“So quick and precise,” Marinelli said.
Then he went into the number of personnel groups the Saints use, including backup quarterback Taysom Hill in a Wildcat kind of role.
As Marinelli answered other questions, he mixed in other thoughts about the New Orleans offense:
The Saints have scored at least 30 points in five straight games. But they have played just two defenses ranked in the top half of the league all season (the fifth-ranked Minnesota Vikings and top-ranked Baltimore Ravens). In their last four games, they have not played a defense that ranks better than 20th in the league.
The Cowboys are allowing 331.3 yards per game, which is eighth-best. They are giving up 19.4 points per game, which is fifth-best. They are 12th in passing yards allowed and sixth against the run. Only two teams have given up fewer touchdown passes than the Cowboys (15). They are tied for fourth in yards-per-carry allowed.
But they have not faced an offense as adept as New Orleans. They have faced just two teams in the top half in points per game.
Recent history has not been too kind to the Cowboys against Brees.
In 2013, the Saints put up an NFL-record 40 first downs against the Cowboys in a 49-17 win. In 2014, the Cowboys jumped out to a 24-0 lead and won 38-17. In 2015, the Cowboys lost 26-20 in overtime. In those three games, Brees had eight touchdown passes and was intercepted just once. He was sacked only five times in 136 pass attempts.
“There’s really nothing on the field he can’t do,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s a great leader, a great decision-maker, tremendous athleticism, accuracy, confidence, the ability to deliver the ball to anywhere on the field. His command of what they do is incredible — the way the guys respond to him really throughout the game in any situation, off the charts. He’s just a great, great player. Utmost respect for him.”
As good as Brees and Thomas are, the Cowboys’ biggest concerns are Kamara and Ingram. The Saints are second in the NFL in rush attempts (344). The Cowboys have the NFL’s leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott and have a run-first mentality, but they have only run the ball 304 times.
“The thought about the Saints is they just throw all over the field, but really they want to run the ball first,” safety Jeff Heath said. “Obviously try to make him one-dimensional, get pressure on him, and then just play sound coverage, and when they do complete it, tackle to limit the gains.”
Marinelli said he and the defensive coaches did not spend any extra time on the game plan this week.
“That shows inconsistency to your team,” Marinelli said. “You should always be exact in what you do. The preparation has got to be exactly the same every week. Our job is how do you make this thing just a little simpler for us.”
To Marinelli, it’s about the “EDDs” — everyday drills — and alignment, assignment, keys and technique.
“You love challenges, and that’s why you’re doing this stuff,” Marinelli said. “You love challenges. It’s exciting. This quarterback is a Hall of Fame quarterback. And the coach [Sean Payton] is great. What a challenge, but that’s why we’re doing it.”
Despite all of the platitudes thrown at the Saints’ offense, there is a sense behind the kind words that the Cowboys believe they can play defense at a high level.
“I’m looking forward to it a lot,” defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford said. “I know Drew Brees. Played against him a couple of times, and I know what the guy can do. But I also know what this defense is about, and, yeah, I’m excited to get into that game.”