Key matchup: Saints defense vs. Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray

Dan Parr
Key matchup: Saints defense vs. Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray

In Wednesday’s key matchup, we look ahead to the Week 16 meeting between the Saints and Cowboys.

Key matchup: Saints defense vs. Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray

The much-maligned Saints defense is coming off its best performance in a long, long time. It shut out the Buccaneers, who had racked up 513 yards against them earlier this season, in Week 15 — it was the Saints’ first shutout in 17 years — and shut down rookie RB Doug Martin, one of the league’s most productive running backs.

There have been signs of minor improvement from the Saints’ defense recently — it allowed 400 yards or more in each of the first 10 games but not once since.

For most of this season, though, New Orleans’ “D” has struggled mightily. Just a week before keeping Martin (career-low 16 yards on nine carries) in check, the Giants dropped 52 points on the Saints and rookie RB David Wilson had a breakthrough game, rushing for 100 yards and two touchdowns.

The next back that will get a crack at the Saints’ 31st-ranked run defense — DeMarco Murray — has rushed for a TD in each of the past three games, and the Cowboys are 8-2 over the past two seasons when he rushes for 73 yards or more, which he has done twice during the team’s three-game winning streak. When he is healthy, Murray is a major difference maker for Dallas, and if the Saints allow him to break off a few big runs, they can probably forget about playing spoiler against a team fighting for a playoff spot.

Murray has the ability to make something out of nothing, and he does just that on a regular basis. He has a rare size-speed combination and will find an opening to accelerate through if defenders fail to wrap up when it looks like they have him cornered.

If Murray is having success Sunday, the Saints could put hard-hitting SS Roman Harper inside the box, where he is at his best, but they are already playing a backup at free safety in Isa Abdul-Quddus with Malcolm Jenkins on injured reserve and it will be risky tempting QB Tony Romo to test them over the top if they are playing a single safety high.

This is a game where the Saints’ front seven needs to step up. The Saints start three linebackers — MLB Curtis Lofton, SLB David Hawthorne and WLB Jonathan Vilma — that are at their best playing in the middle. Lofton remains a reliable run stuffer and will be looking to clean up on Murray, who often exposes himself to big hits. Murray’s speed could give Hawthorne real problems, though, and his power could put Vilma on his heels.

The defensive line has to maintain good gap discipline and avoid making the mistakes that has allowed teams like the Panthers, Chiefs, Broncos and Eagles to each rush for more than 200 yards against them.