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'Thursday Night Football' preview: What to watch for in Cowboys-Saints

The Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints are each playing on a second consecutive Thursday, and despite the Washington Football Team's recent surge, Dallas will do so with a reasonably comfortable two-game lead in the NFC East.

The Cowboys have dropped three of their last four games, but with a 7-4 record, it remains Dallas' division to lose; some key players will be returning from injury or the COVID-19 list in the near-term, and the Cowboys' remaining opponents carry a .493 winning percentage. The Saints are in a much tougher spot, but the good news is that the competition for NFC wild-card spots isn't nearly as stiff as it is in the AFC. In fact, New Orleans' 5-6 record is currently good enough for second place in three out of four NFC divisions.

Here are four things to watch for when the Saints play host to the Cowboys:

Dallas Cowboys
2021 · 7-4-0
New Orleans Saints
2021 · 5-6-0

8:20 p.m. ET (FOX, NFL Network, Amazon) | Caesars Superdome

  1. Nobody can say Mike McCarthy’s replacement doesn’t know what he’s getting into. With the Cowboys’ head coach unavailable after testing positive for COVID-19, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will move from his usual seat in the booth to don the main headset on the sideline. And who better than the Saints for Quinn to substitute against? Quinn went head to head against Saints coach Sean Payton 10 times in his five-plus years as the Atlanta Falcons head coach from 2015-2020. He went 4-6 in those NFC South clashes, and although all 10 of those Saints teams were Drew Brees-led, Quinn is nevertheless plenty familiar with a lot of Saints personnel, and Payton, as well.
  2. Can Taysom Hill pull the Saints out of a nosedive? The Saints appear poised to make a move at the quarterback position, having lost four consecutive games with Trevor Siemian at the controls. What was once a 5-2 team is now, a month later, saddled with desperation, and Hill assumed first-team practice reps this week and was not listed on the team's injury report after previously battling a foot injury. The Saints’ skid isn’t all on Siemian, however. Dynamic running back Alvin Kamara has missed three games in a row with a knee injury, leaving the team without its best offensive weapon. A limited participant in practice this week, Kamara is listed as questionable for TNF, but will not play against Dallas, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and Jane Slater reported. If Hill is to helm a prime-time upset of the Cowboys in his first extensive passing action of the season, he’ll need the help of Mark Ingram, New Orleans' RB2 behind Kamara, to pull it off.
  3. How will Demarcus Lawrence look after an absence of more than two months? The Cowboys’ outstanding pass rusher will make his return from a broken foot sustained in a mid-September practice. His presence will be welcome for a Dallas defensive front beset by injuries, but his snap count and effectiveness should come with reasonable expectations after such a lengthy layoff. In another week or two, when Lawrence and defensive end Randy Gregory are both back in the lineup, rookie linebacker Micah Parsons likely won’t be asked to rush the passer as much. For the Saints game, however, expect to see Parsons continue coming off the edge quite a bit.
  4. The Saints pass defense had better play on its toes. As if playing against the NFL’s top-ranked offense (420 yards per game) won’t be difficult enough, the Saints face a big disadvantage in a key area in particular. They’re the worst team in the NFL in defending quick passes (defined by Next Gen Stats as passes released with under 2.5 seconds to throw). In that subset, the Saints rank 32nd in completion percentage allowed (81.9), yards per attempt (7.9) and passer rating (115.9). Meanwhile, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is on his way to career highs on quick passes in each of those three categories (81.5 completion rate, 7.2 yards per attempt, 108.5 passer rating), and Dallas expects to have wideouts Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb back. If Prescott can nickel and dime his way down the field with limited resistance, you’ll know why.

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