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Thursday Night Preview: Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints

Thursday Night Football Preview


Line: Cowboys -4.5, Total: 47.5


Is Taysom Hill a True Unicorn?  

Taysom Hill is expected to start at quarterback for the Saints on Thursday Night Football, which will be just the fifth start of his career under center. Last season, in a 24-9 win over the Falcons, Hill did something that only four other players have done in NFL history: started his first career game at quarterback after the age of 30. None of the others — Brian St. Pierre (30), Dan Manucci (30), Doug Pederson (31), and Dieter Brock (34) — had any sustained success on the field. In fact, St. Pierre and Manucci had only one start in their careers and Doug Pederson went 3-14 in 17 starts across the 1999 and 2000 seasons (though he coached the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory in 2018, after the 2017 season). Brock actually went 11-4 and led the LA Rams to the playoffs in the only season he ever played, 1985, but that’s a story for another day.

After signing a landmark contract extension earlier this season, Hill bet on himself that he could be a starting quarterback in the NFL, despite that not being the case for his tricenarian predecessors. Hill got a late start in the NFL because he completed a mission trip for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints before enrolling at BYU. He suffered four season-ending injuries in his college career, one of which led to a medical redshirt and fifth season at that level. Despite playing only 37 games in five seasons at BYU, he threw for nearly 7,000 yards (6,929). However, his touchdown-to-interception ratio (43-to-31) and completion percentage (58.2%) led many to believe that he could not play the position at the next level. He was signed by the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2017 but did not make the final roster following the preseason; he was claimed by the Saints in December of that year and has been with the team ever since, playing every offensive skill position (QB, RB, WR, TE & FB) along with snaps on both sides of the ball on special teams.

When Drew Brees was injured last season, Hill was finally given the chance to start at quarterback, beating out fellow backup Jameis Winston. Hill started four games, going 3-1, and completing 72% (82-of-114) of his passes for 834 yards (7.3 yards/attempt) and throwing four touchdowns and two interceptions. He also rushed 42 times for 221 yards (5.3 yards/carry) and four touchdowns over those four starts.  New Orleans scored 24.3 points per game under Hill, which was far below the 32.1 points per game in Brees’ 12 starts. Hill’s 3-1 record was due in large part to the defense stepping up in the absence of Brees: opponents scored just 52 points over the four Hill starts (13.0 points/game), allowing 20+ points just once (in Hill’s only loss, 24-21 at Philadelphia).

Can Hill become the first quarterback in history to start his first career game after the age of 30 and go on to win an NFL playoff game? Despite being 5-6 after a four-game losing skid, the Saints are currently in a four-way tie for the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC, so the opportunity is there. They will face only two teams with a winning record the rest of the way — this game against Dallas and a rematch vs. Tampa Bay, which the Saints have already beaten this season. Hill has been described as a unicorn, but to truly differentiate himself, he must accomplish something that no one else has. But we’ve been told that unicorns aren’t real.


Superdome Dogs

Because of their status of having one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL and a Hall of Fame quarterback under center for the previous 15 seasons, the Saints haven’t found themselves as home underdogs very often in recent years. Since the start of 2010, New Orleans has been installed as a home dog just 13 times — and three of those have come this season. In those games, the Saints have gone 9-3-1 against the spread, including 2-1 ATS this season. In the Sean Payton-era, New Orleans is 25-9 ATS as an underdog of 3.5 to 9.5 points.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, have hit an ATS cold stretch. After starting the season by rattling off seven straight wins against the number, Dallas has gone 1-3 ATS in its past four. The team hasn’t been very strong as road favorites, either, going 4-7 ATS in the past 11 such games. Five of the Cowboys last six games as a road favorite have gone Under the total, and four of their past five games overall have also gone Under. Additionally, the Under is 11-3 on Thursday night Saints games with Payton coaching.

While the public is backing the Cowboys (65% of the bets), the pros (56% of the money, including sharp money) are on the Saints, according to Action Network. There is a slight ticket lean on the over (53%) but strong money leans in that direction (68%).


Trench Warfare

“Gotta win in the trenches,” – every football analyst, ever. And if you love watching teams battle it out “in the trenches,” do we have the game for you! This matchup features some of the best players in the NFL at the line of scrimmage, especially on the Dallas offensive line. According to ESPN Analytics, Dallas has three players on its offensive line who rank in the Top 10 at their positions in run block win rate: OT Tyron Smith (80%), OG Zack Martin (74%) and C Tyler Biadasz (71%). These three players, along with former All-Pro RB Ezekiel Elliott and emerging speed-back Tony Pollard are the primary reason that the Cowboys rank 7th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (127.5) despite running the football on only 41.0% of offensive plays (18th-highest).

This week, they’ll go up against the best run-stopping EDGE defender in the NFL, Cameron Jordan. Jordan’s 36% run stop win rate is the best in the league among linebackers and defensive ends and has helped the Saints to the 3rd-best rushing defense (91.9 yards per game, behind the Bucs 81.0, and Ravens, 84.2). Although the Cowboys have excelled in run blocking (73% run-block win rate as a team, 5th-best), they haven’t been as good in pass protection (54% pass-block win rate, 25th-best). Fortunately for them, they get a matchup with one of the worst pass-rushing teams in the league, as New Orleans ranks 30th with a 33% pass-rush win rate on defense.

On the other side of the ball, health is a major concern for New Orleans. Both starting offensive tackles for the Saints, Ryan Ramczyk (knee) and Terron Armstead (knee), are listed as questionable. Neither of them has practiced this week and both look unlikely to play. The loss of Ramczyk is massive, especially in Hill’s first start of the season. Ramczyk has been the best OT in the league this season when it comes to pass blocking, with a 95% win rate. He is the only Saints OL who ranks in the Top 10 at his position in either pass-block or run-block win rate. The Cowboys have arguably one of the best rookie pass rushers in recent memory in Micah Parsons.

Parsons was drafted as a linebacker but moved to DE out of necessity following the DeMarcus Lawrence injury. Parsons has thrived, and his 21.1% pressure rate is the best in the NFL, while his 25% pass rush win rate is tied for 3rd in the NFL among all EDGE rushers. Parsons has recorded at least one sack in each of the past four games and has 6.5 total over that span. He hit Las Vegas QB Derek Carr a season-high five times last week, while recording one sack. We wrote this last week about Parsons, but it bears repeating: “Parsons is the 2nd rookie in the last 20 seasons with 8+ sacks and 40+ tackles in his first 10 career games; the other was 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year winner, Von Miller.

Parsons also became the first NFL player to record at least five sacks, more than 25 tackles, double-digit tackles-for-loss, and multiple forced fumbles in a four-game span since 1999 when TFL began being charted as an NFL statistic.” Lawrence is expected to return to the Cowboys lineup in this game, prompting questions about whether or not Parsons will return to his linebacking role. If not, he and Lawrence could form the most fearsome pass-rushing duo in the NFL. Facing a team that could be without its two starting offensive tackles, they should be able to disrupt Hill on Thursday Night.