(SportsNetwork.com) - New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will cap an interesting past eight days when the Dallas Cowboys pay a visit to the Superdome Sunday night in a matchup between division leaders.
In his first season running the Saints' defense, Ryan has implemented a 3-4 scheme in the Crescent City and the players have adjusted nicely save their effort against the run (25th, 121.2 ypg).
The Cowboys have struggled moving the chains on the ground and Ryan hopes to take advantage of his former employer. Ryan, of course, ran Dallas' defense from 2011-12 and parted ways this past offseason. He eventually signed a deal to spearhead the Saints' defense, which is fifth against the pass (211.9), eighth in points allowed (19.4) and ninth in yards allowed (333.1).
Ryan is coming off an emotional 26-20 loss at the Meadowlands last Sunday against twin brother, Rex, who is the head coach of the New York Jets. The Saints trailed 20-14 at halftime and limited the Jets to six points in the second half. The only problem was that the Saints also scored six points over the final two quarters.
New Orleans allowed 338 total yards and once again struggled to stop the run, as New York running back and former Saint Chris Ivory ran for 139 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Ryan's defense did not force any turnovers and registered just two sacks.
Saints veteran linebacker Jonathan Vilma is one of Ryan's best players and wasn't pleased with Sunday's loss, saying the defense has "to get better" and his knee issue is nothing to worry about.
"I wish we could have won the game. I wish I could have made more plays to help the team. Outside of that I feel good," Vilma said. "I think tomorrow will be a good test, and then coming back Wednesday for practice will be a good test to see how the knee feels."
Guess what? The knee doesn't appear to be strong enough to last the season and Vilma was reportedly placed on injured reserve Wednesday. Vilma played just 12 snaps in his first time back on the active roster Sunday. He was one of the four players suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last year for his alleged role in the Saints' bounty scandal.
New Orleans has lost two of three games since opening 5-0 and leads the NFC South by a game ahead of Carolina. The Saints' upcoming schedule is not a forgiving one, as they are scheduled to play Dallas, San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle and Carolina.
But first the Saints have to take care of business with the Cowboys. They're hoping the defense shows up in this one. New Orleans recorded just 30 sacks last season, but already has 26 through eight games. Defensive end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette have six and five sacks, respectively, and cornerback Keenan Lewis has three interceptions. Inside linebacker Curtis Lofton leads the Saints' defense with 75 tackles.
Lofton was asked about the mindset in the locker room and how the Panthers are creeping up in the NFC South because the Saints have lost two of three.
"Well we don't care what any other team does. We don't care where Carolina is at or what they're doing. We care about what we can control, and that's how we play," Lofton said. "If we go out and take care of business, we don't have to worry about any other team. November and December is the time where the real teams start to separate themselves. The great teams separate themselves from the good teams. We know that, and that's what we're going to do."
The Saints are 4-0 at home this season and 14-3 in the last 17 November games.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys lead the NFC East by a game ahead Philadelphia and kept it that way by squeezing out a 27-23 victory over the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday in Big D.
Dwayne Harris' 7-yard touchdown catch with 35 seconds to play lifted the Cowboys, winners in three of their last four games. Tony Romo passed for 337 yards with two touchdowns and an interception while going 34-for-51, while Jason Witten caught eight passes for 102 yards and a score for the Cowboys, who bounced back from a one-point loss in Detroit.
"All wins are big," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "Every one is big. You only play 16 games and you count the wins up at the end. You have to bring your best every Sunday in this league. We've got to learn from this one, move forward and get ready for New Orleans."
One week after blowing up on the sidelines, Dallas mercurial wide receiver Dez Bryant caught six passes for 64 yards and was flagged for taking off his helmet to argue a penalty. Still, Bryant has emerged as one of the best young receivers in the game and is one of the reasons why Dallas is ninth in passing yards (267.1) and fourth in scoring (28.6). Bryant leads the Cowboys in receiving yards (705) and TD receptions (8). Terrell Owens had a team-record 15 TD catches back in 2007, so Bryant is getting close.
You cannot count out Romo either for Dallas' success. Romo is on pace for his fifth 4,000-yard passing season and already has 20 touchdown passes in 2013. His 100.0 QB rating is one of the best and he will look to exploit a tough New Orleans defense. Since the Cowboys have struggled to run the football, Romo will most likely attempt 45 to 50 passes Sunday.
Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray returned after missing two games with a knee injury Sunday and had just 31 yards on four carries. He has 11 total carries in his last two games played.
The Cowboys will enter the bye week after visiting the Saints, who trail the all-time series with Dallas by a 10-15 count. The Saints recorded a 34-31 overtime win in the last meeting on Dec. 23, 2012, as New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees threw for 446 yards and three TDs with no interceptions. Romo passed for 416 yards with four touchdown strikes and no picks.
New Orleans has a 19-8 record on primetime television since 2006.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Brees is on pace for another 5,000-yard campaign and should pick apart a Dallas defense rated 31st in both passing yards allowed (305.2) and total yards allowed (419.2). Brees threw for 382 yards with two scores and two costly picks at the Jets. He also lost vital weapon Darren Sproles to an injury, which appeared to an ankle. Sproles was reportedly being checked for a possible concussion.
"That's tough, because obviously he's a big part of the game plan," Brees said.
Since 2011, Sproles leads NFL running backs with 198 catches, 1,745 receiving yards and 15 receiving scores. He could miss Sunday's game versus Dallas.
Saints wide receiver Marques Colston missed the Jets game with a knee issue and is questionable this week. Colston is 119 receiving yards shy of passing Eric Martin (7,854) for most in franchise history and has posted consecutive 100-yard performances against the Cowboys.
Tight end Jimmy Graham will be up for Sunday's primetime showdown and leads the NFL with 10 receiving TDs. Graham has 746 receiving yards and is on pace to set the record for the position for the NFC South-leading Saints.
"We're 6-2 and in first in the division," Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "We've got a huge game this Sunday. It's Sunday Night Football, a huge game, it doesn't get much better."
Dallas hopes stud linebacker DeMarcus Ware can make a return this Sunday after missing the previous three weeks with a quad injury. According to Cowboys legendary owner Jerry Jones, he believes Ware "is ready" to go at New Orleans.
Ware has missed the only three games of his career after he was hurt Oct. 13 versus Washington. Ware, who has an NFL-best 115 sacks since his rookie season of 2005, had played 134 straight games.
In other injury news for Dallas, wide receiver Miles Austin and cornerback Morris Claiborne are both dealing with hamstring injuries. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher leads Dallas with seven sacks, while linebacker Sean Lee has a team-best four interceptions and leads his position with 11 picks since 2010.
Don't expect to see both offenses to hitch their wagons to the run because the Saints and Cowboys achieve success by throwing the football.
Brees could get another weapon back in Colston on Sunday, but the Cowboys will counter that with the possibility of Ware returning. The NFL schedule makers picked a great matchup for Sunday night and the ratings should be high with two division leaders trying to separate themselves from the pack.
In the end, however, the Saints will erase the painful memories of losing to the Jets by taking it to the Cowboys in relatively easy fashion.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 31, Cowboys 20