Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) scores on a 16-yard run against the Washington Redskins on November 22, 2018 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Photo by Ian Halperin/UPI | License Photo
Quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints' offense has been getting most of the attention during their 10-game winning streak, but the focus will be on the Saints' run defense when they face Dallas on Thursday night at AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys have the league's leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott, who has run for 1,074 yards while averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
He has gained at least 120 yards on the ground in each of Dallas' last three games. It is no coincidence that the Cowboys (6-5) won all three of those games to push them into a tie with Washington for first place in the NFC East.
New Orleans (10-1) might have the answer, because the Saints lead the NFL in rushing defense, allowing just 73.2 yards on the ground per game. New Orleans allows opposing runners to gain just 3.6 yards per carry, which is virtually tied with the Chicago Bears for the best in the league.
Both teams will have adequate rest, since both played on Thanksgiving Day and won.
Elliott was limited in practice on Sunday with hip soreness, though he was not listed on Monday or Tuesday.
"[Elliott] was dealing with hip soreness coming out of the game. That's why he was limited [Sunday]," Dallas head coach Jason Garrett said on Monday.
Elliott's success recently has helped quarterback Dak Prescott become more productive.
During the current three-game winning streak, he has completed 70.7 percent of his passes with three touchdown passes and no interceptions.
"We're getting better each and every week," Prescott said. "That's what you want to do, that's what you need to do this time of year. November football, that's as good as it gets. Playing a team like we're playing, we're excited about it."
The Cowboys' defense is also playing well, although the challenge increases when Dallas faces Brees and the Saints' offense.
"Our hands are full, but we're looking forward to it," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said.
The Saints lead the NFL with a scoring average of 37.2 points per game, and they have scored 30 points or more in five straight games. They rank sixth in rushing yards, sixth in passing yards and fifth in total yards.
Brees leads the NFL by a sizable margin in passer rating (127.3), and he has completed 76.4 percent of his passes, with 29 touchdown throws and just two interceptions.
Plus, New Orleans has allowed its quarterback to be sacked just 11 times this season, tied for the fewest in the league.
"Obviously, what the defense does to a degree dictates how we play, what we're calling or maybe how we're doing things," Brees said, "but for the most part as we go throughout the week of preparation, we talk about our execution, we talk about our tempo, we talk about our in and out of the huddle, in and out, up and down, getting the ball snapped, guys knowing what to do so they can play fast, play confidently.
"We feel like if we do that, it doesn't matter who the defense is, that we can outplay them, out-execute them. You're obviously conscious of certain guys and situations and what does this team do on third down. What does this team do in the red zone? What does this team do in certain situations? But for the most part, we just focus on detailing our stuff."
Dallas' defense is allowing just 19.4 points per game, third best in the NFL, and no team has scored more than 28 points against the Cowboys this season.
"The Cowboys defense is playing just as well as any defense in the league," Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "We are going to have to be able to handle that, handle the noise and their front does a great job of getting on your edge and the movement they present and the challenges they present are difficult."
The Saints have produced the second-longest winning streak in franchise history. The only longer one came when the 2009 team started 13-0 on its way to winning New Orleans' only Super Bowl.
The Saints can clinch their second consecutive NFC South title as soon as this weekend. If the Saints win and the Carolina Panthers lose, New Orleans will be assured of the division title.