METAIRIE, La. -- No team in the NFL appreciates how dangerous Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant is more than the New Orleans Saints. Last year, Bryant torched their secondary with nine catches for 224 yards and two 58-yard touchdown passes before the Saints pulled out a 34-31 victory in overtime.
This year, the Saints insist they will have a better plan under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who is known for devising unique approaches for each opponent. Safety Malcolm Jenkins said the Saints doomed themselves last year by stubbornly trying to match up in single coverage against Bryant -- something that put cornerback Patrick Robinson in a thankless position.
Although Saints players didn’t specifically criticize former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, it’s clear that they didn’t agree with last year’s approach.
“We refused to double cover him last year, and that’s tough for any corner in this league,” Jenkins said. “[Bryant] is big, he’s fast, he can catch the ball well, has pretty good routes. And he has Tony Romo as a quarterback. So when you get good ball placement and you’ve got a receiver who can do all that, it’s a tough matchup. Especially when you talk about one-on-one coverage with no help.
“Now there’s been corners that have played him well. Most of them have safety help over the top, so they can be aggressive with him at the line of scrimmage and challenge him. But having him on one-on-one all day, that’s tough living.”
Along with a new plan of attack, the Saints also have a new weapon of their own in cornerback Keenan Lewis, who has done an outstanding job this year since signing as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lewis (6-1, 208) has the kind of height and long arms that allow him to disrupt bigger receivers like Bryant (6-2, 222). He has also shown an ability to hang with speedy receivers down the field.
Lewis has often shadowed top receivers this year. And together, he and fellow cornerback Jabari Greer have practically silenced every top receiver they’ve faced -- a list that includes Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald, Roddy White, Vincent Jackson and Mike Wallace.
Bryant, however, might present their toughest challenge to date with his game-breaking combination of size and speed.
Here's what the Saints have been saying about Bryant this week:
CB Keenan Lewis: “Probably one of the best in the league. Everyone talks about Megatron [Calvin Johnson]. I think he’s right up there with him. A physical guy, athleticism through the roof. Probably got like a 44 -, 45-inch vertical. Plays physical every play no matter if he’s not getting the ball. You can tell the majority of the time, they’re not just going off Romo, they’re going off of him, too. That’s big when you’re at the receiver spot and you can get the team going.”
CB Jabari Greer: “Obviously I’ve seen him create some highlight catches, and I know he has the ability to do that. Playing him in the past, I understand that he could easily be an extremely dynamic force in their offense if he’s allowed to get going. … He is a big guy with speed, plays with passion, plays hard. So anytime that you have a guy that has the ability and has the passion and puts those things together, they’re usually some of the best in the league. And he’s playing like that. So we have to have a healthy respect for him, and we do.”
Coach Sean Payton: “He’s an explosive player who does a great job of making plays above his head. He’s very good -- as good as anyone -- at run after the catch. He’s a hard guy to bring down. So I think that’s one of the things that you see in each game. His ability to take the ball and get yards after a reception is exceptional.
“We’re going to have to be very, very sharp with regards to our coverage, our rush, and where he’s at. He plays most of the time at the X. Sometimes if it’s trips he’ll be the one receiver. If it’s two by two, he’ll be to the slot. They will move him around some, but paying attention to a player like that -- no different than you might Jimmy Graham -- might be very important.”
S Malcolm Jenkins: “Obviously he’s THE guy that we’ll be focusing on. That’s their main target. And he can turn a game around whenever he decides to turn it on. So we have to be ready for that.”
QB Drew Brees: “He is a tremendous weapon. He is a great athlete. He makes all kinds of plays. He had a huge game against us last year. We all remember that. He is just an explosive player.”