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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Saints coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have been going out of their way to point out that Dallas' defense is not the same unit that New Orleans torched in the Superdome last season.
Indeed, this Sunday night in Dallas, more than half of the Cowboys' starting lineup on defense could be different from last November's meeting in New Orleans. In that meeting, the Saints set franchise records of 625 yards and 40 first downs in a 49-17 victory.
There has also been some shuffling of responsibilities among Dallas' defensive coaches, with Rod Marinelli having been promoted from line coach to coordinator.
Those are some of the changes Payton outlines when explaining why he doesn't want his fourth-ranked offense to rest on anything it has done against Dallas in the past.
"Almost their entire (defensive) front looks new," Payton said. "This will be a real good challenge for us."
Referring to Dallas' comeback from three touchdowns down in a 34-31 Week 3 victory at St. Louis, Payton pointed out that the Cowboys "obviously came from behind last week and got the turnovers they needed and won on the road."
Payton said the Cowboys (2-1) are even helping their defense by choosing to run the ball more when they have the ball. Led by running back DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys are averaging nearly 157 yards rushing, and the clock control that goes with that kind of ground game reduces the number of total plays that its defense has to spend on the field.
"Their commitment to run the football has benefited their defense," Payton asserted.
The Saints have averaged about 422 yards of offense. Their 281.3 yards passing per game ranks fifth in the NFL, their 140.3-yard rushing average ranks sixth and their 26 points per game ranks seventh.
But the Saints (1-2) opened with a pair of close losses on the road before getting a 20-9 victory last week which, statistically, was the offense's worst game.
For those reasons, Brees also seemed uncomfortable talking about Sunday night's game in the context of last season's blowout.
"Even though it is only a year apart, it's a different game," Brees said.
Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick was a starter in last year's meeting and this week was promoted back into a starting role over former LSU star Morris Claiborne.
Scandrick said Cowboys defenders have to be cautious about placing too much emphasis on last year's meeting.
"Obviously they had their way with us. We will use that as motivation," Scandrick said. "But we can't go back and let it get in our heads and think, if they get a few first downs ... 'Here we go again.'"
The Cowboys are giving up 360.3 yards per game, which ranks 21st, but so far looks a lot better than 415.3 yards per game that Dallas' last-ranked 2013 defense yielded.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said he sees last year's meeting as "probably more of a teaching tool."
"If you can get anything from it, from a scheme standpoint or a personnel standpoint, you certainly try to use that," Garrett said. "It was not a good game for us. Their team is different. Our team is different."
While the Saints are running the ball well so far this season, they are expected to be without Mark Ingram, who rushed for a career-high 145 yards and a TD against Dallas in 2013.
The Saints' passing game will again feature star tight end Jimmy Graham and franchise all-time receiver Marques Colston, and Brees is also developing an on-field rapport with rookie Brandon Cooks, who had a team-high eight catches for 74 yards last week.
When Garrett analyzes the Saints 2014 offense, what stands out to him is the variety or players who've been effective both through the air and on the ground.
"They're a top 10 rushing team right now and they, like everybody else, are at their best when they're balanced and attack a lot of different ways," Garrett said.
Notes: Those missing practice Thursday for New Orleans included C Jonathan Goodwin (ankle), RB Mark Ingram (hand) and linebacker David Hawthorne (ankle, knee), while those sittout out Cowboys practice included LB Rolando McClain (groin), DT Henry Melton (Hamstring) and DT Terrell McClain (groin). ... Saints TE Ben Watson (groin) returned to practice on a limited basis.
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