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Cowboys-Saints Preview

By JEFF BARTL

STATS Writer

(AP) -- Rob Ryan famously stated he would be "out of work for like five minutes" when the Dallas Cowboys fired him as their defensive coordinator after last season.

Though he was unemployed for a bit longer than he originally thought, Ryan has helped improve a New Orleans Saints defense that will look to shut down his surging former team Sunday night at the Superdome.

Ryan spent two seasons in Dallas, with his unit ranking 14th in 2011 and 19th in 2012 in total defense. He was let go Jan. 8 after the Cowboys finished 8-8, and with his usual confident swagger said he knew it wouldn't take long for him to land on his feet.

Saints coach Sean Payton hired Ryan on Jan. 24 to help transform a defense that finished dead last in the NFL last season. New Orleans (6-2) ranks ninth this year and has given up 18 points or fewer six times.

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said there's no animosity between him and Ryan, even though he informed his former coordinator of the decision via phone call.

"I love Rob Ryan," Garrett said. "He is a fantastic person. He is a fantastic coach. And has been for a long time."

Cowboys who served under Ryan spoke highly of him, though they know his personality and realize this contest will provide some extra motivation. Ryan's current players know that, too.

"Any time a guy gets fired from a spot he's at and he has an opportunity to play them, he wants to prove a point," Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis said. "They know that. We know that."

New Orleans has been strong against the pass giving up an average of 211.9 yards to rank fifth. That unit will be tested against Tony Romo, who is fifth in the NFL with a 100.0 passer rating - one spot behind Drew Brees' 104.5 mark.

Romo went 34 of 51 for 337 yards and two touchdowns, including a scoring pass with 35 seconds remaining to give the NFC East-leading Cowboys (5-4) a 27-23 win over Minnesota last week.

Dallas has won three of four, and Payton knows slowing Romo will be a difficult task. Payton served as Dallas' assistant head coach from 2003-05 and helped sign Romo, who like Payton is an alum of Eastern Illinois, after he went undrafted in 2003.

"I was there three years working with him, and he has improved each year," Payton said. "He's got a very quick delivery. He's very accurate and studies hard. He's a student of the game and likes playing a lot."

Romo threw for 416 yards and four touchdowns in New Orleans' 34-31 overtime win over the Cowboys on Dec. 23.

"He's having the best year of his career this season," Payton said. "He's been very good in regards to his decision making. He knows pre-snap where he wants to go. He's got a very quick way of getting through his progressions and the ball comes out extremely fast."

Dallas' running game has struggled, though, ranking 27th with an average of 75.7 yards per game. It finished with a season-low 36 last week on only nine attempts.

"DeMarco (Murray) looked like he was going to have a good day, but as it wore on there were some minus runs that got us behind the sticks a little bit," Garrett said. "Hard for us to get in a rhythm. So, when you step back from it and you look at it and say, `Boy, we need to run it more.'"

The Cowboys may want to do that against a Saints defense that ranks 25th allowing an average of 121.3 yards on the ground, including a season-worst 198 in last week's 26-20 loss to the New York Jets.

New Orleans has dropped two of three following a 5-0 start, cutting its NFC South lead over Carolina to one game.

"We're not down," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "We know the kind of players we have in the locker room and what kind of coaches we have. When we do play efficient football and execute, there's not too many teams that can play with us."

Payton said his team needs to have more balance offensively, which falls on him. Brees finished 30 of 51 for 382 yards and two touchdowns against the Jets, but he also threw a pair of interceptions while the Saints only ran the ball 13 times.

"We've been a little bit lopsided," Payton said of his play-calling. "Pass protection becomes more manageable when you're running the football and so this gets back to me."

New Orleans has won seven of the last eight meetings with Dallas after Brees passed for 446 yards and three touchdowns in the last matchup.

Dez Bryant, who caught nine passes for a career-high 224 yards and two TDs last season against the Saints, plans to play Sunday night despite a back injury.

Updated November 6, 2013

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