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APPLE-FLAVORED: Battle of Former Teammates Could Decide Saints-Cowboys Showdown

One thing that got somewhat “lost” in the Saints’ impressive victory on the road against the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday, was the much-improved overall play and performance of 4th year starting #2 outside cornerback Eli Apple.

The 24-year old Apple for better or worse, has been one of the more scrutinized players for the Black and Gold dating back to last season.

But thus far through the team’s first three games of the 2019 regular season, the much-maligned former college All-American has shown a great deal of improvement in comparison to other notable rimes in the past year; and will be looking to continue that trend this coming weekend.

(Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Apple — whose forced fumble against Seahawks RB Chris Carson last week helped propel the Saints to their 33-27 victory in the rain at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field — will likely have an opportunity once again to shine brightly for the Black and Gold this Sunday Night, when New Orleans will host the visiting and undefeated (3-0) Dallas Cowboys at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a nationally-televised contest on NBC Sunday Night Football.

But in order to do so, Apple will need to have a direct impact on the game’s outcome by reacquainting himself with an old familiar face, at first.

For a lack of a better term: let’s refer to it as an “Apple-flavored” battle between two old friends.

With Cowboys #2 WR Michael Gallup expected to miss a few more weeks after a minor surgical procedure on his injured knee. he has been replaced in the Cowboys line-up by outside receiver Devin Smith; who attended college at Ohio State University and is a former college teammate of a handful of Saints players.

.(Ashley Landis / Dallas Morning News)

Obviously that would include the often-criticized Apple, who also attended Ohio State where he was an elite-caliber defender and is most likely the one who will match-up one-on-one for a majority of the contest against Smith, who was one of the fastest WR’s on the entire college football scene a few years ago.

Apple and Smith. along with current Saints players Michael Thomas and Vonn Bell, collectively all together were a part of the Buckeyes team that won the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship Game following the 2014 College Football Season.

They finished that 2014 season with 14 wins and 1 loss (14–1 overall, 8–0 in the Big Ten), as champions of the Big 10 Conference and defeated the University of Oregon in a game that ironically took place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (suburban Dallas); where Smith now plays on NFL Sundays for the Cowboys.

Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It’s expected that Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore will utilize Smith’s speed on the outside to exploit Apple as much as they possibly can in pass coverage ⁠— given Apple’s notable problems in the past recently with quick receivers who have either drawn pass interference calls against him, or have burned him for big gains outright.

Smith, who was drafted by the New York Jets in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft; is now in his 5th NFL season but only his first year with Dallas, where he has thus far tallied 113 yards on five catches with a touchdown. 

But it was two weeks ago when Smith put his name on the proverbial map for the Cowboys offense, after he was essentially forgotten about by most NFL observers and analysts after dealing with a series of career-threatening injuries within his first few seasons in the League.

Smith lead the Cowboys in receiving yards and scored a 51-yard touchdown in that game 2 weeks ago against the Washington Redskins, just a few short days after it had been it revealed that Gallup would require a knee surgery that would sideline him for up to a month.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As noted by Dallas Cowboys.com Staff Writer David Helman; Smith has come a long way in just a few short weeks, after getting the opportunity to step in and fill the role normally held by the talented and emerging 2nd year star Gallup.

Even early on in the Cowboys’ recent training camp, Helman says that the the 27-year old Smith was “lost in the shuffle” behind a handful of undrafted rookies; and it wasn’t actually until he started showing some impressive production in the Cowboys’ preseason games last month, that he started to finally garner some attention from both observers as well as the Cowboys offensive coaching staff.

“He caught some balls and made some plays and you could see his confidence grow as he was making those plays — and then the next week, and then the next week,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said to Helman in a recent interview. “I think he started to get a little bit of his spirit back and his confidence back and it’s showing up in his play.”

As it turns out, Smith was only available for the Cowboys to sign as a free agent back during this past January, because of an entire series of injuries that basically robbed him of the early part of his career in New York.

The Jets drafted the speedy Smith with hopes that he’ would come in and have an immediate impact as a rookie by “taking the top off” opposing defenses for years to come. But that never worked out, due to two separate ACL injuries to the same knee that subsequently limited him to playing in a grand total of just 14 games in 3 NFL seasons (2015-17). He was released in July of 2018 and sat out all of last year.

“All the injuries I’ve been through and the time I’ve missed just playing this game,” Smith said to reporters two weeks ago after the win at Washington. “Just to be back on the football team, being around these guys – it means a lot.” Smith later relayed to Helman a few days later in an one-on-one interview that the support he’s received in the Cowboys locker room has been the most meaningful part.

And as Helman notes: for a player who’s had such a lengthy journey to get himself back onto the playing field, the support from his Dallas teammates along with the organization as well as the coaching staff, hasn’t gone unnoticed.

But when the Cowboys meet up in the Superdome with the Saints on Sunday Night, it’s the face of an old familiar friend and college teammate in a likely 1-on-1 battle that very possibly could end up earning the full and undivided attention in a stadium of 70,000-plus screaming Who Dats along with an entire nation watching on from home.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

For Apple, it’s been a week of enjoyment following his momentum-shifting play that ultimately led to to the win over Seattle; and perhaps it’s a sign that his overall play is finally trending back upward just as the Saints had originally hoped ⁠— when they traded a 4th Round pick during the middle of last season to the New York Giants (who drafted Apple with the #10 overall 1st Round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft) to acquire his services.

Apple totaled three tackles (all solo) in the impressive Saints win over the always-tough Seahawks, and he has made 13 tackles (all solo) along with that well-documented forced fumble to his credit, on the season thus far.

And not just any forced fumble mind you, but one which is a big defensive play that ultimately could help to “save” the Saints 2019 Season, following the well-publicized torn thumb ligament injury that was suffered by Saints starting QB Drew Brees two weeks ago.

(Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Brees is still expected to miss at least 5 more games, and the performance of Apple and the entire Saints defense will be counted and depended on, to right the ship that that many observers believed would be sunk while sending New Orleans to an earlier-than-anticipated exit from the NFL Playoff picture a few months from now.

But give “props” to Apple — who never once complained about the negativity that he’s received from a sizable portion of the Saints fan-base — as well as the so-called experts and analysts that cover the League on a daily basis.

Now the Black and Gold will be hoping that trend continues to climb upward this Sunday Night, when the “Apple-flavored” 1-on-1 anticipated battle between two old friends and former Buckeyes teammates, could very well likely determine the winner when the Saints and Cowboys meet face-to-face; in the showdown at the Superdome….

Saints News Network featured columnist and Big Easy Magazine contributing writer Barry Hirstius is a 52-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 45 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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