Sep 062013
 
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Keith Rivers, New York Giants (October 28, 2012)

The Linebackers Must Cover Witten – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys, September 8, 2013: For true football fans, the start of football season each September has become one way in which we measure time, especially for those of us who are older. There are birthdays and holidays and other significant dates such as the start and end of school each year, but the football clock has its own special meaning to many of us. It symbolizes the end of summer and coming of cooler weather – football weather. And it inaugurates a new weekly routines and rituals that culminate on game day. To some of us, specific years not only mark time, but represent happy or sad memories from a specific NFL season. The years 1986, 1990, 2007, and 2011 have a vastly different meaning to a Giants’ fan.

So starts the 2013 NFL Campaign.  At least 16 individual game-day dramas are about to unfold for us.  I can’t predict the outcome, but I can tell you without doubt that the ride will be a rollercoaster. There will be ups and downs, misery and joy. One week we will feel like kings of the world and the next our co-workers won’t want to be around us on Monday. Each NFL season is quite an adventure, and like that overused quote from Forrest Gump, you’re never sure what you’re going to get.

Division games are so critically important. Last season, the Redskins went 5-1 in the NFC East. Meanwhile, the Giants split their divisional games with each opponent, finishing 3-3 in the NFC East. Each of those losses was a tight but ultimately disappointing affair that ended up costing the Giants the division and a playoff spot. Because there are so few games, each contest on the 16-game schedule matters, but none more so than division games.

Needless to say, the Giants-Cowboys opener is a huge game for both teams.

Giants on Offense: Dallas’ defense has completely changed. They have shifted from the 3-4 to the 4-3 defense. Such a dramatic transition can normally cause problems but the Cowboys are helped by the very experienced Monte Kiffin, who is now Dallas’ defensive coordinator. Kiffin ran Tampa Bay’s tough defense from 1996-2008, and he is joined in Dallas by his old compatriot, Rod Marinelli, one of the best defensive line coaches in the NFL.

Kiffin’s system is different than his predecessor’s.  It’s a bit more conservative but fundamentally sound, designed to prevent big plays. The Giants might have to be more patient against it, but growing pains to the 4-3 and some injury issues on Dallas’ defense could still present some big-play opportunities for the Giants.

Like most teams, the Cowboys have some strengths and weaknesses on defense. The heart of the unit remains play-makers RDE DeMarcus Ware and MLB Sean Lee, two of the very best at their respective positions in the NFL. Ware, who has now shifted from linebacker to defensive end, has 111 career sacks. And Lee is a hard-hitting, instinctive, play-making tackling machine. It will be critically important for the Giants to get a hat on both and sustain those blocks. The likely absence of FB Henry Hynoski (knee) could hurt with Lee.

Ware would normally line up over Will Beatty but it will be interesting to see if Kiffin has him challenge the rookie Justin Pugh. Dallas is also sure to test LG James Brewer with blitzes and stunts in an effort to confuse the big but inexperienced player.

That all said, Dallas is a bit banged up on the defensive line. LDE Anthony Spencer (knee) and DT Jay Ratliff (hamstring) won’t play. Their back-ups, DE George Selvie and DT Nick Hayden will start. That should help the Giants.  DT Jason Hatcher is tough however.

Led by Lee, the linebacking unit is probably the strength of the defense right now. WLB Bruce Carter and SLB Justin Durrant are athletic, the type of linebackers that Kiffin likes to employ in his Tampa-2 system.

The faces change, but as has been the case for years, the Dallas safeties are the weak spot in the secondary with Barry Church and Will Allen now starting. RCB Morris Claiborne, Dallas’ 2012 first-rounder, has not practiced or played all preseason. The Giants are sure to test him. LCB Brandon Carr is very solid. Orlando Scandrick is the nickel back. The corners are more naturally suited to press coverage, but Kiffin tends to employ more conservative zone coverage. It will be interesting to see if this leads to opportunities for Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, and Louis Murphy.

The big concerns for the Giants remain: can the revamped offensive line with two inexperienced players protect Eli Manning and provide running room for David Wilson? With Andre Brown (fractured leg) out, can David Wilson handle a bigger load? Can Da’Rel Scott adequately spell him as a runner, receiver, and pass protector? Ball security for both will be critical. The absence of Brown exacerbates the Giants’ woeful short-yardage and red zone offense. Can the Giants convert on third-and-short and score touchdowns in the red zone, especially against Kiffin’s bend-but-don’t-break defense?

The Giants will need Eli Manning to get out of his preseason funk, and to be frank, out-play Tony Romo.

Giants on Defense: The Dallas offense is similar to the Giants in that they have a lot of talent at the skill positions, but there are huge question marks on the offensive line.

It looks like Doug Free will still start at right tackle despite the Cowboys wanting to move him inside to guard. Inside, the Cowboys have a rookie center and two guards with questionable ability. LT Tyron Smith is their best player. It is absolutely critical for the self-acclaimed Giants’ defensive line to control the line of scrimmage, stuff the run, and get after Romo. If they don’t, the shaky back seven of the Giants’ defense could be exposed by a very talented group of receivers.

The first key will be stopping the run. It is believed that Offensive Coordinator Bill Callahan, the new play-caller, will operate a more balanced offense with an increased emphasis on the run. DeMarco Murray has given the Giants problems in the past and if he gets it going, it will be a long night. The Cowboys also have some decent backups in Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner (Late Note: Dunbar will not play due to foot injury). It’s imperative that Linval Joseph, Cullen Jenkins, Shaun Rogers, and Mike Patterson dominate the Cowboys’ interior trio, while Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka, and maybe Jason Pierre-Paul (back) hold the edges. Obviously, the linebackers must be strong at the point-of-attack, while at the same time being cognizant of misdirection, something the Giants’ defense has been vulnerable to for quite some time.

If the Giants are able to limit Dallas’ ground game, the danger is not over. Guys like Tuck, Kiwanuka, and Jenkins are going to have to get heat on Tony Romo. Fans love to criticize Romo, but he is one of the most productive quarterbacks in the game and he has burned the Giants quite a bit over the years. Like all quarterbacks, the key is to get in his face and rattle him. Inside pressure in his face will help tremendously, but the Giants have to bring him down and not let him improvise. He’s at his best when improvising. I’ll say it again – bring him down!

WR Dez Bryant is one of the most dangerous receivers in football. He’s a size-speed match-up problem. Prince Amukamara will probably cover him for the bulk of the game. Do the Giants help out Prince? Don’t lose sight of the other guy who isn’t getting nearly enough press: WR Miles Austin. Austin has had a very strong summer and Romo likes to throw to him. Moreover, Austin has given the Giants’ fits over the years. He will be a very tough test for Corey Webster. Throw into this mix TE Jason Witten, still a very dangerous and reliable target for Romo. He’s Romo’s security blanket. He caught 18 passes in one game against the Giants last season. Dallas is sure to test the Giants’ linebackers and safeties in coverage with passes to the tight ends and backs. Wouldn’t you?

Giants on Special Teams: Dwayne Harris returns punts and kickoffs for the Cowboys, but obviously they will use Dez Bryant on punt returns in critical situations. As for the Giants, ball security by punt returner Rueben Randle and kick returner Michael Cox is concern #1. The rookie Cox could have first-game jitters.

Series Notes: The Cowboys lead the regular-season series, 57-42-2.

The Giants are 7-11 in prime time against the Cowboys.

The Giants are 0-5 in season-opening games vs. the Cowboys (1965, 1986, 1995, 2007, and 2012). They won the Super Bowl in two of those seasons (1986 and 2007).

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Eric Kennedy

Founder and owner of BigBlueInteractive.com, which is now entering its 20th season. Follow Eric on Twitter @BigBlueInteract.

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