Dec 092016
 
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Eli Manning, New York Giants (September 11, 2016)

Eli Manning – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Game Preview: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants, December 11, 2016

THE STORYLINE:
What are the New York Giants to the television networks, media, and football fans who don’t root for the Giants? The big-city market team with a super-talented, prima donna wideout and an overrated, mistake-prone quarterback. This weekend they are supposed to be victim #12 for the media darling, “unbeatable” Dallas Cowboys. This game is expected to be a mere formality. Dallas is supposed to cinch the NFC East title on the Giants home field and celebrate in the MetLife locker room with a grinning Jerry Jones looking on in amusement.

Ever since the Giants beat the Cowboys in the season-opener, Dallas has gotten stronger and won 11 games in a row. They are playing with tremendous confidence. And an NFL suffering through a terrible ratings drop is praying for a Cowboys Super Bowl run, so expect no help from the officials.

The Giants don’t have to be perfect to beat the Cowboys. They weren’t perfect on September 11th when they beat them 20-19. But New York will have to play its best game of the season thus far to win. Do the Giants want to be fodder for Dallas’ highlight reel or do they want to steal their headlines? It’s been a long time since the Giants have won a high-profile December game against a quality opponent with playoff implications for both teams.

THE INJURY REPORT:

  • WR/Returner Dwayne Harris (ankle) – questionable
  • TE Larry Donnell (illness) – probable
  • OG Justin Pugh (knee) – questionable
  • DE Jason Pierre-Paul (core muscle) – out
  • DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa (knee) – questionable
  • DT Johnathan Hankins (quadriceps) – questionable
  • LB Mark Herzlich (concussion) – out
  • CB Coty Sensabaugh (ribs) – questionable
  • S Nat Berhe (concussion) – out

NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:
It’s a stunning statistic. The Giants are now 26th in offense. We’re reached Dan Reeves/Dave Brown-era levels. This isn’t supposed to happen with Eli Manning, Odell Beckham, and a supporting cast that was expected to be stronger/more experienced than the group that finished 8th in offense in 2015.

The media and fan knee-jerk reaction is to change this or change that. With four regular season games left, it’s too late to make dramatic changes anywhere. You have to go with what you have and pray you execute better. If it fails, the organization will have to make tough assistant coach, scheme, and personnel decisions in the offseason. The problem is obvious. Opposing defenses are not allowing Beckham to wreck the game. They double- and sometimes triple-team him with a safety deep. They dare the Giants to nickel-and-dime them without making mistakes. The Giants can’t run the ball against defenses playing back. And Sterling Shepard, Victor Cruz, and the backs and tight ends are not doing enough damage DOWN THE FIELD in the passing game to compensate. It’s really that simple. The big question is how much is coaching exacerbating the problem? Some contend the Giants are far too reliant on the 3-WR, 1-TE, and 1-RB (“11” personnel) formation and have become far too predictable. Running out of the shotgun doesn’t seem to be very productive.

The good news is that the Giants may have Justin Pugh and Shane Vereen back this week. The bad news is that both are not 100 percent and both will be rusty.

Dallas doesn’t have a lot of stars on their defense. But they are well-coached. They are 18th overall (2nd against the run, 29th against the pass). More noteworthy, despite giving up a lot of passing yards, they are 5th in scoring defense, allowing only 19 points per game.

“The defense is playing very fast and aggressive, like they always do,” said Ben McAdoo. “They do a great job hunting the ball carrier. (Demarcus) Lawrence is giving them a nice boost, along with (Tyrone) Crawford, and (Maliek) Collins is playing really well as a three-technique. (Sean) Lee and (Byron) Jones have paired to be a great tandem in coverage at the linebacker and safety spots.”

The Giants are 31st in rushing and the Cowboys are 2nd against the run. The Cowboys are 29th against the pass. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this one out. Expect another game with the pass-to-run ratio is 2-to-1 or even 3-to-1. Hopefully the weather cooperates. It’s not realistic to expect Rashad Jennings or any of the tight ends to make a serious impact. It will have to be Beckham, Sterling Shepard, Victor Cruz, Shane Vereen, and Paul Perkins as receivers. Eli Manning has to elevate his game. He can’t play like he did last weekend or the Giants have no chance.

Bottom line? The Giants are averaging 20 points per game. Dallas is allowing 19 points per game. If the Giants don’t score a touchdown more than that, they probably will lose.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:
There is no way to sugar-coat it. Losing Jason Pierre-Paul the week before playing the Cowboys is not good. It’s not even so much about his pass rush but the fact that JPP is one of the best run-defending defensive ends in football. But the situation is what it is and you have to move on. Throughout their history, undermanned New York Giants defenses have risen to the occasion and defeated offensive juggernauts when they weren’t supposed to. Now is the time for Kerry Wynn, Romeo Okwara, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa to make a statement.

The challenges are severe. The Cowboys are 4th in the NFL in offense. They are 2nd in rushing and 19th in passing. The Cowboys have the best offensive line in football. The best running back. One of the best wide receivers in football. A Hall of Fame tight end. And a big, mobile quarterback with a 108.6 QB rating and a 19-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott has gotten better with each game. Through 12 games, he has an astounding 1,285 yards and 12 touchdowns. Elliott is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He’s the complete package. He can beat you with power, moves, instincts, and speed. And Elliott is very good catching the ball, averaging 11.5 yards per catch (on par with many receivers). Quarterback Dak Prescott, wide receiver Dez Bryant, and tight end Jason Witten present their own unique challenges, but the bread-and-butter of this offense is obvious: Elliott running behind a superb run-blocking offensive line. Everything is secondary to limiting the damage on the ground. The good news is the Giants held Elliott to his season-low in Week One (51 yards, 2.6 yards per carry). But Elliott will no doubt carry that chip on his shoulder into this game against a defense missing JPP. And the Giants defense just gave up its first 100-yard game last weekend, mostly after Pierre-Paul left the game.

Olivier Vernon is playing better now than he did earlier in the year. He needs a top-notch effort against one of the best left tackles in football (Tyron Smith). Whomever plays left defensive end will face the lesser player, Doug Free. But the real battle will be inside with Johnathan Hankins and Damon Harrison against a VERY strong interior, including two Pro Bowlers. This is a game where the Giants will need Devon Kennard to step up both as a run defender and pass rusher, including from a down position. Kelvin Sheppard – the run-down middle linebacker – will be on the spot to get off of blockers and make tackles.

The Cowboys take advantage of their strong running game to open up things in the passing game. Linebackers tend to bite on play action and opposing secondaries have less help on the back end to deal with Bryant, Witten, and lesser receivers who still can do damage (slot receiver Cole Beasley actually is the leading pass receiver on the team with 60 catches, compared to Bryant who has 37). Giants fans know what Bryant (17 yards per catch, six touchdowns) and Witten (52 catches) can do. But also keep in mind that Prescott can run the ball – he has 217 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

The Giants have no choice but load up against the run and hope their talented secondary can handle the passing targets mostly on their own. I anticipate we’ll see Landon Collins up near the line of scrimmage a lot, but he and the linebackers can’t be too aggressive on play-action. That’s easier said than done. Getting heat on Prescott will be difficult without JPP. Vernon will have issues with Smith. The reserve ends really haven’t demonstrated any pass-rushing prowess this season. Neither have the defensive tackles. And the pass rushers can’t go all out as they will have to maintain pass-rush integrity against the mobile quarterback. Spagnuolo will have to blitz but the Giants lack top-notch blitzers too. The best bet for Steve Spagnuolo is probably to mix things up and hopefully confuse the rookie quarterback and his blockers.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
To make matters worse, the Cowboys have a huge advantage on special teams. They have the best place kicker in football who is virtually automatic even from long distance. The punter is outstanding, averaging over 46 yards per punt. Dwayne Harris was a difference-maker in the game in the Meadowlands last year, but he is battling a number of injuries and has struggled. Robbie Gould has been shaky. Don’t be surprised if we see Odell Beckham returning punts.

FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH:
Head Coach Ben McAdoo on how teams approach Odell Beckham: “He attracts a lot of attention. It’s a challenge to get him the ball. Teams pay a lot of attention to him. You know going into the game they’re going to have a plan for him. In the past, there may have been one way to take him away. Now, what we’re seeing is they have a few different ways to try and take him away and make you go the long road. We just have to be patient. That’s where the consistency part of things really shows up. You have to be patient and consistent. You have to eliminate the unforced errors. You’re not going to get many opportunities to let him blow the top off of things… When you have a premier player, they don’t want to have a premier player wreck the game.”

THE FINAL WORD:
The good news is the one team to beat the Cowboys is the Giants. And they did it in Dallas so they certainly can do it at home in New York, like they did last season. The Giants are not scared of the Cowboys. The bad news is while the Cowboys offense has gotten better, the Giants offense has stagnated. And it’s Cowboys who are oddly built to win in cold weather and not the Giants. I’d feel more confident about this game if Pierre-Paul was playing. But I think stopping the run and rushing the passer is going to be a problem without him. The Giants have to figure out a way to score more than 20 points in this contest against a team that is allowing less than that per game. The Cowboys also have the advantage in terms of the kicking game. It’s a game like this where the Giants need a team-elevating effort from Eli Manning. It’s been a long time since that happened. Manning has to be more than “good” on  Sunday night. He has to be “great.”

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Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy is Editor-in-Chief of BigBlueInteractive.com, a publication of Big Blue Interactive, LLC. Follow @BigBlueInteract on Twitter.

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