Game Preview: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys, September 10, 2017
The most direct route to make the playoffs is to win your division. And the best way to win your division is to have a winning record against your division opponents, and particularly against those division opponents who represent the biggest threat. Because of all of that, this is a big game whose outcome quite possibly will affect the playoff picture in December.
It is no accident that the NFL has mandated that the Giants play the Cowboys in Dallas for the fourth time in five years. The Giants-Cowboys contest is always a ratings bonnaza for a league that saw its popularity take a big dip in 2016. (The conspiracy theorist in me suspects this is why Ezekiel Elliott is playing despite his 6-game suspension being upheld).
The Cowboys won the NFC East in 2016 with a stellar 13-3 regular-season record. But two of their losses came at the hands of the 11-5 Giants, who swept the Cowboys by a total of four points. Once again, the Cowboys and Giants are expected to be the leading contenders for the NFC East title. This game should be close and come down to the 4th quarter.
THE INJURY REPORT:
- FB Shane Smith (quad – probable)
- WR Odell Beckham, Jr. (ankle – questionable)
- WR Tavarres King (ankle – probable)
- DT Jay Bromley (knee – probable)
- LB Keenan Robinson (concussion – out)
- CB Eli Apple (ankle – probable)
- CB Michael Hunter (concussion)
NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:
Will Odell Beckham, Jr. play? And if he does, how effective will he be? In a game that actually counts, the Giants have yet to prove they can move the football and score without someone other than Beckham making plays. Look no further than last year’s game in the Meadowlands. The difference in that 10-7 game was a 61-yard pass play to Beckham, which unbelievably accounted for 23 percent of the team’s offense in that game. No other play gained more than 19 yards. It truly was a pathetic display of “offense” for the Giants.
The book on defending the Giants is prevent the big play to Beckham, and force the Giants to beat you with their running game and throwing to other players. This will likely remain the book until the Giants hurt teams with their other weapons. Enter Brandon Marshall, Evan Engram, Rhett Ellison, and second-year players Sterling Shepard and Paul Perkins. The expectation is that these players will be effective players in their own right, and make the Giants’ offense less predictable and dependent on Beckham. That remains to be seen.
The largely no-name Dallas defense is a perfect example of a unit whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. On paper, the Cowboys defense shouldn’t be very good. But unbelievably they were #1 against the run in 2016 and 14th overall. While some of this is due to the fact that the Cowboys controlled the clock and limited opportunities by opponents, don’t underestimate the fact that this is an exceptionally well-coached, cohesive unit that plays hard, hustles to the football, and forces turnovers. They are a scrappy bunch.
Unless both teams play outside their 2016 norms (Cowboys #1 run defense vs. Giants #29th rushing attack), don’t expect New York to be able to consistently run the football. The Giants are not a physical football team. If I’m Dallas, I dare the Giants to beat me with the run and focus on defending the pass (and specifically Beckham if he plays). The good news for the Giants justifiably-maligned offensive line is that the Cowboys really don’t have any consistent pass rushers who scare you. The Cowboys will likely have to scheme their pass rush by using stunts and blitzes, placing stress on both young outside tackles and right guard John Jerry.
On paper, where the Giants should be able to make hay is the passing game. With or without Beckham, the passing game is still the strength of the Giants offense. Much depends on how much Brandon Marshall has in the tank and how much rookie stage-fright Evan Engram has. But Marshall, Engram, Shepard, Ellison, and hopefully Beckham should expose a Cowboys’ secondary that has had issues for years. Look for Dallas to play it conservatively, try to prevent the big play, and force the Giants to nickel-and-dime their way down the football field without making a mistake. This is where Engram comes in. If the Cowboys play a lot of 2-deep coverage, Engram has the athletic ability and speed to exploit the middle of the defense – something the Giants didn’t have last year.
Turnovers. This is always important in closely-fought, divisional games. The team that commits more turnovers will likely lose. Eli Manning must play it safe and throw the ball away or take sacks instead of throwing the ball up for grabs. When sacked, hold onto the football. Same with Paul Perkins running with the football.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:
The New York Giants defense is the strength of the team. The Giants finished last year 10th in total defense (339.7 yards per game) and 2nd in scoring defense (17.8 points per game). Everyone is striving to exceed last year’s marks. The Giants lost Johnathan Hankins in the offseason, but there are a number of areas where the defense may be stronger. Both defensive ends looked primed to exceed their 2016 play. B.J. Goodson appears to be an upgrade at middle linebacker. Eli Apple – as long as his ankles are OK – should be better. The expectation is that Darian Thompson will be an upgrade over Andrew Adams at free safety. But let’s be clear, the Giants have multiple impact players on their defense in Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Landon Collins. They are loaded.
The Cowboys are loaded on offense as well. They finished last year 5th in total offense and 2nd in rushing offense. They are the NFL’s most balanced team with a near equal run-pass ratio. 2016 rookie sensations quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott are now in their second year and should be better.
Coach Ben McAdoo broke them down well: “It all starts up front with them. They are good up front. They lost a couple pieces, but they haven’t missed a beat. They are very talented there with the guys who jumped in to replace their two departures. They are very good, very physical, and they work well as one. Talented in pass protection, as well. They may be the finest unit in the league. There are a couple others that are chasing them, but they are very good. Obviously, Dak does a nice job. Really jumped in with both feet last year. I’m sure he is a lot more confident going into his second year than he was in his first year, and they seem to be putting more on him this year from a mental standpoint. Zeke is one of the better backs in the league. He is a complete back. He is not just a runner. He can play, he can protect, he can play in the pass game, and he’s very explosive and dynamic when he gets into space. The perimeter players, what makes them unique is they all complement each other well. They have a big receiver in Dez (Bryant). They have the quick twitch receiver in (Cole) Beasley, who can get open in a phone booth type guy. They have (tight end Jason) Witten, who is a consistent pro, a future Hall of Famer who can do a variety of things for them, including block, which he doesn’t get a lot of credit for. They have some other role players that come in and do a lot of good things for them. So they are very talented. One of the better offenses in the league.”
That all said, the Giants match-up very well with the Cowboys on this side of the ball. Janoris Jenkins gave Dez Bryant fits in 2016 (only 2 catches for 18 yards and a fumble in two games). Elliott ran for 51 yards in the opener and a “quiet” 107 yards in the second game last year. Witten and Beasley had a greater impact in the opener (17 catches) than the second game (8 catches). The question here is how much will Keenan Robinson be missed in pass coverage? Provided the defensive tackle who lines up next to Damon Harrison does his job, the Giants should continue to be one of the few teams who can keep Elliott in check. If I’m the Cowboys, I use play-action or a trick play early to keep the Giants from being as aggressive against the run. New York needs to be wary of that. Apple needs to keep Terrance Williams quiet and DRC will be challenged by the very quick Beasley.
Up front, Dallas is as good as it gets at left tackle, center, and right guard. But there are changes at left guard and right tackle. The JPP versus La’el Collins match-up will be one to watch. I would expect Steve Spagnuolo to send more than a few defensive back blitzes (including Landon Collins and DRC) as well as B.J. Goodson up the middle. The Giants will have to be disciplined on their pass rush, however, as Prescott can hurt you with his feet.
The Cowboys didn’t turn the ball over much in 2016. Prescott only threw four interceptions during the regular season. And Dallas only had nine fumbles. But three of those turnovers – including two of Dak’s interceptions – came in the second Giants-Cowboys game. (Dallas did not turn the ball over in the first game).
It’s true against any team, but more so against the Cowboys than anyone else: stop the run, make Dallas one-dimensional, then get after the quarterback.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
I think practically everyone would have gone with Aldrick Rosas as the place kicker, but here is one of the big unknowns of the Giants 2017 season. Rosas could literally sink the Giants season. The pressure on this kid will be immense. Along the same line, the Cowboys will be going with a rookie returner (Ryan Switzer) on both kickoffs and punts. Get down the field, put hats on him, and try to knock the ball loose. We didn’t see much of Dwayne Harris this preseason. Let’s see if he can spark the return game.
FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH:
Steve Spagnuolo on Ezekiel Elliott: “He’s a premier back. There’s 32 in the world that play that position. There’s 32 teams. There are some really good backs, but he obviously proved last year that he makes an offense go. I know they have a really good offensive line, but he’s able to do all the things you want a great back to do. He has great vision. He can run inside. He bounces it outside. He turns the corner and it’s scary and he runs with power. I mean, he’s not an easy back to take down. He’s become a good pass receiver, too, so we have to worry about that. He’s a guy we have to respect and we have to go out and always be concerned about. When No. 21 is out there, we have to be concerned about it.”
THE FINAL WORD:
I always think too much is made of the first game. This is a big contest and it would really help the Giants if they can beat the Cowboys in their own park to start the season, but this is a game the Giants obviously can afford to lose. That said, the Giants match-up well against the Cowboys. The Giants strengths (passing offense) are the Cowboys weaknesses (passing defense) and the Cowboys strengths (rushing offense) are the Giants strengths (rushing defense). The Giants will be the more one-dimensional team, but the Cowboys are facing the much more talented Giants defense. If the game is close, it will come down to special teams and turnovers – and this is where the Giants could lose the game if they are not good (or careful) enough.