The Cowboys' defense has a tough task ahead of it to slow down one of the league's hottest offenses this week. What sort of challenge awaits the Dallas offense, and can Tony Romo elevate the offense when it matters most?
Over the last half decade, the Giants' defensive front have basically played like bizarro bears - not the Chicago Bears, but actual bears. Regular bears are ferocious beasts in the fall as they consume everything they can to fatten themselves up, but then drift into hibernation when winter enters full force. The Giants' DL tends to hibernate for the first few months of the season as the team scuffles, and then wakes up as soon as the annual Tom Coughlin job security rumors reach their peak and starts devastating everything in front of it. That model has produced two Lombardi Trophies, and Cowboys fans have had front-row seats to a couple of the awakenings with the 2007 playoff game serving as the starkest of examples.
The 2012 Giants' defensive front isn't all awake, but they aren't all asleep either. Former Cowboy Chris Canty has spent much of the season on the PUP list while recovering from knee surgery, and presumed starter Marvin Austin has basically been on a milk carton this season. However, New York has gotten strong play from the DT combo of Linval Joseph and Rocky Bernard. Both have been stalwart presences against the run, and Joseph in particular has gotten some solid pressure up the middle. With Canty back and rounding into shape, the Giants should be able to throw a fairly solid three-man rotation at Dallas. Nate Livings and Ryan Cook have been getting the job done more often than not, so it may be up to Bernadeau to see if he wants to step up and help Dallas find an edge here or continue his pursuit of Arizona's Adam Snyder to the absolute bottom of PFF's guard rankings.
At the ends, there may be a bit more slumber taking place. 2011 media darling Jason Pierre-Paul hasn't matched the sacks-and-pressures pace put up by some of the league's elite DE's this season, but he's still on pace for double-digit sacks and is turning in terrific work against the run. On the other side, however, the rotation of Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora has been fairly underwhelming so far. It seems like facing the Giants means a long day for Dallas' tackles no matter what, but if Tuck and Umenyiora can continue to hibernate for at least one more week you'll see no complaints from me.
If Dallas can handle the Giants' front four, their linebackers may be exploitable. Chase Blackburn has had a lot of struggles in the middle - he's missed a lot of tackles thus far and is also getting beat by backs and TE's with regularity in the pass game. Right now, only an abominable season by Cincy's Rey Maualuga is keeping Blackburn from the bottom of PFF's inside linebacker rankings. On the outside, Michael Boley has been better in coverage while struggling to fill gaps against the run while the rotation of Mathias Kiwanuka and Jacquian Williams in the other spot has been pretty much ‘meh'. This is the kind of crew that allows individual-effort runs like...DeMarco Murray's 49-yarder in Week One! It would be really, really handy to have a back with Murray's dynamism in this one, and hopefully Felix Jones can shake off whatever ouchies he's currently dealing with - and the ones he'll inevitably pick up over the course of the game - to break a few long ones on Sunday and take at least some of the pressure off the passing game.
The Cowboys benefitted from catching an absolutely ramshackle Giants' secondary in Week One, and while they're still not among the league's elite they have benefitted greatly from the return of Prince Amukamara from injury. The 2011 first-rounder has been the Giant's best cover man by a country mile, and he absolutely suffocated an (admittedly gimpy) Jeremy Maclin in Week Four. He plays the brand of physical, in-your-face coverage that has knocked Dez Bryant off his game in the past, and Dallas will need Bryant to win his share of battles to keep New York from throwing everything they have at Miles Austin.
The Giants are likely to need SOME help on Austin, as their other corners have struggled badly this season. Corey Webster has been an absolute whipping boy, surrendering nearly eleven yards per pass attempt and an opposing passer rating of 115, while Jayron Hosley's efforts in the slot haven't been a whole lot better. Miles Austin could be in line for a big-time performance on Sunday, and this kind of shoddy coverage could also help Kevin Ogletree recapture some of his Week One magic.
Fortunately for Dallas, the Giants' ability to help these sub-par players may be compromised by the absence of stud safety Kenny Phillips. Phillips' range has bedeviled Romo in the past, but he's still battling an MCL injury and is looking doubtful for Sunday. If he's out, deep coverage responsibility will fall to Stevie Brown, who RGIII was able to work on pretty successfully in last week's tilt. Strong safety Antrel Rolle has been a punishing hitter this year, but despite jumping a couple of routes for INTs he's been exploitable in coverage and should have a tough time matching up with Jason Witten.
This Giants' defense can be had, but it will take an A-grade effort across the board by the ENTIRE offense to get to the 27 points that we'll likely need to come out on top.
Romo has faced an uphill battle in terms of poor protection, an often non-existent run game and frequent botches by his receivers, but he still hasn't approached the overall level of play that defined most of his 2011 campaign. If he doesn't play at that level on Sunday, we lose.
The offensive line has looked like a much better unit coming out of the bye week, and if we see the kind of play we got against Baltimore we can contain the Giant's front four and let guys like Witten and Austin win the game for us. If we let New York's pass rush get well against us or turn in yet another penalty-fest, we lose.
Dez Bryant has turned in some strong moments this season, but on balance he's still done more to fuel naysayers' doubts than to reward the Cowboys' faith and patience. Witten and Austin could go off on Sunday, but if Bryant can't at least make a steady contribution against a physical corner, we lose.
That's a whole lot of ifs.
The Bottom Line
There's no getting around the fact that the dynamics of the NFC make this a near-must win for Dallas. If both teams play their best game, this one's pretty much a toss-up on a neutral field - and let's make no mistake, Jerry's 100,000-seat Corporate Crypt is as neutral a field as you'll find outside of the Pats-Rams duel in London.
But in a team culture where:
- There are too few self-starters
- Most of the self-starters aren't demonstrative leaders, and
- Mindless mistakes are never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever punished
Can you count on 22 guys bringing their A-game without at least one or two actively sabotaging victory and then shrugging their shoulders and starting again next week? I hope like hell that it happens on Sunday...but I'm not counting on it.
Giants 27, Cowboys 23