Welcome back to another edition of "Ask BTB," in which we give our loyal readers the opportunity to ask the front-page writers a nagging question to which we will offer our best response. A reminder at this juncture that there are several ways for you to submit your questions. First, you can send an email directly KDP10For10@gmail.com. This allows you to make you questions as detailed as possible. If you have a quick, short-winded question, feel free to Tweet KD @BloggingTheBoys (in addition to all his fine posts, KD is the voice of our Twitter presence). Make sure you use the hashtag #AskBTB so he'll know to send it down the front-page pipeline. And: remember to include your BTB handle in your correspondence!
This is part two of my response to a question from reader Allan Uy:
"There's no doubt that this team has improved through both free agency and the draft, but the same can be said for our division rivals. Like most years in the NFC East, the divisional crown is up for grabs and the contest will remain a dog fight til the end.
So given the new additions to this team and our opponents, what game plan would you employ in order to defeat our NFC East foes?"
Last time, we took a look at how to ground the Eagles' high-flying pass attack, and attack the five-hole of their Wide-9. This time, we'll turn our attention to the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.
After the jump, a look at how to cut the "Giants" down to size...
Last year, the Giants were a 9-7 team. They also became Super Bowl Champions. Despite the standings at the end of the year, I believe the Eagles are the greatest threat in the division. That said, the Giants can't be looked down on as a 9-7 team. You can never count out the defending Champs.
Last season, the Cowboys had two opportunities to send the Giants home early, but came up short on both occasions. The first game was a case of our offense dominating, only to be let down by the apparent absence of the entire secondary in the final minutes of the game. No, it didn't come down to one missed Romo-to-Austin pass. It came down to one blocked Dan Bailey field goal. The second game was not nearly as close. The Cowboys couldn't seem to capitalize on opportunities for loose balls, and the line did a poor job of protecting Romo's injured throwing hand.
First Priority: Stopping the Giants' Offense
It doesn't take any sort of expert to understand that the Giants' offense runs through one Eli Manning. The Giants quarterback must be disrupted in order to successfully defend this team. But how do we disrupt Eli? Conventional wisdom would tell you to send pressure. Quarterbacks hate to be sacked, right? Unfortunately, Eli doesn't react much to pressure. In fact, I believe he plays the way he practices - as if there's no defense. So, when the defense brings pressure, Eli releases the ball quickly (just as he does when there isn't pressure), and the defense has fewer men in coverage, leading to a higher completion rate.
Eli isn't a scrambler, so there's little danger in setting up in coverage and simply waiting. He will throw the ball by the time three seconds pass, as previously mentioned, Eli appears to be oblivious to the defense - he expects every play to happen the way he wants it to, and, sometimes it doesn't. The Cowboys should be content to sit back and collect the balls that are often up for grabs. Eli threw three picks in an important week 15 game against the Redskins (on his way to a 45.5 QB rating), who possess what I consider to be an inferior secondary to our own. The week one meeting should be a wonderful opportunity for Jerome Henderson to see who on this team is a ballhawk.
The Giants' running game last season was largely non-existent, mainly due to an aging offensive line. Running back Brandon Jacobs (who will likely be as relevant to the 49ers as Marion Barber was to the Bears) has departed New York, replaced by the Giants' 1st-round draft pick, David Wilson. As a 5'10", 205-pound speed back, the Giants have abandoned their power-and-speed complementary running stable in favor of carrying a pair of speed backs. How they'll fair against tough defenses will show whether or not this move was a wise one. For the Cowboys, our inside linebackers should now possess the speed to track down Bradshaw and Wilson before they have a chance to make their first cuts.
Finally, the receivers (and this only applies to wide-outs - their tight ends are headed by one Martellus Bennett) will need to be dealt with. Their primary weapon is Hakeem Nicks, who has developed a reputation as a tall, physical, explosive wide receiver. I don't see him that way. Due to his possession-receiver style, people overestimate Nicks' height. He measured in at the combine at six feet and 3/4 of an inch. Brandon Carr is 6' 1/8". Nicks' vertical leap (36") is only one inch greater than Carr's. Brandon also has a speed advantage, coming in a tenth faster in the 40, another tenth in the 3-cone drill, and more than 2-tenths faster in the short shuttle. I trust Brandon Carr to effectively deal with him.
Victor Cruz has great speed and athleticism, but also lacks the height of an ideal outside receiver. He also has a strong affinity for dropping passes as 12.81% of passes to hit his hands subsequently hit the turf. He may in fact be the tougher cover, over Nicks, with an explosive 41.5" vertical leap more than compensating for the inch he lacks in height. I like Jenkins or Claiborne on him (whomever we start in week 1), as they're both faster and should be able to recover after jamming him off of his route. Again, Eli prefers to throw his balls on time, after about 2.5 seconds, to the spot his receiver is supposed to be. The press-man scheme we now employ should help to derail that objective.
The key to locking down the Giants' offense is to sit back and relax. Play solid coverage on their receivers. Have Lee and Carter/Connor keep an eye on their backs. Send four or five to rush (the line + Ware and/or Spencer/Butler). Wait 3 seconds and watch the ball sail into the air, then count on our backs to make plays. Again, Eli Manning is not thrown off by the blitz. He will throw interceptions in every situation, pressured or not, and we simply need to sit back and collect them; having more men in coverage simply increases our chances.
Closing the Deal: Exploiting the Giants' Defense
Tony Romo doesn't need to learn how to score points against the Giants. He's done it. A combination of Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten made the Giants 1st-round-pick-filled secondary look like they came from a pick-up game at Alan Ball's family reunion (Alan Ball and our own secondary looked the same, as well). They can't cover our receivers. Unlike the Giants, we have a pair of tall, long receivers with deep speed and elite jumping ability. They don't have corners that can match up physically, or athletically. Corey Webster is aging fast, and Prince Amukamara had trouble even as a reserve last season.
Where the Giants gave us trouble, as well as the rest of the NFL, was with their defensive line. Their defensive ends are well-known as capable pass rushers, and were able to stunt their way around our tackles to get to Tony Romo. Improved play from the guard positions will be crucial in helping our tackles succeed (allowing them to commit to the widest rusher, without worry that the stunt inside will generate quick pressure). The key to neutralizing this threat to our passing game, however, lies in the running and screen games.
Running lead-draws inside their ends may be enough to convince them to tighten their splits. Tosses, with the play-side guard pulling and a fullback to seal/lead will completely neutralize the same side defensive end, and force everyone else on the defense to play the outside edge or risk seeing Felix Jones or DeMarco Murray running into their secondary. If the Giants insist on rushing outside of our tackles, the screen game should work to great effect. Additionally, against wide DEs, the Power Off Tackle (fullback and backside guard lead) should be able to exploit the natural seam and attack the OLB. The Giants' linebackers are questionable, and should be exploited early and often on screens and power running plays.
If we continue with our offensive game plan from last year, sending receivers deep consistently to stretch the field and open up the middle, and attacking the center of the defense with the running game, there's no reason that we should not be able to consistently score points against the Giants as we did last season. Assuming Tony Romo's hand doesn't revert to grapefruit size and DeMarco Murray's ankle remains unbroken, touchdowns will happen. Adding in the toss and screen games (with a healthy Felix) to frustrate their defensive ends should help keep Tony Romo off his back - potentially allowing him to improve on his passer ratings against the Giants from last season.
What do you think, BTB? Would you do anything different?