The old rivals set up for their rematch Sunday. We can overdo the superlatives, get caught up in the voo-doo of December, and talk about the closing of Giants Stadium.
Or, we could talk about matchups.
When the Giants Have the Ball
When Dallas faced the Giants in September, they saw an opponent which presented a host of matchup problems. The Cowboys had stuggled against New York's rushing attack in the past, particularly runs to its perimeter. Run defense was again the focus, as the Cowboys trusted their secondary to contain the young Giants duo of Steve Smith, and Mario Manningham. (Rookie Hakeem Nicks missed the game with an ankle injury.)
Dallas got half the plan down. They contained Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, holding the New York attack to less than 30 first half rushing yards. But the Cowboys rush did not sack Eli Manning that night, which gave Manningham and Smith time to work out the right side of Dallas secondary. Both receivers attacked Terence Newman and Smith, when lined up in his long-time spot in the slot, abused Orlando Scandrick. Each receiver caught ten passes. Manningham gained 150 yards and Smith 134. They gained 86% of the Giants 330 passing yards.
The balance and the fun continued until game five's 44-7 blowout win over Oakland. While the win was impressive, the Giants offense began absorbing key injuries which have continued to accumulate to this day.
Quarterback Eli Manning left after just ten passing attempts with a foot injury, later diagnosed as plantar fasciitis. He says the foot has healed but several reports this week note that he has suffered a stress reaction in the same leg and his overall health remains an issue. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw, the speed complement to the bludgeon Jacobs, injured an ankle later in the contest and has not been the same since, as this line shows:
- Bradshaw, games 1-5: 58 carries, 375 yards, 6.5 yards/carry, 75 yards/game;
- Bradshaw, games 6-10: 57 carries, 174 yards, 3.1 yds./carry, 35 yds./game
The injuries contined the following week against New Orleans, when right tackle Kareem McKenzie was rolled from behind and had to leave the game. His injury broke a run of almost two years when the Giants starting line stayed intact.
In many ways, the '09 Giants offense resembles the '08 Cowboys O, which accumulated injuries to linemen and skill position players and saw its effectiveness erode as the season progressed. In New York's case, the numbers do not lie:
- Games 1-5: 5-0 record, 30 points/game., 160 rush yds./game, 2 sacks allowed
- Games 6-11: 1-5 record, 20 points/game, 99 rush yds./game, 15 sacks allowed
New York has been dying the death of a thousand paper cuts, or a dozen joint sprains, in this case. They have not suffered the catastrophic injury, like Plaxico Burress' last year, but their line, their backs and their quarterback have all been hobbled, and the results have dropped their offensive output a whopping ten points per game.
Dallas' task will be to face up to their old offense and show it no mercy. That may be easier said than done, because many of the same matchups which worked in New York's favor three months ago remain.
When New York runs the ball, it will be the Cowboys' task to make them play to their character. That may sound counter-intuitive, but New York's line, like Dallas' blocks better on the move. It also runs its attack better to the perimeters. Off-side counters, tosses, cross-blocks between the tackles and tight ends. These are the bread and butter plays of New York''s attack.
That is why they miss Bradshaw, or at least the healthy incarnation of Bradshaw. Jacobs can get off-tackle, but he looks sluggish and the Broncos showed that a 3-4 front with speed can bog him down by forcing him to run to the sidelines. Jacobs lacks the speed to turn the corner, of if his first hole isn't available inside or off tackle, he can be dropped for minimal gains.
It is unclear which Jacobs will show. He played heroically in the first month after Bradshaw's injury, having three of his season-best games against New Orleans, Arizona and San Diego, but he has been almost invisible since the Giants' bye, rushing for 66 total yards and a 2.9 average per carry. In any case, he will have to shoulder New York's rushing burden. Bradshaw has not practiced this week to rest his ailing ankle and his speedy backup Danny Ware was knocked out of last week's game with a concussion and has already been ruled out for this contest.
Expect far more blitzing this week than we saw in week two. As I noted then, Wade Phillips went against type early in the year, choosing to rush just 4 men on most of Dallas' pass plays, where he used 5 man rushes as his default last year.
He will not let Manning sit in the pocket. Phillips knows Smith and Manningham are the focal points of New York's attack right now. Smith has 869 receiver yards and Manningham has logged 665 of his own. Nicks is back and is having an impressive rookie year. OC Kevin Gilbride will likely use the same passing strategy, throwing a lot on first down and targeting Newman. The veteran has solidified his play since weeks one and two, but he's the preferred target over Mike Jenkins.
I also look for the Giants to spread the field to put Smith inside against against Scandrick. His sophomore campaign has been rough. He struggled the first month, then stepped up, but appears to have flattened out the last few games.
New York can still throw the ball, so Wade's task will be to disrupt Manning. As the stats show, this protection has broken down a lot the last six games, especially in comparison to the 5-0 start, when Manning was barely touched. Denver shut the Giants down last week with lots of pressure off the edges, which made Manning drift laterally and preventing him from getting into a regular rhythm with his wideouts.
Look for lots of Cowboys on the line of scrimmage, to run blitz and to attack Manning. Dallas has moved Demarcus Ware around a lot the last month, flopping him to the right side to get mismatches against right tackles and putting him in the center of a 3-3 nickel front, where he is free to roam between the tackles and pick a rush lane.
Phillips blitzed without restraint in last year's rematch and sacked Manning eight times. New York's banged up running attack invites him to dust that game plan off and try it again. New York's WR could sting him a bit, but I don't think Wade will back off the pressure unless his secondary flops, and they have been solid the last two months.
Tomorrow: The Cowboys offense vs. the Giants defense