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Cowboys vs. Giants Preview, Part Two: Gauging the Austin Effect

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When Dallas Has the Ball

The Giants spent heavily in the offseason to beef up their front seven, in response to their December '08 defensive breakdown.  Teams ran very effectively on New York then, so the Giants jumped into free agency with a vengeance, signing DT Rocky Bernard from Seattle and DT Chris Canty from Dallas.  They added Michael Boley fro Atlanta to add some athleticism to their linebacking corps.

The thinking was to bolster a line which already rushed pretty well, and give more speed to the back seven.  The plan appeared to be working well early in the season.  New DC Bill Sheridan did not blitz as much as his predecessor Steve Spagnuolo, working instead to strangle opposing passing attacks.

The approach certainly worked in week two.  Sheridan saw how Tony Romo and his receivers had ripped up Tampa Bay's depleted secondary and game-planned to take away Romo's big plays.  Sheridan didn't play Tampa Two, with two deep safeties, as other teams had done to Romo, but the general concepts were the same.  New York kept S Kenny Phillips deep on nearly all downs; Phillips often started downs 15 to 25 yards behind the line. 

Sheridan reasoned that Romo would not remain disciplined and would force passes into coverage.  The Giants rolled up their coverages towards the Dallas wideouts Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton and dared Romo to play small ball.  They picked him short, when nickel corner Bruce Johnson returned an overthrown Romo pass for six, and they picked Romo long, when he tried forcing a bomb to Sam Hurd at a critical point in the 3rd quarter, when Dallas was trying to build on a four point lead. 

They also got some luck, when Jason Witten inadvertently back-heeled a ball into Kenny Phillips' hands.  The pick gave the Giants a very short field which they navigated for a touchdown just before the half.  When the game was over, Romo had a meager 127 passing yards and three turnovers.

The Giants smothered every passing attack they faced in their first five games; opposing QBs averaged just 105 yards per game through the air.  Then, they were found out, with emphasis.  Drew Brees bombed them in New Orleans, Donovan McNabb bombed them two games later, and Philip Rivers took his guys the length of the field in the last two minutes, capping a three TD pass day with an 18 yard game winner to Vincent Jackson in the final 20 seconds.

I pointed out yesterday that the current Giants offense resembles the '08 Cowboys in its injury pattern.  This year's Giants defense reminds of the '06 Cowboys D, which collapsed when its safety corps wore away.   New York's problems started immediately after the Cowboys win, when Phillips was diagnosed with arthritis in a knee.  He has been inactive since and his injury claimed the one New York safety with range and ball sense:

  • Games 1-5 : 4 TD passes allowed
  • Games 6-11: 14 TD passes allowed

The Giants do have talent on the edges.  Corey Webster is a blue-chipper and fellow wideout Terrell Thomas has been solid.  Opponents have been able to ignore them, spreading the field and working the intermediate and deep middle.  The problems have been compounded by MLB Antonio Pierce's injury, which landed him on I.R. this week.  He called the Giants defensive signals. 

New York's defense looks lost at the moment.  Last week the Broncos repeatedly broke down New York's coverage with bunch packages.  They would clot three receiving targets on one side of their line and hit the man who inevitably came open when the trio scattered.  The Giants safeties did not know who to cover.   Kyle Orton threw an easy touchdown to Brandon Stokely out of this package in the third quarter, where nobody bothered to cover the Broncos slot man. 

Look for a game plan very similar to the one Dallas ran against Oakland, at least when the Cowboys pass.  Jason Garrett opened by moving Miles Austin around, motioning him into the slot or starting him there.  Austin ran a number of deep posts and short and medium crossing routes, to get matchups with the Raiders safeties and linebackers.  When Austin got single coverage outside, he simply ran posts or combination routes which let him use his speed to run away from Nnamdi Asomugha

I expect we'll see Austin  test the New York middle in similar ways.  He's the Cowboys receiving ace now and the Giants saw very little of him in September.  I expect to see him moved inside again and matched against Thomas when he stays wide.

Also look for Dallas to feature more bunch packages than before.  Bunch sets are a regular part of the Dallas passing game, but are used to varying degrees week-to-week.  You might see Dallas use this set four of five times a game, but Garrett can make it a focal point of a game plan if he feels it can hurt a defense.  Dallas was bunch heavy in last year's season opener against Cleveland, for instance, and got Jason Witten free a lot on deep seams off the scatter.

Look for a more controlled game from Romo.   He had three picks against New York but has had just four in his last nine starts, with no more than one in a single game.  He seems to have learned that he doesn't have to force the deep ball to move the  team.

Romo also has the option of handing the ball off repeatedly.  New York threw roadblocks in front of Romo's receivers the first time around, but they left open lanes up the middle for the Dallas runners.  Marion Barber ran for 124 yards and Felix Jones added 96 more on just seven carries as Dallas romped for a season high 251 yards.

The running game veered off course in the Philadelphia and Packers games, but has come back strong; Dallas has 347 rushing yards the last two weeks.  This coincides with Felix Jones' return to health.  He has again given Dallas the big play ground option they lacked when he was rehabbing a knee injury.  Dallas had great success with variations of its staple the lead draw, as the Giants linemen were more concerned with getting to Romo.  There's no reason to think this and Dallas other staple the power-counter won't be called a lot Sunday.

Special Teams

A divisional rematch in a windy stadium could make field goals more important than they usually are.  That's sobering news for Dallas fans who have watched Nick Folk struggle with intermediate-range field goals since the preseason.  Hope the game does not hinge on his foot.  On the other hand, Folk has been Mr. Clutch his first two years.  Maybe a last-second challenge is what he needs to focus his mind.  Let's all hope so. 

This is a divisional game.  Dallas first tour of the East produced a two point loss, a four point win and a one point win. I see little reason to expect a blowout.  It's December in New Jersey, which will likely mean poor conditions.  The Giants are desperate and they're playing their last game against the Cowboys in Giants Stadium.

Stock up on the maalox and spirits, folks.