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Cowboys vs. Giants Preview, Part One

Divisional play gets under way when the Giants help Dallas open the new Cowboys Stadium.  In part one of my game breakdowns, I explore what the Cowboys defense needs, after its sloppy start in Tampa.

When the Giants Have the Ball

It's the irresistible force versus the seemingly moveable object.  The Giants bring Brandon Jacobs and their big bruiser running attack to face a Cowboys front that was gashed for over 170 yards in the opener against Tampa Bay.  As I pointed out in Wednesday's defensive breakdown, the inside linebackers had shaky games, blowing assignments and covering the wrong gaps.  Wade simplifed the calls mid-game and the front settled down, but the blown assignments recurred again late, leading to more big Bucs runs.

It's not the Giants way to line up and run directly at you, but if they feel you're soft up the gut, that's where they're going to go, because the strength of their offensive line is in the middle, where Pro Bowl center Shaun O'Hara is flanked by Rich Seubert and the superb Chris Snee

These three can all run and block on the fly and the Giants like to run traps, tosses and counters to the edges.  Snee is simply the best guard in the NFC and O'Hara's pulling skills are impressive. Not many teams ask their centers to lead sweeps. 

New York supplements the interior linemen's mobility with excellent blocking from the skill position.  TEs Kevin Boss and Darcy Johnson are not the most fleet guys, but they are devastating blockers, as is FB Madison Hedgecock.  They can seal OLBs and DEs and create the interior seam while the Giants guards pull from the backside.

Look for three plays the Giants like to run.  They run a modified version of the old Packers sweep where Hedgecock and the weakside guard will pull across the formation and try to get Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw running downhill.  The Cowboys ran this play a lot against San Francisco in the preseason and I don't doubt Jason Garrett cribbed this from Kevin Gilbride's playbook. 

New York also runs a lot of overload counters, where they put both tight ends on one side and pull a guard behind them.  The Giants also run an outside trap at outside linebackers, where O'Hara will pull and either kick out the 'backer or head upfield and look for a seal on the strong safety.

This matchup will turn on the Cowboys' linebackers' play.  Last year, they had a split decision.  New York ripped them for 200 ground yards in a blowout at the Meadowlands, but could muster only 72 total yards in the rematch.  When the Giants have won, they have moved the outside backers and kept the inside backers from getting effective pursuit.  Akin Ayodele's inability to handle the Giants perimeter runs is one reason he's in Miami.  Last year, the inside guys held for 20 minutes in New Jersey, then were rolled in the second half when their offense kept turning the ball over and they fell behind.

The big question this week falls on the inside backers, who were sloppy and disorganized in Tampa last week.  The Giants are a pure ball control offense.  They are high on second year wideout Mario Manningham and rookie Hakeem Nicks, who will miss this game with a sprained foot.  While they played well against Washington, the Giants didn't show any deep threats. 

Their passing game consisted mostly of spreading the field and throwing to Steve Smith between the yard markers.  They are likely to try the same, and to throw to tight end Boss, who isn't shifty but is very hard to tackle in the open field.

One tactic they will not carry over from the Redskins game is empty sets.  The Giants tackles give up a lot of sacks and left tackle David Diehl cannot handle Demarcus Ware without assistance.  New York left him alone last year and Ware went around him on the first pass for a sack.  He told the press that Diehl cannot cut off his speed and will edge rush if he ever sees a pure one-on-one.

Dallas sacked Eli Manning twelve times in last year's two games, and they have bad pass blocking matchups down the line.  In addition to the Diehl-Ware mismatch, they also need help inside, where Jay Ratliff pushed O'Hara around on passing downs.  He's playing the best nose tackle in the game right now, and he moved Bucs center Jeff Faine last week, though it was scarcely noticed because James and Brooking struggled so much behind him.

In the secondary, I look for Wade Phillips to run more of what we saw last December, in Dallas' 20-8 win. In that game, Terence Newman matched up against Domenik Hixon, the Giants lone deep threat.  Newman erased him and while Manning threw for 191 yards, he needed 35 attempts to do it.  That's a middling 5.4 yards per attempt, which mean a lot of short completion. 

Newman will likely draw Manningham, who scored New York's lone offensive touchdown last week.  If he can handle the youngster, the passing matchup will fall to Smith versus Orlando Scandrick, who will get the start on the right side this week.  Smith was the Giants slot receiver last year and Scandrick was Dallas' slot corner.  Smith got the better of their duels, grabbing several first downs and drawing a few penalties. 

Even if Smith gets his first downs and even if the Giants get their share of runs, the key for Dallas will be lane discipline and solid tackling.  If they don't let a five yard pass become a 30 yard score, as Washington did last week when Manningham took a quick hitch down the sideline against some atrocious Redskins' tackling, they'll keep the Giants to a reasonable score. 

The Giants receivers look promising but unless Manningham shows some Jerry Rice-skills that he hid last week, I don't see New York scoring at will, unless Dallas' linebackers continue to make assignment mistakes.  New York struggled to close drives last year after Plaxico Burress left their lineup.  Here are their offensive point totals in their last five divisional games (not counting special teams or defensive scores):

  • vs. Redskins -- 23 points
  • vs. Eagles -- 7 points
  • vs. Cowboys -- 6 points
  • vs. Eagles -- 9 points
  • vs. Redskins -- 16 points

See a trend here?  This is an offense that bogs down in the red zone and settles for field goals.  Last week New York had three red zone drives and netted six points.  Eli Manning is currently working with a blunt instrument.  The Giants can hammer you between the twenties, but they are having a lot of trouble finishing what they start.

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