Jason Garrett called one of his best games as a coordinator last December against Steve Spagnuolo and the Giants. Garrett played with an undermanned line against a Giants front that pummeled Tony Romo early and almost drove him out of the game. Garrett dialed in Spagnolo's blitzes and called a streak of winning draws and screens that gave Dallas two fourth quarter scores and a tough 20-8 win.
This week, Garrett is staring at a stronger hand. His staring line is healthy and he's got a full receiver corps. He should also have a healthy trio of running backs, including Felix Jones, who carried only six times after bruising a quad on the first series in Tampa.
Garrett also has Aquaman, the X-factor Martellus Bennett, who messes up secondary matchup schemes.
New York, however, has their own improvements. They've beefed up a line which was already strong. Their young secondary, force fed high picks the last two years, is maturing as a group. And the Giants added Michael Bolley, an athletic linebacker from Atlanta who could be ready to join the lineup after missing their debut with an injury.
When Dallas Has the Ball
What Garrett lacks this time is a book on his opposing coordinator. Spagnuolo is now the head man at St. Louis and long-time linebackers coach Bill Sheridan has taken his place. Sheridan has his own tendencies, but the defense he ran against the Redskins does not seem to have changed much from the one Spagnolo ran the last two years.
New York's scheme is a 4-3 version of Dallas' defense. It's a gap control front, which relies on mismatches and pressure. The Giants will deploy pre-snap in vanilla looking fronts and move their linemen and linebackers very late. The Giants will blitz heavily against runs and passes. Their favored tactic is to find the weakness on your line and then overload it with pressure. If one of your tackles is suspect, he'll see lots of pressure on his side.
Last week, Sheridan attacked Washington's center, Casey Rabach. Sometimes the Giants would put their tackles wide and bring MLB Antonio Pierce and SS Kenny Phillips over him.
Last year, New York targeted LG Cory Proctor. New York put a tackle over center Andre Gurode and an end over Flozell Adams. They then shifted Justin Tuck over Proctor, meaning Proctor had no help. Spagnolo also parked a linebacker in the gap between Proctor and Gurode and sent him after Tony Romo. The rush messed up Romo's back and forced him to play in pain the last 40 minutes.
Dallas has starter Kyle Kosier back at left guard and he should be a boon to Romo's protection. Extra time is key because New York likes to pressure with its front seven or its front six. Though the team blitzes a lot it likes to keep its safeties deep and deny the deep pass, putting the game on an offense's backs and tight ends to block and receive.
Garrett has two factors in his favor this week. First, New York's starting secondary appears nicked up. Left corner Aaron Ross will miss the game and starting free safety Michael Johnson's status is uncertain. This means Garrett will likely lean heavily on his 12 package, with tight ends Martellus Bennett and Jason Witten. Because both can block and get up the field, Dallas can split one of them wide or in the slot. This takes safeties out of the middle of the field and gives more single coverage to the receivers.
It will be interesting to see how New York counters. Against Washington last week, and against Dallas last year, the Giants played a lot of six man fronts, in a 4-2-5. They trusted their six men to handle the running attacks -- and they often succeeded. This let the Giants keep a deep halo while playing man with three corners and keeping two safeties deep. This look kept Santana Moss under wraps and the two deep look would also be a strong deterrent from the deep routes Romo launched to Williams, Austin and Patrick Crayton.
If the Giants use this package again, it will come down to the line and one of the tight ends to match up, giving space to the Dallas backs.
In these situations, look for lots of draws and the screen pass, which Garrett kept under wraps last week. It's a big part of the Dallas playbook and Garrett used it to great effect last year, countering Giants blitzes with screens for Choice, Bennett and Witten.
Of course, if Dallas sees two deep safeties, look for the tight end on the line, more likely Witten, to see lots of passes because he'll have single coverage from nickel LB Chase Blackburn.
The outside matchups will be key in this game. On first downs, RT Marc Colombo will draw Tuck and LT Adams will get Osi Umenyiora, who missed '08 with a knee injury. In '07, when both were last healthy, Adams shut Umenyiora out in both regular season matchups, helping Dallas sweep those contests. It's '09 now and it's unclear which will have the edge.
The Cowboys may try hammering the interior of New York's line early to see what type of gains they can get. New York had a three man rotation last year which collapsed against the run in December and January, when the team finished 1-4. It signed Rocky Bernard from Seattle and Chris Canty from Dallas to provide muscle and depth. The plan has already taken some hits, as Jay Alford was lost for the season with a knee ligament tear. Canty hurt a calf in practice yesterday and will miss the game, meaning the Giants will go with last year's starters Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins and rotate in Bernard.
Watch the matchup on the right side between Cofield and Leonard Davis. BIgg pushed him around in '07 but has some trouble against the delayed inside blitzes.
The Joe DeCamillis Experience was a happening last week, as the special teams bottled up Tampa's return teams and blocked a field goal. The Giants units looked shaky and were beaten by a Redskins fake field goal, which scored their first touchdown of the game. Tom Coughlin has expressed concern at this unit's preparation and in a closely matched game, which this should be, a big return or blown coverage could tip the balance.
This game will likely come down to which offensive line protects better. The Giants may run the ball effectively in the middle of the field, but they're a slowball team, which has yet to show it has a deep passing threat. If the Giants can't overwhelm the Dallas rush defense, their line is vulnerable if Eli Manning has to move them with his arm.
On Dallas' side, their line is healthier but is facing a deeper, more athletic Giants line, even without Canty. This line was a load last season and should be every bit as difficutl to contain.
It's early, and both teams have relatively good health, but I have a hard time seeing either one light up the scoreboard. Last year's rematch was 7-3 after three quarters. I don't see a score quite that low, but I'm expecting a rock-'em, sock-'em game where points will be hard to locate. I'm giving Dallas a slight edge because they're at home, and they have a more balanced offense with a more explosive passing game.
In a match this tight, turnovers could likely turn the outcome,and who can predict those?
Dallas 20, New York 16, though I would hardly be shocked if that scoring line was reversed.