One key to winning games in the NFL is to understand how to set up and exploit mismatches. These can be formation advantages, personnel packages or straight player-vs-player matchups that create an advantage for your team to exploit.
Today we look at Sunday's game between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys using some of the Pro Football Focus.com (PFF) player grades to identify mismatches on both teams. Obviously, we don't have any meaningful grades for this year yet (we do have preseason grades, but I think PFF did themselves a disservice by publishing grades that weren't adjusted for opponent quality), so we'll do the season opener using the grades from last year.
Giants LT William Beatty vs. Cowboys RDE
The Giants re-signed Beatty in the offseason to a five-year, $37.5 million contract, with a max value of $38.75 million, and for good reason. Beatty is one of the better left tackles in the game today. With +22.3 he graded out as the eighth best left tackle in the league last year. While 2012 was the first year that saw Beatty that far up the PFF rankings, there's every reason to believe the 2009 second-round pick will pick up where he left off last season, allowing only three sacks and getting called for seven penalties in 15 starts.
But Beatty will have his hands full with a healthy DeMarcus Ware. Last year, hampered by injuries for much of the second half of the season, Ware still ranked as the 9th best OLB in the league (+8.2). A healthy Ware is likely to play on a similar level to what he displayed in 2011, when he notched 19.5 sacks and graded out as the third best OLB in the league (+29.9).
Watch for the Cowboys to line Ware up over the right tackle a little more often than usual to exploit the Giants' rookie right tackle Justin Pugh.
Cowboys TEvs. Giants linebackers
The Giants released their depth chart on Wednesday for the season opener. On defense, the starting linebacker corps consists of Keith Rivers (SLB), Dan Connor (MLB) and Spencer Paysinger (WLB). Mark Herzlich is listed as the backup to Connor and Jacquian Williams is the backup to Paysinger. In 2012, Keith Rivers (238 snaps, -3.1), Dan Connor (350 snaps, -3.6) and Spencer Paysinger (137, +0.9) combined for 725 NFL snaps, which is exactly 100 more snaps than Bruce Carter played all by himself last season - and Carter only played 11 games in 2012.
Sure, the Giants have had success without a stellar linebacking unit in the recent past, but they've got to be worried about what Jason Witten will do to this unit. PFF ranked Jason Witten as the number three tight end in the league (+19.0), and without the slow start into the season due to his spleen injury (-7.0 for the first three games) Witten would have easily ranked number one in the league. And he showed just how good he can be when he caught 18 passes against the Giants on October 28, a franchise record and the third highest total ever recorded in the NFL.
The Giants linebackers were exploited in coverage this preseason, as the Patriots and the Jets (the Jets!) picked apart the unit with underneath passes. If offensive coordinator Bill Callahan can create opportunities for Witten against the Giants linebackers, the Cowboys passing game will be on a roll.
Cowboys secondary vs. Giants receivers
When the Giants' passing game is clicking, and Eli Manning is completing more than 60% of his throws (in his 135 regular season starts, Manning has a completion rate of 60% or better in only 61 games, or less than every second game), the Giants receivers Victor Cruz (1,092 yards in 2012) and Hakeem Nicks (692 yards) can be formidable.
The Cowboys secondary allowed a defensive passer rating of 94.7 in 2012, the fourth worst value in the league. For comparison, in ten NFL seasons, Eli Manning hasn't once had a higher regular season passer rating than what the Cowboys allowed last year. The key to the game against the Giants, and to the Cowboys' entire season for that matter, will be for the defense to improve its defensive passer rating.
On Thursday, the Ravens held the Broncos to a remarkably low 65 yards on 23 rushes, for an average gain of just 2.8 yards per carry. After all the Week 1 games are played, the Ravens could easily emerge as the best run defense in the league. But they gave up 49 points anyway. Today, winning in the NFL is all about passing efficiency. The best offenses are those that pass the ball the most effectively, the best defenses are those that prevent their opponents from passing effectively. The best teams in the league are those that do both.
The Giants know what's coming. The Cowboys know what's coming. The team that executes better will win the game.