Week 14 brings a rematch of the season opener as the Cowboys travel to MetLife Stadium to take on the Giants, the team responsible for the Cowboys only loss on the year. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of their defensive personnel.
Last season the Giants had one of the worst defenses in the league so this past offseason they spent north of $190 million in free agency, of which more than $100 million is guaranteed, as well as the 10th-overall pick in the draft to upgrade this side of the ball.
Two of the biggest free agent additions came in the form of defensive end Olivier Vernon from the Miami Dolphins and defensive tackle Damon Harrison from the New York Jets. Despite only 29 career sacks over four seasons the Giants made Vernon one of the highest paid defensive linemen in the league, signing him to a deal with more guaranteed money than J.J. Watt. The wisdom of this can be questioned but there is no questioning that Vernon is a very good player, both against the run and rushing the passer. He has given Tyron Smith fits, both with the Dolphins, as well as in his lone game against the Cowboys with the Giants, not to mention his run defense and ability to beat Jason Witten in that regard was one of the bigger reasons the Giants were able to limit the Cowboys running game in that first matchup. Vernon has been heating up recently as on the season he has eight sacks, but seven have come in the last five games. Harrison, all 340+ lbs. of him, has been one of the top run-stuffing defensive linemen in the league over the last few years, playing in a 3-4 with the Jets, and now in a 4-3 with the Giants. He plays with great strength and a low center of gravity, allowing him to anchor and hold the line in the middle of the field. However, he is strictly a two-down player as he does not provide much, if anything, in the way of rushing the passer.
The other starter next to Harrison at defensive tackle is Jonathan Hankins. He is a load in the middle who can stuff the run while providing more pass rush than his 320 lb. frame would indicate. So far in 2016 Hankins has 2.5 sacks while providing his usual solid play against the run. Hankins and Harrison form one of the best run-stuffing interior line duos in the league, and it’s no wonder that the Giants defense is fifth in the league as far as rushing yards allowed per game, as well as third in average yards per rush.
Of course the big news this week is that defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul will miss six to eight weeks after undergoing sports-hernia surgery on Tuesday. This means in a best case scenario Pierre-Paul would be able to return if the Giants make the NFC Championship game, and that is perhaps too optimistic. This is a huge loss as no team in the league is as dependent on their starting defensive ends as the Giants are, with Vernon and Pierre-Paul usually playing 90% or more of the snaps on a weekly basis. Pierre-Paul has great size at 6-5, 278 lbs., the athleticism to bend around the corner, as well as the strength to hold up against the run. When motivated he is the complete package, although his effort can be inconsistent at times. On the season he has seven sacks; he will likely be replaced by some combination of Kerry Wynn, Romeo Okwara, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who have half a sack on the year combined.
The Giants also lack depth behind Harrison and Hankins at defensive tackle as Jay Bromley and Robert Thomas are replacement-level players.
Imagine for a minute the Cowboys linebacker unit without Sean Lee. Not a pretty sight is it?
Well, that’s basically what the Giants linebackers are as this unit is clearly the weak link of the defense. Former Redskin Keenan Robinson joined the Giants this past offseason and he seems to be their most trusted linebacker, along with weak side linebacker Jonathan Casillas, but generally speaking it isn’t a good situation if one of your most trusted players is a castoff from the Redskins when they have major issues at linebacker themselves. The other starter next to Robinson and Casillas is Devon Kennard on the strong side, while journeyman Kelvin Sheppard rotates in, giving the Giants a four man rotation, although for the most part all four are replacement-level players. Due to the talent on the defensive line and in the secondary the Giants are sometimes able to mask their deficiencies at this position with aggressive blitzing, but overall this is probably one of the worst linebacker groups in the league and it should be an area the Cowboys offense looks to take advantage of in both the run and pass game.
The third major free agent signing of the offseason was former Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Along with 2016 10th-overall pick Eli Apple and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie the Giants have an impressive trio of physical, ball-hawking cornerbacks who have combined for five interceptions and an astounding 32 pass deflections on the year. Apple has terrific size at 6-1, 200 ibs. and has played well recently, including an interception and a fumble recovery against the Steelers as he has taken over as the starter in place of Rodgers-Cromartie. Jenkins, the starter opposite Apple, is capable of producing big plays for both teams as he is a ball-hawk who does a great job of guessing on routes, which can lead to interceptions, but that tendency can also get him in trouble as he is prone to biting on double moves, leading to big plays downfield. Despite being replaced in the starting lineup Rodgers-Cromartie is still a starting-caliber NFL cornerback, and the fact that he was replaced is more of a credit to Apple than an indictment on Rodgers-Cromartie.
At safety 2015 second-round pick Landon Collins has emerged as one of the top safeties in the league; he is tied for second in the league in interceptions (5), leads the Giants in tackles, and has added three sacks and 13 pass deflections for good measure. Collins can do it all as far as blitzing, supporting the run, and making plays on the ball in coverage. He never leaves the field for the Giants and the Cowboys offense will have to be aware of where he is at all times as he is given a lot of freedom to move around and freelance. After early season injuries to players like Nat Berhe and Darian Thompson, rookie UDFA Andrew Adams has emerged as the starter opposite Collins. Adams has done a good job considering the circumstances but he is a player the Cowboys passing game will most certainly look to target as he is the weak link of the secondary.
Despite ranking eighth from the bottom in the league in passing yards allowed this is a very good secondary that does a good job of limiting touchdowns and creating big plays (only 12 touchdowns given up compared to 11 interceptions). Much of the reason that their pass defense ranks that low is because their opponents have attempted more passes per game than any other team in the league, most likely due to how good the Giants run defense is. The Cowboys offense will have to be patient as the Giants will bring plenty of pressure and try to force them into mistakes, but if the offense can sustain drives, opportunities will open up downfield due to the Giants’ lack of defensive line depth, poor linebackers, and the gambling nature of some of their defensive backs.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- Marginal linebackers could give the offense opportunities over the middle in both the run and pass game
- The Giants are extremely aggressive as far as blitzing, which could open up plays downfield as the Steelers found wide open receivers on several occasions on Sunday due to busted coverages
- Severe lack of depth on the defensive line will be a huge issue if the Cowboys offense is able to sustain drives and run the ball. Running may be difficult early on but things should open up as the game goes on as it did for the Steelers in the second half
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- Excellent starting defensive line (excluding whoever replaces JPP) with a dynamic edge rusher and two tackles that are very strong against the run
- One of the best run defenses in the league
- Ball-hawking cornerbacks and a safety in Collins who is emerging as one of the best in the league