The big question in the upcoming season opener between the Cowboys and Giants would normally be Dallas' rookie quarterback starting against one of the most expensive defenses in the league. But the target for the Giants defense is unquestionably going to be the Dallas running game, with rookie phenom-to-be Ezekiel Elliott running behind the most lavishly praised offensive line in recent memory. Dallas is going to try to protect newcomer Dak Prescott with a solid ground game and let Prescott take his shots where he chooses, rather than forcing the young fourth-rounder to carry the team offensively. Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnolo knows this is a sound strategy and spoke earlier this week of not letting the Cowboys offense get "ahead of schedule" which, he said, would allow them to sit back and hand it off behind that powerful group of five.
Sounds like their defensive coordinator wants to make sure the Cowboys don’t play with a lead.
The Giants made heavy investments in their defensive line this offseason. Olivier Vernon got more guaranteed money than any other player this offseason and the only other free agents who got more than he did play quarterback. But they also paid Damon Harrison over $9 million a year and guaranteed him $20 million and they return starters Jonathan Hankins and Jason Pierre-Paul for what looks like a very strong front four. But they have to go against the strength of Dallas’s team. The Cowboys offensive line is at the very top of the league both in technique and sheer power, with an agility and fluidity at the second level that is completely belied by their brute strength. Can the Giants hold up to this?
To find out, I took a look at the first four running plays from their pre-season "tune up" game against the New York Jets. The Giants held the Jets to 79 yards rushing and Matt Forte to 28 yards on 10 carries, so the early returns were pretty impressive. But I did see some holes in their armor as well. I’ll try show a little of their good and their bad, both
For the first play, we’ll focus on Olivier Vernon, here circled in red.
Vernon had a great game against the Jets and looked every bit the part of the multi-million dollar man that he is. Here, he gets a great punch and turns LT Brandon Shell so far out of the way that Shell simply decides to go block someone else.
And then the H-back, for reasons unknown, simply runs right by Vernon. Who makes the stop at the line of scrimmage.
For the next play, watch both Vernon, circled in red again, and Jonathan Hankins, denoted by a red arrow.
Vernon sets the edge well, pushing his man well back into the play. Meanwhile Hankins (still the red arrow) is doing a tremendous job (for a 320 lb man) of beating the reach block of the Jets guard.
Hankins wins to the play side of his man and is in formidable chase, while Vernon’s man is now on the ground. Unfortunately for the Giants, Forte manages just enough speed to slide around Vernon and get the edge. And there is a large red line to show how the rest of the Giants defense has lagged in their pursuit. Janoris Jenkins (not pictured), does manage to get off a downfield block and knock Forte out of bounds for a mild gain, but I’m pretty sure Ezekiel Elliott would’ve had double-digit yardage on this play. Nonetheless, the defensive line, on whom we are focusing, performed very well.
But this was not always the case. Here we will focus on the two big DTs, Damon Harrison and Jonathan Hankins (red arrows). These men combine for 670 lbs of beef in the heart of the Giants defensive line.
And both of them get completely handled off the snap. Harrison at least is being doubled, while Hankins is simply stood up by the Jets’ left tackle. Meanwhile Vernon is being handled by the TE.
By the time Forte is headed for the hole, Harrison has been driven three yards back, and the Jets guard is now turning to get the Will LB, who is the only one in position to fill the hole. Hankins has been driven back a yard and a half, but is now holding his ground there.
Oddly, Forte chooses to run towards Harrison rather than into the large hole. I’m not sure what he saw that led him that way, but he dives inside for about five yards. Once again, I think Elliott gets a big gain on this play, although it must be noted that Hankins does finally begin to beat his block.
Finally, we have a short-yardage play. This one was ugly for the Giants. Once again we’ll focus on their big interior linemen. It should be noted that when you put a 350 lb guy next to a 320 lb guy at DT, you are expecting to hold up well inside.
But for some reason, they have their biggest guy, Harrison, try to submarine the line. The focus is on the lower half of Harrison’s body as he lies on the ground.
The sudden appearance of a 350 lb obstacle at knee height does indeed wreak havoc on the play, but not the kind the Giants wanted. While bodies fly everywhere, Jonathan Hankins, blocked by one man, is brought to his knees.
And you are left with basically one man standing on the play: the ball carrier. This is not what you want your defense to look like on 3rd and 1.
So while the Giants do appear to have scored a hit with Olivier Vernon (who, again, looked very good in this game), their big beef in the middle of the line may be overstated. Now the Jets have some strong interior players in Nick Mangold, James Carpenter, and Brian Winters, but Dallas’s Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins, are fair to middling themselves and not going to be intimidated by a couple of big DTs. I believe, despite their overall success in this game, that the Giants’ defensive line is going to need to play better than this against the run for them to beat Dallas.
Also, it is worth noting that this is simply the first four running plays of the game. Looking at the Jets’ overall rushing stats, the Giants clearly tightened up. But these four carries produced about 12 yards, which is very close to the 2.8 yard per carry average Forte had for the game, so perhaps they were not that much better as the game went on. In parlance Dallas is familiar with, Matt Forte left a good bit of meat on the bone here, and I believe Elliott would’ve had significantly more yardage on two of these four runs.
Sunday will tell the tale. Football coming in 5... 4... 3...