The Giants offense is not good. They are fourth-worst in the league in total yards per game, they are second-worst in points per game, Odell Beckham Jr. hasn’t played in about two months, their offensive line is one of the worst in the league with names like Chad Wheeler, Jon Halapio, and Brett Jones starting, and their leading rusher hasn’t averaged over 4.0 YPC in a month.
But there is a weapon or two that could hurt you under the right circumstances, and those circumstances could be falling into place with Eli Manning regaining his starting job amidst a never-ending controversy that resulted in the firing of coach Ben McAdoo. Having come face to face with his career mortality Manning is getting a second chance, maybe not to be the long-term quarterback for the Giants, but at least to write an ending more appropriate than being benched for Geno Smith and Davis Webb.
Throughout his career Manning has killed the Cowboys and many other teams with his ability to hang in the pocket and deliver the ball downfield, often times to covered receivers, giving them an opportunity to make a play. He has done this over the years with a multitude of big-bodied, jump-ball type receivers, from Plaxico Burress to Hakeem Nicks to Beckham. The signature play that will end up defining his career was a prayer that he threw up for grabs downfield, hoping that his receiver could make a play, perhaps with a little aid from his helmet.
So with nothing to lose on Sunday, and with this most likely being the last time he ever suits up against the Cowboys in New York, you can bet that Manning will give his receivers every opportunity to make plays downfield now that the shackles of McAdoo’s short passing game are presumably gone.
And the likely target of many of those deep shots you might ask?
None other than rookie tight end Evan Engram.
Without Beckham the Giants offense clearly lacks explosiveness. Sterling Shepard is a nice number two receiver who can hurt you out of the slot but he is not, nor will he ever be, a true number one type of receiver. He is better at beating you laterally and across the field, using shiftiness and short-area quickness, as opposed to taking the top off defenses vertically or making high-pointing the ball in contested situations.
Engram on the other hand does have some of that ability, especially from his tight end spot up the seam. Coming out of Mississippi many thought of Engram as basically a jumbo receiver due to average at best blocking ability and only adequate tight end size. While in many ways that is still the case, Engram’s receiving ability has clearly translated to the next level.
He currently leads the Giants in receptions (51), yards (569), and touchdowns (6), he has scored a touchdown in five of his last seven games, and is coming off a game against the Raiders where he set career highs with seven catches for 99 yards.
Now, to be fair much of his production is the result of Beckham and Shepard missing time combined with the fact that the Giants putrid offensive line usually forces their quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly and look for the checkdown. There is also the fact that a good amount of his production has come in garbage time with the Giants so often being blown out with defenses allowing them to nickel and dime their way down the field.
All of that is true but it doesn’t change the fact that Engram has been very promising, especially at a position where players don’t often immediately come in and produce as a receiver in year one. He has shown the ability to make contested catches, he has established himself as a threat in the red zone, and he has displayed fantastic hands, including a one-handed catch about 20 yards downfield last week against the Raiders.
He is the one player on the Giants offense capable of threatening defenses 20-30 yards downfield with explosiveness, while also being a security blanket in the short to intermediate with the ability to run after the catch. When Eli looks downfield and wants to heave up a prayer, you can bet this is who he will be looking for.
So what must the Cowboys do?
The clear answer is get pressure on Manning early and often. Throw him off his game early, have him feeling the rush, and he will start spraying the ball all over the field.
In coverage, for all the talk over Byron Jones being demoted in favor of Kavon Frazier, Jones still played 75% of the snaps against the Redskins. The so-called “demotion” is far overblown and is more just the Cowboys replacing Jones with Frazier in certain base packages, particularly when they’re expecting run. Jones is still a major part of the secondary and will be on the field, in the slot usually, in all passing situations.
For as much as the team might dislike Jones’ tackling ability vs. the run, they still trust him to match up with tight ends in the slot, and we will surely see plenty of Jones vs. Engram on Sunday.
It will be a matchup that Jones should be able to handle for the most part, but with the weather expected to be cold and windy with a few inches of snow the day before, this could end up being a low-scoring defensive battle. In that case it may only take a play here or there to turn the game, much as Beckham’s quick slant that he busted for a 50+ yard touchdown last season was the difference in that game despite the Cowboys defense keeping the Giants under wraps all night.
If someone on the Giants offense is to make a play like that on Sunday it will be Engram, and Jones and the Cowboys defense must be careful not to fall asleep and allow it to happen.