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Opposing player to watch Week 1 vs. Giants: Defensive tackle Damon Harrison

The Cowboys need to be aware of the big man in the middle for the Giants.

New York Giants v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Despite premature predictions of the demise of the Cowboys offensive line, the unit, along with the running game behind Ezekiel Elliott, remains the strength of the team. Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Elliott are All-Pro talents who are among the best, if not the best, at their positions. La’el Collins is an upgrade over Doug Free at right tackle as far as pure talent goes, and once he gets comfortable with his technique at the position he will be an upgrade on the field as well. In the mean time you can probably call it a wash. Ron Leary will be missed at left guard but the coaches should be able to scheme up ways to get by when you have All-Pros to the left and right of the position.

Long story short, you should expect the Cowboys offensive line and running game to once again dominate as long as they have all hands on deck. The only option for teams who can’t contain this facet of the Dallas offense is either hope that the Cowboys beat themselves with turnovers and penalties, or that their own offense can go toe-to-toe and score upwards of 27-30 points themselves. All of this brings me to Damon Harrison, the massive 6-3, 341 lb. defensive tackle for the Giants. After signing with the Jets as a UDFA and spending four years with them he signed a massive deal with the Giants last offseason. Normally players don’t respond to their first mega-deal with the best season of their career, but that’s exactly what Harrison did, making first team All-Pro and posting a career-high 2.5 sacks last season, after only 1.5 total in his time with the Jets, to go along with his usual excellent play against the run. He also managed to lead the Giants defensive line in tackles, and finished third on the defense overall, which is rare for a run-stuffing defensive tackle as they usually facilitate and pave the way for their teammates to make plays by clogging lanes without actually making the play themselves. Harrison is unquestionably one of the best run-stoppers in the game, perhaps the best, with his teams finishing 1st, 6th, 3rd, and 3rd in the league in rushing yards allowed per attempt since 2013 when he became a full-time starter. He plays with outstanding power at the point of attack and can get up-field penetration that is exceptional for a man of his size. He also plays with very good leverage on the interior despite his height.

You could make the argument that Harrison is actually the engine to the entire Giants defense, as it’s his ability to clog running lanes and force teams into 2nd and 3rd and long situations that allows defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to draw up his exotic, risky, linebacker and defensive back-heavy blitzes. After all, you can’t bring creative blitzes from multiple angles all game if it’s always 2nd and 4 or 3rd and 2.

What makes Harrison even more critical this year is that he lost his running mate on the interior from last season in Johnathan Hankins who signed with the Colts this past offseason. The Giants relied heavily on their starters along the front 4, perhaps more than any other team in the league last season as they had very little depth. Despite the loss of Hankins they haven’t done much to address that issue going into 2017, although the fact the Harrison, Olivier Vernon, and Jason Pierre-Paul are all making 10+ million a year probably ties their hands in that regard.

They did draft defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson in the second round but he has failed to beat out Jay Bromley for the starting spot, which is an issue considering that Bromley was a lightly-used reserve last year who only played 22% of the defensive snaps. Hankins played 69% of the snaps in 2016, which is a huge number to replace with a rookie, an inexperienced reserve, and not much depth.

You also must take into account that the Giants linebacker corps is mostly average with no true standouts to help dominate against the run. Vernon and Pierre-Paul on the edge are excellent, but if Frederick, Martin, and company can win their matchups with Harrison on the interior the Giants will be forced to dedicate an eighth or even ninth defender to the box to stop Elliott and the run. In all likelihood that extra defender will be All-Pro safety Landon Collins, which takes him away from being able to freelance and hunt for interceptions in coverage.

Can the Giants dedicate that many players to stopping the run and get away with playing single coverage against Dez Bryant and the rest of the Cowboys receivers all game?

Perhaps, they have several excellent cornerbacks, but they won’t have the luxury of frigid conditions and their home crowd as they did last December, nor will they be facing a rookie Dak Prescott making his first career start as they did in the opener.

After taking all of this into consideration there is an argument to be made that controlling Harrison could be the key to Sunday’s game for the Cowboys offense. Whether that is truly the case or not is anybody’s guess, but what is certain though is that Harrison is one of the very best in the league, and so are Martin and Frederick.

It will surely be a fun matchup to watch.