Can you believe it? After what seems like an eternity, football is back. The Cowboys will open their 2017 season on Sunday Night at AT&T Stadium against the New York Giants. What could be better than that?
This will be an exciting game as the winner will strike first blood in the battle to take down the NFC East. Even though the Cowboys finished with a record of 13-3 and won the division last year, two of their losses came at the hands of the Giants. Starting off the season with a win is always a good feeling, but having it come against New York would make it even better. Here are five things to keep an eye out on Sunday night.
1. Finish the drives
The Cowboys offense was impressive last season when it came to sustaining drives and turning them into points. Dak Prescott took care of the ball, Ezekiel Elliott would grind out some good yards keeping Dak in manageable third downs, and the offense had the playmakers to finish it off in the end zone.
But for some reason, they really struggled closing the deal against the Giants. In two games last season, the Cowboys would move into Giants territory 12 times. Only two of those drives resulted in touchdowns (one in each game). Even more alarming, the offense came away empty on half of those drives, including a couple interceptions, a field goal that bounced off the bottom of the goal post, and time expiring when Terrance Williams chose not to go out of bounds.
The Cowboys offense will need to capitalize on their opportunities if they are going to beat the Giants. Prescott only threw four interceptions last year, but two of them came in the second game with the Giants. He’s going to need to take good care of the ball and make good throws on third down to keep those chains moving. And that is something he’s struggled to do against the Giants.
Dak Prescott against the Giants: 42/82 for 392 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 58.6 passer rating. 4.78 YPA. Crazy disparity.— DurkinOnEm (@BRILLIANT2552) December 31, 2016
Can Dak deliver against the Giants? Look for him to use his two best security blankets - Jason Witten and Cole Beasley. The Cowboys will need their new star quarterback to play like he does against the rest of the league.
2. La’el vs. JPP
The Cowboys third-year offensive lineman, La’el Collins, will make his right tackle debut in the NFL. What better way to be start off than going against the Giants All Pro defensive end, Jason Pierre-Paul. The veteran pass rusher had seven sacks last year, but that was only over 12 games and it would still be good enough to lead the Cowboys in sacks. JPP knows how to use his body and get small so that the tackle cannot use his hands effectively. He’s going to be a tough challenge for the Cowboys new right tackle. Here is JPP abusing Doug Free.
Collins has played well in camp and held his own against Khalil Mack in the team’s dress rehearsal game against the Oakland Raiders. Collins did have a few penalties called against him and a couple of them were hands to the face so he’s going to have to be mindful of his technique against Pierre-Paul. A misstep here or there could lead to an open shot at Prescott or a costly penalty. Either of those things can stall drives.
3. New wrinkles on offense
While most of his tools are the same, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will be choosing to use them a little differently. Look for him to take advantage of his bigger stars as he looks for more ways to get them the ball. This will come in two forms. First, Dez Bryant could see more slant route action so the big, physical receiver can use his strength and speed to break off more yards. Typically, Bryant hasn’t been featured in the same way that Odell Beckham Jr. or Julio Jones are, but it’s not because of a lack of skill. Dallas is just a run-first offense. But with Prescott and Bryant developing more chemistry, these two should be hooking up a lot more this season.
Another thing we should expect to see more of is Ezekiel Elliott catching passes out of the backfield. There is no Lance Dunbar around and honestly, anytime he came in the game last season was just one less chance Elliott could make a big play. While Darren McFadden should see some third-down reps, the offense will make sure they get good use out of their All Pro running back.
Finally, there is one new tool that Linehan will get to use on Sunday. Ryan Switzer will be making his Cowboys debut. The rookie receiver from North Carolina never played a down in the preseason as he was dealing with a hamstring injury, but he should be good to go against the Giants. Switzer will get his first crack at returning punts and that alone will be exciting enough, but it should also be fun seeing how the Cowboys use him on offense.
4. The fastest gun in the east
Eli Manning isn’t someone that scares many people as he has thrown at least 14 interceptions in each of the last eight seasons. To gain some perspective, in that same span, Tony Romo had only done that once. But all for things Manning does wrong, he’s one of the best quarterbacks at getting the ball out of his hands quickly. That’s a good thing too, because the Giants offensive line is not very good. But despite the problems they have in the trenches, they only gave up 22 sacks last year, which was third best in the league. That was all Eli. A quarterback who held on to the ball longer would be in trouble.
Not only does Manning get the ball out in a hurry, he’s got a compliment of receivers that fit nicely into the Giants passing game. Star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is super fast at getting out of his routes. Everyone knows that if he gets behind the corner, that’s bad news for the defense and that makes him a huge vertical threat, but Manning needs some protection for that to happen. Instead, Eli won’t hesitate to hit OBJ on those quick crossing routes. The Cowboys have been burned by this before.
But it doesn’t stop at Beckham. The Giants have made some recent investments that will further play to Manning’s strength. They drafted slot receiver Sterling Shepard with the 40th overall pick in the 2016 draft. Shepard had a nice rookie season catching 65 passes for 683 yards and eight touchdowns.
They’ve also added free agent Brandon Marshall, who is more of a traditional route runner, but a very good possession receiver. Marshall has played on four other teams (Denver, Miami, Chicago, and NY Jets) and he’s made the Pro Bowl with each one of them. The veteran receiver gives the Giants a great red zone target.
And then there is rookie tight end, Evan Engram who the Giants selected with their first-round pick in this year’s draft. Engram is an excellent pass catching tight end and has excellent speed. Manning will look for him over the middle and he could be a problem if the Cowboys cannot defend him well. This looks like an assignment for the Cowboys best TE stopper, Byron Jones.
It will be interesting to see how the Cowboys choose to match up with these receivers. Don’t be surprised if defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli dials up some corner blitz’s with Orlando Scandrick or even rookie Chidobe Awuzie.
5. Jaylon Smith’s effectiveness in the run game
If there is one thing to feel good about with the Giants offense, it’s their inept running game. While the Cowboys were third best in the league in rushing yards per attempt, the Giants were third worst. Their longest run of the year was for only 25 yards and they had a league-worst six rushing touchdowns (Dallas had 24).
Second-year player Paul Perkins is the Giants lead running back, taking over for Rashad Jennings. The last time these teams faced off, Sean Lee was all over the place, recording 18 tackles. This time around, he’ll have Jaylon Smith next to him to help stop the run. Smith will be making his NFL debut after missing all of last season recovering from a knee injury. How well he moves around could have a big impact on the Cowboys ability to stop the run. That’s an area the defense needs to win if they are to stop the Giants from moving down the field.
What will you be keeping an eye out for on Sunday night?