The big stories for the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener against the New York Giants are all pretty well known. Ezekiel Elliott will play. Dak Prescott is looking to continue his growth (and silence the doubters). Dez Bryant is looking to be in top form as the leader of a very strong receiving corps. La’el Collins faces a major test in his first game as the right tackle. Jaylon Smith is going to be on the field, and may even be the starter. A revamped secondary has to step up. And the pass rush has to develop.
Those have been discussed thoroughly. But there are some other stories that have not gotten nearly as much attention that will be important if Dallas is to kick the season off with a win. Here are three to watch if you want to drill a little deeper into things.
How will the left guard position affect the cohesion of the offensive line?
Who will play the position has been a hot topic, with the team still deciding between Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper as the starter. The lean right now seems to be towards Green, despite his checkered injury history. But whichever name they decide on, they cannot afford for this to be a weak link against the potent Giants defensive line. The LG will primarily be lined up against Jay Bromley. Most of the attention on the Giants’ defensive front has gone to the ends and Snacks Harrison. But Prescott won’t be helped if there is any confusion in handling Bromley or in countering blitzes coming in behind his position.
More importantly, breakdowns at one position on the line can throw the timing off on everything. This may be even more important in the run game. The Cowboys use both zone and man blocking schemes, which is not something all teams can manage well. Due to the superior talent they have accumulated in recent years, Dallas has pulled it off extremely well. But now there is a big unknown at left guard. Getting that right will have as much to do with the success of the running game as the availability of Elliott.
The Cowboys’ 1-tech DTs need to show real improvement.
While the lines will pit strength against strength when the Cowboys are on offense, things are quite different when the Giants have the ball. Their offensive line is suspect at best, and the difficulties the Cowboys have had in getting consistent pressure on the quarterback are well known.
That pressure is not just about the edge rushers. It also needs to come up the middle, pushing the pocket back into Eli Manning. He has largely compensated for the deficiencies of his protection by developing one of the quickest releases in the game. Defensive ends just have to come too far to get home before the ball comes out of his hand. But pressure up the middle has a better chance of disrupting him, and can actually lead to sacks by the ends if Manning has to evade defensive tackles right in his face.
Last season, Maliek Collins was a real star for the defense, getting five sacks as a rookie from the 3-tech position. That is impressive for anyone. But the 1-tech was another story, and the Cowboys conceded that they did not have a good answer when they released Cedric Thornton despite the dead money hit he represents. Now they have Stephen Paea, who impressed throughout camp and the preseason, and new acquisition Brian Price. If they can team with Collins to provide that big push up the middle, they can rattle Manning. And we all know what happens when he is feeling rattled.
Eli Manning tossed 3 picks last night & Twitter had a field day. Here's the best tweets roasting him & his Eli face. https://t.co/DGGk54mT50— Funny Sports (@_funnysportspic) December 23, 2016
The TE2 job is greatly undervalued.
The iron man of the Cowboys is starting tight end Jason Witten, so at first glance the rest of the tight end group would not seem very important. But the Cowboys use 12 and 22 packages (two tight ends) for particular down, distance, and field position situations, and without a strong second TE to deploy, those become limited or even have to be left out of the game plan. James Hanna missed all of 2016 with injury, but Geoff Swaim filled in well - until he was injured in November.
And that may have had more of an impact than most realize. Bob Sturm has remarked how general offensive struggles hit the team right after Swaim went down, and the end of the eleven game winning streak soon followed - against the Giants. It took a few games for the Cowboys to find their stride again.
Now both Hanna and Swaim are healthy, and Rico Gathers should be available to recall from IR after seven games. This puts those 12 and 22 formations back in play for Dallas, and based on what happened last year, that may be a real difference maker.
Those are three things to watch in the Giants game. If they all go well, the Cowboys should be in a strong position to start things off with a win over the only team they could not beat in 2016. But if one or more do not work out, we could see another 0-1 start. And with Elliott’s status beyond this weekend still uncertain, they can ill afford that.