As division foes, the Cowboys will play the New York Giants twice in 2018. The first matchup will be in Dallas in Week 2, then the Cowboys won’t see the G-Men again until the end of the regular season when they travel to the Meadowlands.
Pat Shurmur takes over as the new head coach in New York and the defense switches from a 4-3 to a 3-4. The Giants have a lot of unanswered questions. Because of this regime change, it’s a bit hard to properly scout the Giants. Luckily, when the Cowboys begin formulating their game plan for Week 2, they’ll have at least one regular season game to go off of when scouting the Giants. As for the head coach, Shurmur had two years as the Browns head coach where he also called plays, but when ownership changed, the front office and coaching staff was quickly reset.
We reached out to Ed Valentine, Editor in Chief of our Giants counterpart, Big Blue View, and he provided a brief report:
1. What is your biggest concern for the team entering the 2018 season?
Well, when you are 3-13 and rebuild a roster it is just impossible to do everything in one offseason. My biggest concern might be depth. There are a few positions where I look and think “who the heck is going to play if the starter gets hurt.”
2. What was the best addition to the team this offseason?
It would be really easy to say Saquon Barkley. Too easy. I think the best thing the Giants did was hire Dave Gettleman as GM and Pat Shurmur as coach. There is a far different attitude from the head coach, one of professionalism and respect. Those were missing a year ago.
3. How is this team different from last year’s team, for better or worse?
Well, obviously this team is different from the top down. New GM. New coach. New coaching staff. New offensive and defensive schemes and a lot of roster turnover. While the Giants really should have been better than 3-13 a year ago had they stayed healthy, this team has to be better. More attention has been paid to both lines, the defense will switch to a 3-4, Saquon Barkley should boost the offense and Odell Beckham will, hopefully, be healthy. I don’t see how this team can’t be better.
4. What do you think is a realistic goal for this team in 2018?
What had better happen is that the Giants had better be a playoff team. They went all-in on Eli Manning by drafting Barkley and not selecting QB Sam Darnold No. 2 overall to be their QB of the future. They have banked on the belief that Manning can still play winning football, tried to build a team that can help him do that, and more or less said they would worry about Manning’s successor later. So, now they have to win. They have to be a playoff team to justify the path they have chosen.
After an incredible season calling plays for the Minnesota Vikings, Shurmur will continue to call plays for the Giants despite hiring longtime Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula to the same position. Shurmur explained how this dynamic will work with Shula, who is also the quarterbacks coach:
“Here’s a scenario: It’s second-and-10 at the 20 (yard line),” Shurmur said. “I’ll call a play and say, ‘Hey, Mike, have a third-down call ready for me.’ Then he’ll give me a suggestion.”
Odell Beckham Jr. missed most of last season with a fractured ankle, and even before the injury, his numbers were down. Now he’s asking to be made the highest-paid player in the NFL, and it’s from a general manager who hasn’t been keen on big egos in the past and a team with some cap complications. The depth chart at receiver behind him isn’t promising outside of Sterling Shepard.
Evan Engram looked good as a rookie and Saquon Barkley’s talent and skill set makes him an obvious weapon. A common refrain still remains: the biggest issue on offense is the offensive line. Signing Nate Solder and drafting Will Hernandez fixes the left side of the line, but the rest of the trenches are still questionable. Ereck Flowers may end up starting at right tackle, which would be a dream come true for DeMarcus Lawrence.
The hardest part is figuring out what the offensive scheme will be. Shurmur’s scheme in Minnesota was largely a synthesis of Andy Reid’s and Chip Kelly’s offenses, and he often called plays where three receivers were spread out wide and then ran the ball up the middle. In 2017, Shurmur’s offense had a 53:47 pass-to-run ratio. Only the Cowboys, Panthers, Bills, and Jaguars ran it more. Injury to Dalvin Cook required Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon to run more, but the three backs combined for 1,766 yards and four yards per carry. Shurmur and Shula both frequently employ power run concepts, so Barkley’s size and strength pair well with this approach.
Shurmur is very diverse in personnel alignments too, using 11 personnel 56% of the time but also using 12 personnel 29% of the time. In New York, the presence of Engram and Rhett Ellison at tight end make it likely that the Giants use plenty of two-tight-end sets. Kyle Rudolph tied Stefon Diggs for the team lead in touchdown catches for Minnesota, and Engram’s size makes him an ideal red zone target anyway. Additionally, Shurmur uses his running backs in the passing game frequently. For the four games Cook played, he was targeted 16 times for 11 catches and 90 yards. McKinnon, more of a receiving back anyway, was targeted 68 times for 51 catches and 421 yards.
Barkley will likely be used even more in the passing game, though; his skill set compares similarly to Christian McCaffrey, who played for Shula in Carolina his rookie year. Splitting time at running back, he had 117 carries and 113 targets, cashing it in for 1,086 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns. Barkley will certainly get more than 117 carries, but perhaps the targets will stay about the same. Which begs this question: can they keep Odell happy with his targets?
In Minnesota, there wasn’t really a clear number one receiver. As such, only one receiver had over 100 targets in 2017, and it was Adam Thielen with a whopping 142, which became 91 catches. Next on the list was Diggs with 95 targets and 64 catches, a significant drop off. Thielen may have been the go-to-guy, but it was largely due to his route running. Beckham is a player who has the ability to run beautiful routes, but sometimes relies too heavily on his physical talents. Additionally, he’s used to getting plenty of targets. His lowest number of targets, injury year not included, was his rookie year with 130. That was also his lowest catch total with 91 catches. The aforementioned drama regarding Beckham seems to intensify when thinking about if he’ll get enough targets in this offense to keep him happy. That remains to be seen.
The big question, though, is how do the Cowboys best defend this offense? A good starting point is to watch the NFC Championship game, and look at how the Eagles’ defense shut down Shurmur’s offense. There it started with the running game. For an offense that only threw the ball 53% of the time in the regular season, Minnesota was forced to throw it 48 times in this game because the running game was largely ineffective, making the offense one dimensional. Because Shurmur likes to get the ball out quick, it takes good press cover corners to defend the pass. The Cowboys think they have that talent, especially with Kris Richard teaching these defensive backs.
This means the objective in defending against Shurmur’s Giants is to shut down the running game. Barkley is a hard man to stop, but against Michigan State - where he was mostly contained - the problems arose from a penetrating defensive line and a safety in the box who was able to wrap up any outside runs. For Dallas, the defensive line’s up-the-field approach matches up well against this Giants line. The 3-technique defensive tackle and strongside defensive end should be able to cause problems on the right side of the line, and having Jaylon Smith at SAM linebacker adds an athletic sideline-to-sideline guy who can stop any runs that get past the line of scrimmage. Dropping Jeff Heath into the box on the strong side can help too. And before you roll your eyes at Heath, remember his speed in pursuit of making the tackle:
Eventually, the Giants will start running exclusively to the weak side behind Solder and Hernandez. As noted in the profile of Rod Marinelli, his scheme is designed to force the run to the weak side anyway. Solder and Hernandez likely won’t give up penetration, but if Barkley gets through their holes, he’ll have Sean Lee to deal with. From there, it’s a matter of jamming receivers off their routes and getting Manning to make mistakes. From a personnel standpoint, it would make sense to shift Byron Jones onto Engram in certain situations, as he deals well with bigger bodies. There are a few options for handling Barkley the receiver. Heath lining up in the box and taking him on could work, but Barkley’s speed could torch Heath. Leighton Vander Esch has the pass coverage skills to take him on, too, but switching Jourdan Lewis might be the smartest move depending on who covers the slot receiver. The important part is to treat Barkley like a receiver and not a mere running back.
Looking at the Giants defense is a little more promising for Dallas. The transition to a 3-4 defense should be rough in 2018, even with defensive coordinator James Bettcher overseeing the change. Aside from Damon Harrison at nose tackle, the Giants don’t seem to have much else. Bettcher brought defensive end Josh Mauro and outside linebacker Kareem Martin with him from Arizona to help, but Mauro and Dalvin Tomlinson flanking Harrison isn’t exactly the best defensive line. More from Big Blue’s Valentine on the scheme change:
James Bettcher is also fond of multiple fronts, so we will see 3-4, 3-3-5, 4-2-5 and probably some fronts with only two down linemen. Olivier Vernon will play outside linebacker. That’s the biggest switch. The question for the Giants, no matter what front they are in, is how they will create pass rush. Vernon is the only accomplished pass rusher they have.
True to Valentine’s analysis, outside linebacker is the biggest question mark, as the Giants lack pass rushers. Through four seasons with the Cardinals, Martin never had more than 1.5 sacks in a year. Rookie Lorenzo Carter only put up 14 sacks in four years at Georgia in a similar scheme. Olivier Vernon is automatically the best pass rusher, but he’s been a 4-3 edge rusher his whole career. When he was asked about the transition, Vernon compared his situation to Chandler Jones:
“I mean, we’re two different players. Chandler Jones is his own player, I’m my own player. He had a great season last year and that just happens,” Vernon said. “He was doing what he had to do, they had a great defense and right now, we’re just trying to get everything down pat, chemistry as well. And we’ll see from there.”
Jones did have a stellar 2017, with 17 sacks. However, Jones had played the role before with the Patriots, so it wasn’t as drastic a change as Vernon will have to make. Jones is also a better pass rusher than Vernon, whose career high of 11.5 sacks in a single season pale in comparison to Jones. Not to mention, Vernon hasn’t had double digit sacks since 2013, mostly serving as a secondary pass rusher. While Bettcher almost exclusively used Jones as a rusher, sometimes even putting him in a three-point stance as opposed to standing upright, the adjustment is hard to make. And in evaluating Jones’ game tape against Tyron Smith in 2017, he was manhandled the majority of the game, save for one breakdown where he flipped inside on Smith and got a sack. Similarly, Vernon was limited by Smith in 2017: only 1 sack in two games.
Getting inside linebacker Alec Ogletree should help, but this front seven doesn’t look to be nearly as strong against the run as it previously has been. In the 4-3, Harrison’s size and strength made him a matchup nightmare against a single blocker. Still, Zack Martin typically handled him. Now that there are only three down linemen, the Cowboys can more often double team Harrison with a combination of Martin and Travis Frederick or La’el Collins. The rest can be addressed with the likes of Connor Williams, Tyron Smith, and blocking tight ends, all of which should make things incredibly easy for Ezekiel Elliott to do his thing.
And that’s good for many reasons, one being the talent of the Giants secondary. It remains to be seen whether Janoris Jenkins gets in any trouble for the recent headlines regarding his house, and Eli Apple has had several well documented struggles on the field and in the locker room, but the presence of Landon Collins at safety helps tie things together nicely. The addition of Sam Beal in the supplemental draft could also pay dividends by the end of the year if he grows into a role.
However, Bettcher’s pass defense thrives on pressuring the quarterback into errant throws. If there is a lack of pressure, the pass defense can fall apart. In this matchup, look for the Cowboys to target Eli Apple. Bettcher will probably put Collins in the box to take on Elliott, and when this happens, the Cowboys could look for deep routes from speedsters like Deonte Thompson or Tavon Austin to bust open the back end of the coverage.
If there’s one thing Cowboys fans know, it’s that you can never assume victory over this rival. That said, in looking at the type of schemes New York will employ in addition to their personnel and its fit, these are two games where Dallas should be able to dominate with their approach on offense and defense. Zeke will be fed plenty, and if the defense can bottle up the run early, Shurmur’s balanced attack can be thrown off. Last time a defense did that, the Vikings were pummeled. Dallas’ mission should be no different.