The Dallas Cowboys will be looking to avoid an 0-2 start as they host the New York Giants on Sunday night. After a stagnant offensive performance in the 16-8 loss in Week 1, the team will look to get the season going against a divisional rival. Not only are NFC East games important for divisional record purposes, the Cowboys find this game even more important as they do not want to put themselves in a hole early in the season. After being swept by the Giants in 2016, the Cowboys returned the favor by winning both contests last year. Who will strike first blood this year? Here are five things to keep an eye out for on Sunday night.
1. Wreck Flowers
DeMarcus Lawrence had a breakout season last year with 14.5 sacks. This included sacks in each of his first seven games of the season. It also included 5.5 sacks in just his first three games. And he kicked things off last year with a great season debut against the Giants.
Last year, it was right tackle Bobby Hart who Tank was abusing, but thanks to the free agent acquisition of left tackle Nate Solder, the Giants can now move 2015 first-round bust Ereck Flowers over to the right side. That’s great news for the Eli Manning’s blind spot, but it’s bad news for the Giants any time Flowers has to go up against a tough matchup. Sunday night will be one of those times.
How will Giants head coach Pat Shurmur scheme to stop Lawrence from running all over Flowers?
When asked if Lawrence can be stopped by chip blocks from tight ends and running backs, coach Pat Shurmur bluntly replied, “No, the guy assigned to block him has to block him.”
Well, that may be good in theory and all, but we’re not buying that. In fact, Shurmur gave Flowers plenty of help last Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Look for the Giants to use blocking tight end Rhett Ellison to give Flowers some help on the edge.
Here Ellison helped Flowers before releasing. You can see the downside of this because Ellison is just getting out into his pattern when Eli has to get rid of the ball: pic.twitter.com/SzgvrRuDsc— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) September 12, 2018
Lawrence has to be salivating at the mouth and the All-Pro defensive end must dominate this matchup. Manning gets the ball out in a hurry and he also likes to roll out to his right to buy himself some extra time so it could be a race. And who wins could be the difference between a Eli pick-six or Odell Beckham Jr. sprinting down the sidelines for a touchdown.
2. Big-play Barkley
When the Giants selected Saquon Barkley with the number two overall pick in the draft, division rivals cringed. He was the top player on many boards and the idea of having to deal with such a talented running for the next several years was very unsettling. But for Barkley to be effective, he’s going to need his blockers up front to do their job and let’s face it - the Giants offensive line isn’t very good. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve made some improvements to their offensive line with the addition of Solder and second-round pick Will Hernandez, but it is still a weak spot on their team. Against the Jags, Barkley was kept in check for most of the game as he racked up several small gains runs, but he’s persistent and eventually he’ll fight his way into space.
According to Next Gen Stats, Saquon Barkley had 5 rushes (on 18 carries) that reached 15+ MPH Sunday. #NYG RBs only had 19 such runs in all of 2017.— Kimberly Jones (@KimJonesSports) September 11, 2018
Here is one of them.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli had this to say about the Giants new playmaking running back:
“He’s a home run threat,” said defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. “He’s got the ability to get those jump cuts. He’ll see a hole and he’ll break out. If you don’t have the edges to the defense set, or your corners aren’t replacing correctly, this guy will go to the house on you.”
In order to contain Barkley, the Cowboys defense is going to have to keep him from building up steam and wrap him up when they have the chance. Sean Lee is going to have to do a much better job tackling than he did last Sunday against the Panthers.
3. Feed Zeke, but avoid Snacks
The Cowboys must get their running game going this week. Ezekiel Elliott only had 69 yards rushing on Sunday which was his third-lowest rushing total of his young career. The Cowboys have lost all three of those games.
And there is no secret that the Giants will be focusing on not letting Elliott beat them. All-Pro linebacker Landon Collins gave us his two cents on the matter:
“We really just have to focus on stopping Zeke. We need to make sure we’re playing our gap assignments and make sure we [take] the air out of their running game,” Collins told reporters. “Put the ball into Dak’s hands and I think we have a better shot at winning.”
While Collins will have his target set on Zeke, the Cowboys will need to get past the line of scrimmage first and that means stopping nose tackle Damon Harrison from disrupting the middle. Rookie Connor Williams had a heckuva day fending off Panther Kawaan Short, but it’s not going to get any easier against Harrison.
The Cowboys are going to have to do a better job blocking up front and getting Zeke into space. If Dallas cannot get the running game going, it’s going to put extra pressure on Dak Prescott.
Speaking of which...
4. Get Dak back on track
There’s no way to sugarcoat it - Prescott didn’t play well against the Panthers. Whether it was making bad reads or misfiring on throws, the Cowboys young quarterback really struggled in the season-opener. Yes, that’s disappointing. And yes, that’s alarming considering the quarterback is such an important position. But as Bobby Belt points out, he’s put a lot of good on tape to start freaking out just yet.
For all the Dak panic, we are still talking about a guy who had an elite run of 25 games vs. a bad run of 9. I don't understand the inability to contextualize this.— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) September 13, 2018
Prescott needs to have a better game - no doubt about that. But let’s not act like he doesn’t have it in him. It’s going to be a season-long exercise to develop good chemistry with his new receivers, but don’t be surprised if Prescott has a strong rebound game against the Giants.
And while Dak’s arm needs to deliver on Sunday, I wouldn’t mind seeing him use his legs a little more. I mean, if Blake “Wheels O’Toole” Bortles can flip the field against the Giants, I’m sure Prescott can get some chunks.
Blake Bortles, RB?!— Sporting News (@sportingnews) September 9, 2018
The Jaguars QB with the 41-yard run, the longest rush of his career. pic.twitter.com/TBLVkJIXCb
5. Stop Sterling on the money downs
While all the attention is on the Giants big offensive playmakers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquan Barkley, they have another guy the Cowboys need to pay attention to. The Giants selected Sterling Shepard in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He had a strong rookie season with 65 catches, 683 yards, and eight touchdowns. While he didn’t blow up last year after OBJ went down, he still had a solid 59 catches for 731 yards.
With Beckham Jr. getting the bulk of the targets, Shepard is really great out of the slot and will be a tough matchup for Anthony Brown. If the Cowboys defense win on early downs only to give up a third-down conversion by giving Shepard too much space, it’s going to give the Giants extra chances to find points. Getting pressure on Eli will help in the grand scheme of things, but it’s extremely hard to do when Manning is getting rid of the ball in a hurry. Eli loves to run a fake hand-off out of the shotgun and then fire the ball to the quick slant to his right. Shepard will be there for him and the Cowboys defense needs to be ready.