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Cowboys scouting report: Breaking down the Giants defensive scheme

When the Cowboys face the Giants in Week 1, here’s what to expect from Dexter Lawrence and company on the New York defense.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

When Brian Daboll was hired as the new Giants head coach last year, he assembled a great coaching staff that was highlighted by veteran defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. Fresh off a four-year stint as the Ravens defensive coordinator and six years as a position coach in Baltimore prior to that, Martindale brought a clear understanding of what he wants to do on defense to the Giants.

As the 2023 NFL season kicks off this week, Martindale will have his hands full to start his second year with the team. Head coach Mike McCarthy will be calling plays for the first time since his Packers days, Dak Prescott has consistently had this team’s number regardless of the coaches or players, and he’ll have an upgraded receiving corps with veteran Brandin Cooks alongside a healthier version of Michael Gallup.

Still, Martindale is very much a coach who is confident in his scheme. There is nothing he loves more than blitzing, and the Giants blitzed more than any team in the league last year at a 39.7% rate. Martindale has earned a reputation for coming up with very exotic blitz packages that are designed to confuse offenses, often working to hide the blitzer(s) with unusual formations and stunts along the defensive line that create chaos both before and after the snap.

Martindale balances all this out with a heavy use of nickel and dime packages, meaning there are lots of defensive backs on the field at all times. That’s becoming more and more common these days, but the point is that Martindale seeks to flood the field with pass rushers and pass defenders. He makes heavy use of single-high safety looks, with Cover 1 and Cover 3 being used a lot.

In his first year with the Giants, Martindale lacked playmakers on defense. Rookie EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux showed promise, but he missed the start of the season and it took him time to ramp up. Still, Martindale made do with what he had, and New York finished sixth in both pressure rate and pass rush win rate.

The issue for the Giants, who finished the year ranked 30th in defensive DVOA, was what happened when the pass rush didn’t affect the play. Offenses learned to get the ball out quickly, and the Giants allowed the 10th-most yards after catch in the league. Worse was their run defense, which allowed the second-most yards per carry and ranked dead last in run defense DVOA.

It was a boom or bust defense, which became a common theme for Martindale in Baltimore as well. When the pass rush worked, and the secondary held up behind them, it was a thing of beauty. But offenses figured out how to beat the scheme, and Martindale didn’t have the same caliber of players last year that he did in Baltimore to effectively re-calibrate.

He’s got a little more talent to work with this year, though. They brought in Rakeem Nuñez-Roches and A’Shawn Robinson to beef up the defensive line, and traded for linebacker/safety hybrid Isaiah Simmons from the Cardinals, giving Martindale a potential chess piece to work with. The secondary has undergone a facelift, with veteran safety Bobby McCain coming over from Washington along with former Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye, while first-round rookie corner Deonte Banks is hoping to cement a starting role for himself. The hope is that a retooled defensive line reinforces the run defense while the secondary gets better at not allowing easy completions behind Martindale’s exotic blitzes.

The issue in Week 1, though, comes down to Dak Prescott. For just about his entire career, Prescott has been a blitz killer. Last year, he had a higher completion rate, higher yards per attempt, and significantly lower rate of turnover worthy plays when facing a blitz. He was also sacked less against the blitz. While these trends haven’t been exactly the case every single year, Prescott has consistently performed among the upper echelon of quarterbacks when facing the blitz.

Now, Prescott will be playing in Mike McCarthy’s Texas Coast offense, which blends West Coast principles with the concepts Kellen Moore had been running. Chief among those West Coast principles is the frequent use of quick hitters, prioritizing a fast release to avoid pressure. And with how much Martindale relies on Cover 1 and Cover 3 schemes, this offense is well-designed to take advantage of those coverages’ weaknesses.

So Martindale is faced with the age-old question: to blitz, or not to blitz? He only faced Prescott once last year, and apparently decided the answer was “to blitz” considering he brought an extra pass rusher on 61% of Prescott’s dropbacks. And Prescott predictably cooked the Giants when he was blitzed, completing 72.2% of his passes for 160 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. When not blitzed, Prescott only completed 66.7% of his passes for 101 yards and threw one touchdown to two interceptions.

It’s only one game of Martindale’s Giants vs Prescott’s Cowboys, but it does suggest that Martindale ought to cool it on the blitzes for at least this game. The Cowboys offense seems perfectly equipped to dissect this defense just based on how Martindale tends to run things. Unless he makes a dramatic shift in approach for Week 1, the Cowboys look to be in a good spot for McCarthy’s debut calling plays.

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