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Eye on the Cowboys: Rushing attack will be key

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Giants begin their 2019 season when they visit the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon in AT&T Stadium. The Giants, who were 5-11 in 2018, have lost four consecutive games to their NFC East rivals.

Last year, Dallas won the division title with a 10-6 record that included a 7-1 mark at home. In Week 2, the Cowboys defeated the Giants in Dallas, 20-13, and in the season finale in MetLife Stadium, 36-35. Dallas leads the regular-season series, 66-45-2.

What is the Cowboys’ biggest strength?

It was probably true anyway, but now that Ezekiel Elliott signed a contract extension and will play on Sunday, it is certainly their ability to run the football. Elliott last year rushed for 1,434 yards in 15 games and became the fifth player since the 1970 merger to lead the NFL in rushing twice in his first three seasons. Elliott returns to find arguably the NFL’s best offensive line intact after a season in which it missed key contributors because of illness and injury. And if Elliott’s workload is limited because he missed training camp, rookie fourth-round draft choice Tony Pollard demonstrated in the preseason that he is a capable backup.

Which player is key to the Cowboys’ offense?

Elliott. Had he continued holding out, quarterback Dak Prescott would have been cited here. But Dallas’ offense starts with Elliott. Since he entered the league in 2016, Elliott leads the league in carries (868), yards (4,048) and first downs (219). Last year, he led the team with 95 targets and had a career-high 77 receptions to become the first running back to lead the Cowboys since Richie Anderson in 2003. Elliott accounted for an NFL-high 45% of his team’s offense, and he led the NFL with 133.4 scrimmage yards per game. Dallas has surrounded Prescott with an impressive band of weapons – Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, Jason Witten – but none is as important as Elliott.

What is the strength of the Cowboys’ offense?

Staying on the field by running the ball. Dallas likes to dominate time of possession, control tempo and keep its defense off the field by running the ball. The Cowboys were 10th in the NFL in rushing last season, despite playing with a banged-up offensive line. Center Travis Frederick, a Pro Bowler every year from 2014-17, missed the entire season after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that affects the nervous system. Guards Zack Martin and Connor Williams and left tackle Tyron Smith all missed games due to injury. Martin and Smith are among the very best players at their positions. With the line once again intact, the Cowboys can better execute their offensive plan.

Which player is key to the Cowboys’ defense?

It’s a tossup between end DeMarcus Lawrence and middle linebacker Jaylon Smith. Lawrence has played in consecutive Pro Bowls and has 25.0 sacks the past two seasons and 3.5 career sacks of Eli Manning. A difference-maker up front, Lawrence last year led Dallas with 10.5 sacks and 39 quarterback pressures. Lawrence did not play in the preseason and is eager to wreak havoc on Kickoff Weekend.

What is the strength of the Cowboys’ defense?

Its speed on all levels. The line gets upfield quickly. Second-year pro Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are arguably the best tandem of linebackers on any NFL team. Last season they were Dallas’ top two tacklers, combining for 326 stops (226 solo), 4.0 sacks, 18 pressures and two interceptions. Both are big, long, rangy, sideline-to-sideline players. Sean Lee, a tackling machine beginning his 10th season, now plays only in the base defense. Cornerback Byron Jones was selected second-team All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl despite finishing with zero interceptions, a testament to his coverage ability.

What is the strength of the Cowboys’ special teams?

Punter Chris Jones has one of the league’s strongest legs, as well as a 40.5-yard career net average. The eight-year veteran has dropped 40.1% of his punts inside the 20-yard line (164 overall), the third-highest figure in NFL history (minimum 100 punts). Special mention to long snapper L.P. Ladouceur, an outstanding performer who is entering his 15th season.

Based on the scouting report, what must the Giants do to win the game?

Stop Elliott and Dallas’ rushing attack and get the offense off the field. The Cowboys are a much more effective and productive team when they play keep-away with the ball. Offensively, the Giants wants to run the ball well against a Dallas defensive front that lacks depth with Randy Gregory and Robert Quinn serving suspensions.

Statistics you should know:

*In addition to their 7-1 home record in 2018, the Cowboys were 5-1 vs. the NFC East, including 3-0 in AT&T Stadium.

*Dallas is 38-20-1 on opening day, a .652 winning percentage that is second in league history behind Denver’s .669 (39-19-1). The Giants are sixth with a percentage of .558 (50-39-1).

*Prescott is the first quarterback in NFL history with at least 20 passing touchdowns and five rushing touchdowns in each of his first three seasons.

*Four of Dallas’ current offensive line starters missed time due to injury last season and the Cowboys allowed 56 sacks, the NFL’s second-highest total.

*Vander Esch set a Dallas rookie record with 176 tackles (125 solo) and was the first Cowboys defender since Everson Walls in 1981 to go to the Pro Bowl in his debut season.

*Witten and Eli Manning will each set franchise records by playing in their 16th season with their respective teams on Sunday.

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