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Eye On the Dallas Cowboys: Scouting Report

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants will he hit the road for the first time in 2018 when they visit the Dallas Cowboys in a Sunday night game in AT&T Stadium. Each team lost its opening game; the Giants fell at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 20-15, and the Cowboys dropped a 16-8 decision to the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. Dallas swept the season series in 2017, one year after the Giants won both of their games vs. the Cowboys. Dallas leads the regular-season series, 64-45-2. The Giants are 22-29-1 on Sunday nights, including 11-17-1 on the road.

What is the Cowboys’ biggest strength?

For the second game in a row, the Giants will face a team that runs the ball exceptionally well. Last week it was Jacksonville, which finished first in the NFL in rushing yardage in 2017. Now they encounter the Cowboys, who were second last year with an average of 135.6 yards a game. Dallas rushed for 94 yards at Carolina, but with Ezekiel Elliott running behind an outstanding offensive line, it is capable of churning out many more yards. Elliott is the best player on the team and is still working his way back into game shape after not playing a down in the preseason.

Which player is key to the Cowboys’ offense?

Elliott. It all starts with him. Elliott has a 4.6 yards-per-carry average in his 26-game career. Last season, he rushed for 983 yards and seven touchdowns, despite missing six games due to an NFL suspension. Elliott has exceeded 100 yards in two of his three games vs. the Giants. The one in which he didn’t was his NFL debut. Elliott is a hard-running, every-down back who is strong, instinctive and patient. He has breakaway speed and can catch the ball out of the backfield. The Cowboys like to run Elliott early to try to get a lead, enabling them to avoid playing from behind. In that respect, they are similar to the Jaguars.

What is the strength of the Cowboys’ offense?

The offensive line, which remains one of the NFL’s best despite the loss of center Travis Frederick, a Pro Bowler each of the last four seasons who is sidelined indefinitely after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that affects the nervous system. He has been replaced by six-year veteran Joe Looney. Rookie Connor Williams, a second-round draft choice this year, is the new left guard, replacing Jonathan Cooper. The right tackle is La’el Collins. Left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin are arguably the best players at their positions in the league. Both are athletic, physical and dominant players. In the four games Smith missed last year, Dallas allowed 17 sacks.

Which player is key to the Cowboys’ defense?

We’ve written Sean Lee’s name in this space for years, and there’s no reason to change now. The Cowboys were 1-4 in games Lee missed last season. He runs the show on defense, from getting the calls from coordinator Rod Marinelli to getting everyone lined up. Since joining the Cowboys as a second-round draft choice, he has posted more than 100 tackles in five of his seven seasons (Lee did not play in 2014 because of a knee injury). He is an instinctive, relentless player who is constantly around the ball. Like Elliott, Lee is rounding into form after taking just 10 preseason snaps.

What is the strength of the Cowboys’ defense?

Their athletic linebackers, including Lee. Jaylon Smith no longer feels the effects of the knee injury that sidelined him the entire 2016 season. Starting strongside backer Damien Wilson and this year’s first-round draft, Leighton Vander Esch are, like Smith, aggressive, fast and rangy players who can cover the field from sideline-to-sideline. Lee ties it altogether as the defense’s most indispensable player.

Second-team All-Pro defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence deserves a special mention. Last season, he was second in the NFL with a career-high 14.5 sacks, including 1.5 vs. the Giants in AT&T Stadium.

What is the strength of the Cowboys’ special teams?

Tavon Austin is a dangerous punt returner, but we’ll go with punter Chris Jones. The seven-year veteran has dropped an NFL-record 41.8% of his punts inside the 20-yard line (minimum 100 punts). He has a career 40.6-yard net average. Last year, Jones forced a return of no more than zero yards on 55 of 66 punts (83.3%).

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

Prevent Elliott from running for big chunks of yardage. The run game allows them to get ahead on down and distance, chew up the clock, and gives quarterback Dak Prescott an opportunity to bootleg out of the pocket, where he is dangerous. And the defense must be particularly strong in the red zone, where the Cowboys are consistently productive using the read option. On the other side of the ball, the Giants’ offensive line must slow down Lawrence and the Dallas pass rush.

Statistics you should know:

*This will be the 14th Giants vs. Cowboys Sunday night game, the most frequent matchup in the prime time program’s history. Dallas leads, 7-6.

*In 2017, the Cowboys averaged 28 points when they ran on at least 48% of their offensive plays, and just 14 points when their percentage of runs was 45 or lower.

*Big Shoes to Fill: Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, Rico Gathers, and rookie Dalton Schultz have combined for 12 career receptions – all Swaim’s - for 112 yards and no touchdowns. They have played a combined 32 games (29 of them Swaim’s). That foursome has replaced future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten, who retired in the spring. Witten played in 239 regular-season games and caught 1,152 passes for 12,448 yards and 69 touchdowns.

*Why the Giants won’t miss Witten: In 30 games against the Giants, he caught 154 passes – his highest total vs. any opponent – for 1,568 yards and 15 touchdowns, or six more than he had against any other team.

*Witten was 36 when he announced in the spring he was retiring to become an analyst on Monday Night Football. The average age of the four players listed above is 23.4 years.

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