The Giants open their season against a familiar opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, who return much of the roster that won the NFC East last year. There are some changes, which we’ll cover in our first opponent scouting report of the season.
When the Cowboys Have The Ball
The Spotlight: With Ezekiel Elliott under contract and practicing all week, Jane Slater of NFL Network reported the initial plan was for Elliott to get “20-25 reps” on Sunday. Given that workload, 15-17 touches seems like a realistic number. If the Cowboys want to avoid being predictable, they cannot simply give him the ball every snap he is in the game.
Last season, Elliott became much more involved in the Cowboys passing game, catching 77 passes for 567 yards. As a runner, he has excellent vision and power, taking what is there and churning out additional yards by falling forward after contact.
The Cowboys offense is built around Elliott, with play-action concepts designed around his running prowess. Last year, the Cowboys ran it 43% of the time, the 10th-highest rate in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, about 25% of Dak Prescott’s dropbacks were play-action passes in 2018.
The Matchup: Amari Cooper vs Janoris Jenkins: In Cooper’s 11 games (including both playoff games) with Dallas in 2018, he caught 69 passes for 909 yards and seven touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus, he had 17 catches of 15 yards or more. In last year’s matchup against the Giants, Cooper caught only five passes on eleven targets for 31 yards. He was matched up primarily with Janoris Jenkins, who held Cooper to no yards after the catch.
Cooper is one of the best route runners in football. He is adept at using footwork, changes of speed and direction to get separation on cornerbacks. He had issues with drops earlier in his career, but he had just three for Dallas in 2019 (two of which came against the Giants). Cooper is Prescott’s go-to receiver at all three levels of the field, and Jenkins will have his hands full this week.
Offensive Scheme and Tendencies
* The biggest changes for Dallas this offseason came on the coaching staff. Kellen Moore, the team’s backup quarterback in 2017 and quarterbacks coach in 2018, replaced Scott Linehan as offensive coordinator. Former Cowboy Jon Kitna is the new quarterbacks coach. The anticipation is that Moore will bring in some of the college concepts that he used as quarterback at Boise State from 2008-2011, when he set most of the school’s passing records. The Cowboys showed very few new concepts in the preseason. Pre-snap jet sweep motion, bunch formations or other adjustments are sure to be unveiled starting this week.
* The two major personnel changes for Dallas came on offense. Slot receiver Cole Beasley left in free agency for the Buffalo Bills, but the Cowboys replaced him with Randall Cobb, who played in only nine games last year due to a lingering hamstring injury but is considered a better downfield threat than Beasley. The Cowboys welcomed back Jason Witten, who will split time at tight end with Blake Jarwin, who caught eight passes for 119 yards and three touchdowns in the final regular season game of last year against the Giants.
Quotebook: Safety Jabrill Peppers on Jason Witten: “Size. He uses his body very well against smaller safeties. I think he’s faster than a lot of people give him credit for. He’s established at the game. He knows what he’s doing, he knows how to get open (and) he’s been there forever. They have a guy who can get him the ball, and they have guys around him who can stretch the defense out and let him sit in those soft coverages. We are definitely going to take the challenge.”
* After missing last season with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, Travis Frederick returns as the starting center. He joins last year’s starters: left tackle Tyron Smith, left guard Connor Williams, right guard Zack Martin and right tackle La’el Collins, who was recently signed a contract extension. Last season, Prescott was sacked 56 times, 24 more than the year before. Martin was limited in practice this week with a back injury that kept him out for much of the summer, but he is expected to play.
* Dak Prescott is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is coming off a strong second half of 2018. His play improved after Amari Cooper arrived mid-season. In his 11 games with Cooper (including two playoff games), Prescott threw for 272 yards per game, completed 66.7% of his passes, and threw 16 touchdowns to only five interceptions.
* Michael Gallup, entering his second season, played better the second half of last season. In the final seven games, including the playoffs, he caught 24 passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns. He had 7 catches for 15 yards or more in his final four games of 2018.
* Last season, according to Pro Football Focus, the Cowboys ran their offense out of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR’s) 68% of the time. This preseason, that number jumped to 78%. Another 13% of the plays came out of 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), a jump from only 7% last year. Jamize Olawale is the Cowboys fullback.
* The Cowboys struggled in the red zone last year, scoring touchdowns on only 48% of their trips inside the 20-yard line. Only three teams were worse. Their 2.4 yards per play in the red zone was third worst in the NFL. In goal-to-go situations, the Cowboys scored touchdowns on just 52% of their opportunities, the worst rate in the league.
Keep an eye on these five players when the Giants open the season in Dallas.
Keys For The Giants Defense
*Prevent explosive plays from Amari Cooper
*Do not let the Cowboys offensive line dominate the game
*Keep the Cowboys inefficient in the red zone
When The Giants Have The Ball
The Spotlight: The Cowboys linebackers are fast and instinctive. Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee are three-down linebackers with the ability to cover, run sideline to sideline and stop the run. Both Smith and Vander Esch were top six linebackers last season, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system. Smith is the middle linebacker with Vander Esch taking Sean Lee’s old spot on the weak side.
For the first time in his career, Lee will be playing strong side linebacker and will likely play limited snaps outside of obvious run downs. According to PFF, last season the Cowboys played their nickel defense (4 defensive linemen, 2 linebackers, 5 defensive backs) 67% of the time. It bears watching if they will use more base defense if all three of their linebackers are healthy. They only played their base defense on 28% of their snaps last season.
Quotebook: Running Back Saquon Barkley: “Their front seven is very, very difficult to run on. Their linebacker corps is amazing—Jaylon Smith, all those guys—every single one of them are amazing players. They’re fast, they’re physical, they flow to the ball well, they tackle really well in open space and so for me, I know it’s not going to be a cake walk. It’s never a cake walk in the NFL, so it’s going to be a physical game. They move up front a lot, so we’ve got to be patient, and when the opportunity comes and we can split it and gash for a long run, however many times that opportunity comes, we’ve got to be ready for it and take advantage of it.”
The Matchup: DeMarcus Lawrence vs Mike Remmers
While the way the Cowboys linebackers match up with both Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley will be important, how the Giants are able to block DeMarcus Lawrence can change the nature of the game. Lawrence has had double-digit sacks for two straight years, including 10.5 in 2018, and is their best pass rusher. He normally lines up at left defensive end over the opposing team’s right tackle, which in the Giants’ case is Mike Remmers, who was limited in practice earlier in the week with an illness and back injury this week.
Lawrence is not a one-trick pony as a pass rusher. He can win with speed around the edge, with inside counter moves or with power. According to PFF, he finished as a top ten pass rusher last season with 13 sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 39 quarterback hurries.
On Sunday, Lawrence will be almost exactly five months from shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. He was removed from the PUP (physically unable to perform) list on August 20, but there is no certainty he will be at peak health and physical ability so soon after a serious procedure. Lawrence has a great motor and can be a game wrecker if opponents don’t account for him.
Defensive Scheme and Tendencies
* The Cowboys return the same defensive coaching staff, including coordinator Rod Marinelli and passing game coordinator and defensive backs coach Kris Richard. It was reported last year that Richard also handles play-calling on critical third down situations. According to Pro Football Focus, the Cowboys blitzed on 25.5% of their third down snaps last season. Opponents converted 42% of their third downs, which ranked 27th in third down defense in 2018. The Cowboys blitzed only 9.4% of the time on other downs. Overall, they were efficient when blitzing. They held opponents to a 78.6 quarterback rating on those plays, which was sixth best in the league.
* Dallas plays primarily cover three (45% of pass snaps) with some cover one (29.1% of pass snaps) mixed in. They succeeded in preventing big plays from their opponents. They allowed only 39 runs of 10 yards or more (tied 5th fewest in the league) and 43 completions of 20 yards or more (tied for 6th fewest in the league).
* The Cowboys also have a proficient first down defense. Opposing teams only averaged 4.86 yards per first down play last year, which ranked 3rd best in the NFL. Only 40% of opponents’ first down runs went for four or more yards, the second-best number in the league. Saquon Barkley will have his hands full on early downs.
* The Cowboys run a lot of twists, stunts and other pass rush games up front. If an opponent can block them properly, it can open up huge holes in the running game, which was something the Rams took advantage of in their playoff matchup with Dallas last season. They ran for 273 yards against the Cowboys on 5.7 yards per carry.
Quotebook: Offensive Coordinator Mike Schula: “But then if we’re in passing situations, we have to make sure that, whether or not we’re sliding our protection, using chip help or getting the ball out fast, we do all of those things well, because they’re really good rushing the passer and they’re also good against the run, too. They bring movement. They have speed on third down, whether or not it’s up the field or change of direction, and they really, more so than other teams, do that on first and second down, too.”
* The Cowboys are starting three players in their secondary who are still on their rookie contracts. Byron Jones, a 2018 Second Team All-Pro is playing on his fifth-year option after undergoing hip surgery in late March. He was taken off the PUP list on August 26 but is not expected to be limited on Sunday. Chidobe Awuzie and Xavier Woods are up and coming players at cornerback and safety.
* The Cowboys will be without right defensive end Robert Quinn for the first two weeks of the season due to suspension. Dallas’ 2018 fourth round pick, Dorance Armstrong, will likely get the start at right defensive end, with Taco Charlton getting time there too.
Keys for Giants Offense
*Have success on first down
*Figure out a way to make explosive plays
*Block Cowboys pass rush games up front