On Monday night, the Giants take on the Cowboys for the second time this year. The matchup is the second of three prime time appearances for the Giants. The Cowboys have changed a bit since Week One. I will focus on those changes here.
When The Cowboys Have The Ball
The Spotlight: Quarterback Dak Prescott
Prescott is having the best year of his career. His 70.6% completion rate and 8.9 yards per attempts are career highs. He is ESPN's top quarterback according to their QBR metric, and is Pro Football Focus' (PFF) third highest graded quarterback.
His downfield passing has been excellent, according to PFF. He has completed 21 of 38 passes for 755 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions on passes that travel 20 or more yards in air. He is putting the ball into danger more than he has in past seasons, with 10 turnover worthy plays (and seven interceptions) in seven games.
Prescott will run the ball when he has to and when it will most benefit the team. He has 24 rushes for 163 yards. He runs traditional read-options, but some of his carries come from designed power-sweeps in goal-to-go situations or on third or fourth and short. He is 238 pounds and will not hesitate to run over unsuspecting defenders.
Prescott has developed into a frontline NFL quarterback, capable of making a big play at any time.
The Matchup: Randall Cobb vs. Slot Cornerback Grant Haley
Randall Cobb plays the slot for the Cowboys. He only has 19 catches this year, but 13 have gone for first downs. He is not a "Cole Beasley" style of inside possession receiver who catches a bunch of short dump-offs.
According to PFF, Cobb is averaging 12.6 yards per catch and is averaging 5.6 yards after catch per reception. He is a big play threat from a position that has given the Giants defense some issues down the field. When Haley is asked to play Cobb man to man, he will have to prevent big plays over the top and be a sure-tackler after Cobb gets the ball in his hands.
Scheme and Tendencies
* When the Giants played the Cowboys in the season opener, first-year coordinator Kellen Moore's offense was a mystery. It has since come into focus. Moore uses pre-snap motion and bunch formations in his play design. Other times, he will either spread the field very wide, or put three wide receivers to one side. The Cowboys 291.9 passing yards per game ranks third in the league. They average the most yards of offense per game (437.9) and the most yards per play overall (6.71) in the NFL. They are a balanced well-oiled machine.
* The Cowboys run vertical routes paired with deep crossers to free up receivers. Despite already having their bye week, they are tied for 11th with 39 pass attempts of 20+ yards. They are tied for 12th with 28 completions of 20+ yards. The Cowboys are the best team in football converting third downs of more than six yards (35.5%). Dallas has a quarterback rating of 101.3 when throwing the ball more than 20 yards in the air, the 8th highest rating in the NFL.
* Amari Cooper might be the best route runner in the game. His double moves, used frequently against man to man defense, often result in big plays. His 16.3 yards per catch is 11th best in the NFL among receivers with at least 20 receptions. Prescott will go to him on all levels of the defense. Fellow wide receiver Michael Gallup is adept at making contested catches down the field.
* The Cowboys are primarily an 11 personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR's) team, using that group 68% of the time. They only use two tight ends, primarily Jason Witten and Blake Jarwin, on 19% of their snaps. Despite being 37 yeards old and having spent last season out of football, Witten plays nearly 80% of the Cowboys snaps. Jarwin is on the field for 42% of the team's offensive plays, and is more of a downfield threat than Witten. Jarwin only has 11 catches but they have gone for 120 yards.
* Despite all that success passing, the Cowboys are still a run-heavy team. Their 58.3% rush rate on first down is the 6th highest in the NFL. Their rush rate in the first half (42.3%) is the 11th highest. They are primarily an inside and outside zone run scheme team. The Cowboys still like to run bootlegs and downfield play action off their run game. Play action passes make up 26.7% of the Cowboys passes (13th highest rate in the NFL), though they have been running fewer in recent weeks.
* After missing all of training camp, running back Ezekiel Elliott has hit his stride and played one of his better games of the season against the Eagles two weeks ago prior to the Cowboys bye week. He has good vision at the line of scrimmage and plays with incredible power, using low pad level to consistently fall forward after contact. According to PFF, 436 of his 668 yards have come after contact. He also has the straight ahead speed to break a long run once he gets into the open field. Dallas is tied for 4th in the NFL with 33 rushes of 10+ yards. Elliott is also a frequent target in the pass game, with 24 catches for 176 yards.
* The Cowboys are the best team in the NFL on third down, converting 51.9% of their attempts. They have also been excellent in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on 64% of their trips (9th best rate in the NFL).
* Much of the Cowboys success on offense comes from the strong play of their offensive line. All five starters should be ready to play after dealing with injuries prior to the bye. Right tackle La'el Collins is having the best year of his career at right tackle. Tyron Smith, hampered by an ankle sprain before the bye and always dealing with a balky back, is an upper echelon left tackle. Smith and Collins have combined to allow only two sacks and two quarterback hits all year, according to PFF. Right guard Zack Martin, despite nagging back and ankle injuries, is a dominant right guard. Center Travis Frederick is in his first year back from Guillain-Barre syndrome. Left guard Connor Williams, a second year player, has allowed a sack, a quarterback hit and 11 hurries. According to PFF, Prescott has been pressured on only 27% of his dropbacks this year, the 10th best rate in the NFL.
* The Cowboys have two unique weapons they unleash in different ways: running back Tony Pollard and receiver Tavon Austin. They use Austin on jet sweep motions pre-snap and try to get him the ball in space where he can use his speed and quickness. Pollard spells Elliott as a traditional running back, but they have also started using him at the same time as Elliott and as a receiver split outside. He is quick and elusive with the ball in his hands.
Keys For the Giants Defense
1. Control Elliott on early downs
2. Prevent explosive plays in the pass game
3. Play good third down pass defense
When The Giants Have The Ball
The Spotlight: Cornerback Byron Jones
Heading into the final year of his contract, Jones is playing like the Cowboys top cornerback. According to PFF, he has allowed only 14 of the 29 passes that have been thrown his way to be completed for 182 yards and only one touchdown. He has an uncanny ability of avoiding contact with the opposing receiver while still preventing the catch. The Cowboys have used him on opposing tight ends like Evan Engram that pose a downfield threat.
The Matchup: Right Defensive End Robert Quinn vs Nate Solder
Quinn was serving a two-game suspension when the Giants played Dallas in Week One. In the five games since, he has wreaked havoc with six sacks, three quarterback hits and 14 hurries, according to PFF. He has been a blur coming off the edge with the bend and flexibility to get around and past left tackles. He has also shown a relentless effort to continue to pursue a play even after he has been run out of it. Nate Solder will have his hands full all day.
Cowboys Scheme and Tendencies
* The Cowboys are still a heavy zone team, using man to man defense on only 26% of their snaps. According to PFF, cover-three is their preferred defense, which they run on nearly half of their defensive snaps. Xavier Woods is the primary single deep safety, and he excels at taking good angles to wide receivers down the field. Their other safety, Jeff Heath, is better near the line of scrimmage.
* DeMarcus Lawrence has 3.5 sacks, but according to PFF, he also has six quarterback hits and 17 hurries. Inside, three-technique Maliek Collins has 21 hurries and three quarterback hits to go along with his two sacks. During their bye week, the Cowboys added pass rusher Michael Bennett, who can rush from either the end or tackle positions. A third down pass rush package of Quinn, Bennett, Collins and Lawrence is formidable. According to PFF, the Cowboys pressure the quarterback on 34% of the dropbacks they face, which ranks 19th in the league.
* The Cowboys have one of the most accomplished sets of linebackers in the league. Jaylon Smith plays the middle, with Leighton Vander Esch on the weak side and Sean Lee on the strong side. Joe Thomas, their fourth linebacker, is also playing well. Smith has been used as a blitzer on third downs, and he has two sacks this year. Vander Esch has been better in coverage this season and was limited in practice on Thursday with a neck injury he suffered against the Eagles.
* The Cowboys' philosophy on defense is to stop the run on the way to the quarterback. They use so much movement up front (twists, stunts, etc) that can sometimes result in huge holes if they aren't disciplined in their gaps. The Cowboys do not blitz a lot, but their 113 stunts is the 5th most in the league.
* Chidobe Awuzie is the team's other outside cornerback. Anthony Brown (limited in practice with a hamstring injury) and Jourdan Lewis play inside against slot receivers. All three are starting caliber players and do not give up big plays. The Cowboys are great at playing the sticks and have not allowed a third down conversion of more than 10 yards this year. On third downs of more than six yards, opponents are converting only 7.7% of the time, also best in the league. Overall, they are the top third down team in the league, allowing a conversion rate of 26.3%.
* Two other keys to the Cowboys defense has been their red zone defense and ability to limit big plays. Opponents are scoring on only 45.8% of their red zone possessions, 5th best in the league. They have only allowed 23 completions of 20+ yards, tied for 9th in the league. They've allowed only one run of 20 or more yards.
* The Cowboys defense has only nine takeaways this season.
* Despite some of their good overall numbers, the Cowboys defense has had moments this year when they struggled. Sam Darnold of the Jets threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers scored 34 points in Week 5.
Keys For the Giants Offense
1. Run the ball well on early downs and stay out of third and long
2. Daniel Jones must make good quick decisions with the football
3. Control the Cowboys pass rush
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