*The Giants defense will encounter their first test to prove they are a top unit in the league Sunday Night: *
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.– The Dallas Cowboys will be both familiar and foreign opponents to the Giants when the teams meet in the season opener Sunday night in AT&T Stadium.
The franchises certainly know each other, having resided together in the NFC East since the 1970 merger. Their two games last year, both won by the Giants, were decided by a total of four points. Not counting the preseason, each team has played just three games since they met last Dec. 11. Virtually all of the principle players from that game remain on their respective rosters.
But a mysterious element will still exist in their third consecutive Kickoff Weekend clash in Dallas. Like all teams, the Cowboys and Giants showed nothing in the preseason that would help their regular-season opponents prepare for this game. And the Giants had one less look at Dallas than expected because the Cowboys' finale was canceled when the Houston Texans returned home after Hurricane Harvey. Teams always spring surprises on their foes in opening games, so the Giants know they must expect the unexpected, even from such a recognizable foe.
"To me, the first game is about how you adjust in the game, more so than what you do before it," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "We've talked about that. I don't think that will change in this particular game, either. Because I think they'll have some wrinkles that we haven't seen. Just like we have a few. I hope we get a chance to use them. That's the only difference."
"The offense has something you've never seen before, and vice-versa," defensive end Olivier Vernon said. "That's just the game of football. You have to calm everything down and let the game play out to the point where you see what's going on and what they're trying to do. At halftime, that's when you make the adjustments, when you get everything in order and you go back out there and try to win the game."
The Cowboys would present a formidable challenge even if the defense knew what was coming on every play. Their offensive line features three All-Pros in left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick. Quarterback Dak Prescott showed uncommon poise last season for a rookie. Second-year running back Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL with 1,631 rushing yards, the third-highest total by a rookie in NFL history. Prescott and Elliott were the first rookie quarterback/running back duo in history with at least 3,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards. Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten are a formidable group of receivers.
"It starts up front," said defensive tackle Damon Harrison. "We know about their all-world offensive line. You've got to give credit where credit is due, those guys work excellent together and they're all great individual players. So, anytime you have that – and Dak Prescott did an excellent job last year. He didn't play like he was a rookie. And Ezekiel Elliott – I saw a stat, he runs for like almost 1,200 yards on first down? Wow, that's crazy. On first down. That's amazing."
"You've got to give (the Cowboys) their due respect," linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. "They're very talented on the offensive side of the ball, the numbers speak for themselves. They did a really good job. Elliott was the leading rusher in the NFL by far and yards per carry (5.1), he did really good. Their offensive line is good. And not only that, you've got backups like Alfred Morris, who rushed for 1,200 yards three times in his career. They're loaded and you've got to give them their respect."
Casillas said the Giants' defense has to "be prepared for anything."
It is, of course, Spagnuolo's job to get the defense playing at peak efficiency. His unit played well last season vs. the Cowboys, limiting them to one touchdown in each Giants victory. In the second game, a 10-7 triumph, Dallas finished with 260 yards and 13 first downs, season-low totals when Elliott played (he was inactive for the Week 17 game in Philadelphia).
The Giants' defense that limited the Cowboys to those numbers is largely intact. Second-year pro B.J. Goodson is the new middle linebacker. Jay Bromley and rookie Dalvin Tomlinson are expected to split time replacing departed defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. Darian Thompson will start at free safety. But the key defenders – Vernon, Damon Harrison, Jason Pierre-Paul, Casillas, Devon Kennard, Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Eli Apple and Landon Collins – are back.
"I feel good about knowing what we can and can't do, and I think the players feel the same way," Spagnuolo said. "I think I made this statement to them the other day; I'm skipping years when you say freshmen, sophomore, junior, senior. In the third year in the system and not all the guys have been here three years, but I expect them to think as if they were in graduate school with the scheme. I believe that they think that way – (it) allows you to do a little bit more. It put the pressure on all of us to make sure we get it right. There's no margin for error now. We're getting ready to play an NFC East team, the NFC East champions."
And preparing to solve whatever mysteries the Cowboys present to them.