EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – With all the attention this week on Ezekiel Elliott's return, the Dallas Cowboys' defense has been relatively overlooked in the run-up to the team's Kickoff Weekend game against the Giants in AT&T Stadium.
But the defense has received the full attention of the Giants' offensive players and coaches, who know they are going to face a daunting challenge against a unit laden with talent at all levels.
"We've talked all week about how active their defense is," coach Pat Shurmur said today. "Not only are they good one-on-one, but they also move a lot, which requires good coordination from the guys up front. They're a big challenge."
"It's going to be a great challenge," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "Dallas' defense is one of the top in the league, and they're really, really good at home, especially with having the crowd noise, their speed and their talent."
The Cowboys return all 11 starters on a defense that finished the 2018 season in the top 10 in both points allowed (20.3 per game/sixth) and yardage (329.3/seventh). By comparison, the offense that features Elliott, the NFL's leading rusher, quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper finished 22nd (gaining 343.8 yards a game). The Cowboys were 10-6 and won the NFC East largely on the strength of their defense.
The D in Big D is coordinated by Rod Marinelli, but passing game coordinator Kris Richard calls the plays from the field. They lead a unit that is fast and disruptive and makes opposing offenses work for every opportunity.
"They have a number of good players," said Eli Manning, who will begin his Giants-record 16th season with his 30th regular-season start against Dallas. "They play very fast, it's a fast defense, they run to the ball. They are very disciplined in their assignments and their technique. It's a team, they have good players all around, we just have to know their scheme, have answers for certain looks and execute our game plan."
"Their speed and quickness (jump out)," Shula said. "They're built for speed. They've always been. They get to the ball fast. They fly around, and because they get to the ball so quickly, they've created a lot of turnovers. Their scheme allows them to play really, really fast and they've drafted guys within that scheme that can be very disruptive."
The strength up front is at the ends, which are manned by DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford. Lawrence was selected to the last two Pro Bowls while compiling 25.0 sacks, the league's fourth-highest total in that span.
Weakside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was also a Pro Bowler after totaling a franchise rookie record 176 tackles (151 solo). He teams with Jaylon Smith, who plays in the middle, to give Dallas what is arguably the NFL's best linebacker tandem. Two-time Pro Bowler Sean Lee is a still a force on the strong side, though he is removed in sub defenses.
Saquon Barkley learned on the Giants' trip to Dallas last year how difficult it is to run on the Cowboys. The Rookie of the Year rushed for a season-low 28 yards. He did catch a franchise-record 14 passes, but they gained just 80 yards. A 68-yard run helped Barkley gain 109 yards on the ground vs. Dallas in the season finale.
"Their front seven is very, very difficult to run on," Barkley said. "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. I know it's not going to be a cakewalk. It's never a cakewalk 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."
"(They) are very coordinated with their linebackers to play the run," Shula said.
It's almost as difficult to pass against the Cowboys, who were 13th in the league last year allowing 234.7 yards a game. Byron Jones has such impressive coverage skills he was named second-team All-Pro and to the NFC Pro Bowl team despite not intercepting a pass. According to the Cowboys, Jones allowed only one touchdown pass – against the Giants on Dec. 30. Safeties Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods are also productive players.
"We have to do a good job of staying out of the long yardage situations, as we always talk about," Shula said. "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."
In the Cowboys' Week 2 victory last season, Dallas' defense did a good job of preventing long passes. Only one of Manning's 33 completions gained more than 18 yards.
"If teams are going to try to stay back and keep guys in front of them, then you have to be able to be patient," Shula said. "We call it with our quarterbacks being 'aggressively patient'. When there are good looks there down the field, take them. If not, be patient and take things underneath. As the year went on, not necessarily against Dallas but just in general, when we saw those looks, because they weren't the only team we saw them against, we were much better, when we got the ball underneath, of making yards afterwards. I think there were a couple of plays, even in our second game against Dallas, where Wayne (Gallman Jr.) caught a ball underneath and went for 15 yards. Saquon caught one underneath and went for…
"Dallas is really good in space, but we've got guys that are pretty good with the ball in their hands in space. I think all of us, and I said this throughout the offseason, the comfort level is much higher, so our guys should be playing faster now than they did at any point last year because of their experience in the system."
On Sunday, we will learn if that is true.
*Not that it was ever a question, but Shurmur confirmed that first-round draft choice Daniel Jones will be the Giants' backup quarterback behind Manning on Sunday. Alex Tanney is the third quarterback on the roster.
"Our number two quarterback right now is Daniel Jones," Shurmur said. "We're going to dress two quarterbacks."
If something should happen to Manning, Shurmur said Jones is "ready to go. If he has to go in and play, he's ready to go."
*The Giants announced they have released linebacker Nate Stupar, who played in all 16 games with one start last season. Stupar totaled six tackles (three solo) on defense and finished second on the team with eight special teams tackles (seven solo).
Shurmur did not know if the Giants will fill their open roster spot before Sunday.
"We're going to try to find the best player available," he said. "There are certain issues that we feel like we might be able to add some depth. But we'll see. Possibly by the weekend, but there's potential that we don't."
*Tight end Garrett Dickerson (quad) and wide receiver Darius Slayton (hamstring) did not practice all week and have been declared out of the game on Sunday. Right tackle Mike Remmers, who did not practice Wednesday and was limited yesterday, worked fully today and will play.