Team president John Mara defined success for the 2019 New York Giants. When he walks off the field after the last game of the season, whenever that is, he wants to see that the franchise is headed in the right direction. Then he will know.
The Giants can't get to that moment of truth without starting in Dallas. The team kicks off the new season against the defending NFC East champion Cowboys on Sunday at AT&T Stadium. Here are three keys to victory:
1. Control the line of scrimmage. It is as predictable as the Giants opening another season in Dallas, but it is an axiom for a reason. This week is further proof. The Cowboys want to run the ball, and why wouldn't they? Ezekiel Elliott, coming off his second rushing title, signed a six-year contract extension this week after a 40-day absence from the team. Equally as important, the Cowboys once again return with arguably the best offensive line in the NFL. Dallas is consistently among the leaders, if not at the top, in time of possession and run-pass differential. Dak Prescott having another year under his belt with wide receiver Amari Cooper certainly opens things up, but everything starts up front.
Conversely, the Giants get to debut their revamped offensive line with wins and losses mattering now. They shored up the right side this offseason by acquiring guard Kevin Zeitler and tackle Mike Remmers, and now the starting five have 302 regular-season starts combined. In the 2018 opener, they had 192.
2. Stay out of long down-and-distance situations. Third down is called the "money" down, but the Giants need to start making things happen earlier. They had an average of 8.51 yards to go on second down in 2018, the second-highest distance in the NFL. Fewer penalties, an improved offensive line and, of course, Saquon Barkley should help that key metric in 2019. Meanwhile, Dallas emerged as a top-10 defense last season and was even better at home. The Cowboys allowed 18.5 points per game at AT&T Stadium, where they went 7-1. They were 3-5 on the road and allowed 22 points per game.
"They're really, really good at home, especially with having the crowd noise, their speed and their talent," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "Number one, we have to do a good job of staying out of the long yardage situations, as we always talk about. 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. (They) are very coordinated with their linebackers to play the run."
3. Make impact plays on defense. It's easier said than done, obviously, but general manager Dave Gettleman pointed to it in his season-ending press conference. "It's not easy to win games when you don't have playmakers," he said in early January. "We need to improve the defense. Just like I looked you right in the eye last year and told you we've got to fix this O-line, we've got to get better on the defensive side."
The Giants went out and used seven of their 10 draft choices on that side of the ball, in addition to acquiring veterans such Jabrill Peppers, Markus Golden and Antoine Bethea, who was recently voted a team captain. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Carter and B.J. Hill look to take the next step in their second years and, among other things, generate pressure.
"As it goes, I think initially it's going to be a group effort," defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. "I can't tell you 100 percent as we sit here today who's going to be the sack leader, the disruptive player. To me, I kind of like that, because there is a little bit of unknown for people that are prepping for us. There's a lot of guys that have something to go play and prove and establish themselves. I think it's going to be exciting for me as I watch it from my position to see how it unfolds."