EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –** The Giants will look to keep their perfect record in AT&T Stadium intact and win their season-opener for the first time since 2010 when they visit the Dallas Cowboys in a nationally-televised game Sunday night. The Giants are 4-0 in Dallas' new home, which opened in 2009 and was formerly called Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys lead the regular-season series, 57-42-2.
The Giants won the only postseason meeting in a 2007 NFC Divisional Playoff Game. In 2012, the teams split their two meetings. Dallas won on Sept. 5 in MetLife Stadium, 24-17, and the Giants returned the favor on Oct. 28 with a 29-24 victory on the Cowboys' turf. The Giants finished 9-7, one game ahead of the 8-8 Cowboys in the NFC East.
The Cowboys' offense ranked sixth in the NFL last season, averaging 374.6 yards a game. But Dallas was much more proficient through the air, finishing third in the league with an average of 295.6 yards per game. The Cowboys were 31st in the NFL in rushing yards with 79.1 yards a game. Dallas was 15th in the league in scoring with an average of 23.5 points per game.
Offensive coordinator/line coach Bill Callahan has replaced head coach Jason Garrett as the play-caller. The Cowboys had the fewest rushing attempts and yards in franchise history last season and they haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2006, so it is widely assumed that Callahan will try to re-establish the ground game.
If they don't accomplish that goal, Dallas should still be a high-scoring team because of quarterback Tony Romo and his outstanding corps of receivers. Romo had career-high totals of 648 passes, 425 completions and 4,903 yards in 2012, as well as 28 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Few quarterbacks make as many plays on the move as Romo. His backup is veteran Kyle Orton, who completed 77.3 percent of his passes in the preseason.
Dallas has a speedy group of wide receivers led by Dez Bryant, who has emerged as one of the NFL's best at his position. He finished last season with 92 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. Bryant is big, strong and fast and seems to catch everything in his vicinity. The other starter is Miles Austin, who is a smooth athlete with outstanding receiving skills. Rookie Terrance Williams has speed to stretch the field. Dwayne Harris runs well after catching the ball and Cole Beasley is just 5-8, but has terrific hands and quickness.
Few tight ends in NFL history are as accomplished as Jason Witten. The eight-time Pro Bowler is third all-time at his position with 806 receptions, including a record 110 in 2012. He set the single-game tight end mark with 18 against the Giants on Oct. 28. Witten is smooth in his routes and has soft hands. He is also a good positional blocker. James Hanna has good play speed and is dependable downfield blocker. Rookie Gavin Escobar is also in the mix. Andre Smith is a big blocking tight end with little receiving production. Hanna and Escobar sometimes line up in the backfield, because Dallas does not have a fullback on its roster.
Dallas' top running back is DeMarco Murray, an every-down player who can run, catch and block. Because of his explosiveness, Murray is a threat to turn any handoff into a big play. Lance Dunbar is a change-of-pace back who quickly hits the hole and has good hands. Phillip Tanner is a first- and second-down one cut and go runner with good vision and patience. He's also an excellent special teams player. Fifth-round draft choice Joseph Randle led the Cowboys in the preseason with 215 rushing yards.
In part because Romo was sacked 36 times in each of the last two seasons, one of the Cowboys' objectives this offseason was to become more skilled and physical up front. But the line has been banged up, especially at guard, and linemen were still switching positions this week. Two interior linemen, Nate Livings (knee) and Ryan Cook (back) have been placed on injured reserve. Dallas wanted to move Doug Free from right tackle to guard, which he did late in the preseason – but Wednesday he returned to tackle and former starter Mackenzy Bernadeau was re-inserted at right guard. Free has long arms and a finish mentality. Bernadeau was a steady player in 2012. Left tackle Tyron Smith is the only lineman who stayed in the position he played last season. A terrific talent with athleticism and strength, Smith continues to improve. Left guard Ronald Leary is a big, thick player with a nasty streak. The center is Travis Frederick, who was the Cowboys' first-round draft choice this year. The top reserves are Darrion Weems and Jermey Parnell. Dallas signed free agent Brian Waters this week, but he is not expected to face the Giants.
Dallas' defense ranked 19th in the NFL in 2012, giving up an average 355.4 yards a game. The Cowboys were 22nd against the run (125.2 yards a game), 19th vs. the pass (230.3) and were 24th in scoring defense (25 points a game).
The unit has undergone a major overhaul since the end of the 2012 season. Former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was replaced by Monte Kiffin, who was one of the NFL's most respected assistant coaches when he held the same position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996-2008. Kiffin has replaced Ryan's 3-4 defense with the 4-3 scheme that worked so well for him in Tampa Bay. It's a bend but don't break defense that doesn't have a lot of movement or complexity.
The defensive line had 33 of the team's 34 sacks last season. That includes 11.5 by end DeMarcus Ware, who was selected to his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl. Ware, who lines up on the right side, is a gifted player who can single-handedly change the momentum in a game. Anthony Spencer, a career outside linebacker, is listed as the left end, but he underwent a knee scope on July 25 and hasn't practiced since. He has the athletic ability and speed to make the conversion to lineman. Starting in his place is George Selvie, who locates the ball quickly and has good speed. Kyle Wilber, Ben Bass and Edgar Jones, acquired last week in a trade with Kansas City, are the reserve ends. Jay Ratliff, a four-time Pro Bowl tackle, is on the reserve/physically unable to perform list while he rehabs a hamstring injury. The current starters inside are eight-year veteran Jason Hatcher, a strong interior anchor, and Nick Hayden, who was out of football last year after injuring his ankle in Cincinnati's training camp. Landon Cohen is the backup tackle.
Middle linebacker Sean Lee is an every-snap player who quarterbacks the defense. He takes good angles to the ball and is seldom fooled. Lee led the Cowboys with 131 tackles in 2011, but a toe injury limited him to six games last season. The weakside backer is Bruce Carter, who has a quick burst and led the team with nine tackles for losses before an elbow injury forced him to miss the last five games. Justin Durant mans the strong side. The reserves include Ernie Sims, who has excellent straight line speed and runs all over the field, DeVonte Holloman, who played well in the preseason, and now Kyle Bosworth, who was claimed off waivers after the Giants released him last week.
Kiffin seldom has his defensive backs playing man-to-man, preferring instead to deploy his time-honored Tampa 2 zone. Cornerbacks Brandon Carr (a 2012 free agent acquisition) and Morris Claiborne (2012 first-round draft choice) are big, athletic and physical. Carr is an improving player with good ball awareness, while Claiborne has long arms and the quickness to recover after a wideout gives him the slip. Free safety Barry Church likes to come up and hit ballcarriers. Will Allen was signed as a free agent from Pittsburgh and immediately stepped in as the starting strong safety. He knows Kiffin's defense after spending six seasons in Tampa Bay. The nickel back is Orlando Scandrick, who is skilled in press coverage and at rerouting receivers. Rookie B.W. Webb played some nickel in the preseason.
COWBOYS SPECIAL TEAMS
Kicker Dan Bailey had seven game-winning field goals in his first two seasons and has hit 54 of 57 attempts from 40 yards and in. Chris Jones is a solid directional punter with impressive hang time. Dwayne Harris catches the ball well and has a good initial burst as the punt and kickoff returner. The Cowboys acquired Edgar Jones in part because he is an outstanding special teams player.