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Scouting Report: Breaking down the Cowboys

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Playmakers on Cowboys first-team offense, defense, and special teams, presented by Nike

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –
The Giants will open their 2015 season Sunday night, when they will face the defending NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys in AT&T Stadium. Last year, Dallas was 12-4 and lost at Green Bay in an NFC Divisional Playoff Game. The Giants were 6-10. The Cowboys have won their last four games vs. the Giants and lead the regular-season series, 61-42-2. In 2014, Dallas beat the Giants at home, 31-21 on Oct. 19, and in MetLife Stadium, 31-28, on Nov. 23. The Giants were 2-2 in the preseason; Dallas was 1-3.


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DALLAS COWBOYS OFFENSE

The Cowboys ranked seventh in the NFL in total offense last season, averaging 383.6 yards a game. They were second in rushing yards (147.1) and 16th in passing (236.5). That latter figure is impressive considering the Cowboys attempted 476 passes in 2014, the NFL's second-fewest total behind Seattle (454). Dallas was fifth in scoring with an average of 29.2 points a game.

Dallas returns 10 of 11 starters on offense. The exception is DeMarco Murray, who led the league in rushing last year. The Cowboys converted 47.3 percent of their third-down opportunities, the NFL's second-best figure. They scored touchdowns on 64.7 percent of their possessions inside the 20-yard line, which also placed second in the league.

Tony Romo is beginning his 10th season as Dallas' starting quarterback. In 2014, he had the best statistical season of his career and led the NFL in completion percentage (69.9), yards per attempt (8.5), passer rating (113.2) and game-winning drives (5). He threw a career high 38 touchdown passes to only nine interceptions (including the playoffs). Romo is an athletic, strong-armed thrower with a quick release. He possesses an uncanny ability to extend plays. His backup is veteran Brandon Weeden.

The Cowboys must replace Murray, who last season set a franchise record with 1,845 rushing yards and had a league high 497 touches, including 53 receptions. As of this writing, coach Jason Garrett had not announced a starter, but it appears Dallas will go with a committee of backs. The leader of the pack appears to be Joseph Randle, who was second on the team with 343 yards and averaged 6.7 yards per carry. He is an athletic back with vision and the ability to make tacklers miss. Randle also runs quick pass routes and has good hands to make catches. Free agent acquisition Darren McFadden is an every-down back with speed, power and receiving skills. Both Randle and McFadden are strong in pass protection. Christine Michael, acquired last week in a trade with Seattle, is a tough, grinding runner. The third down back is Lance Dunbar, who has quick feet and an impressive burst. He is another solid receiver. The fullback is Tyler Clutts.

Romo throws to an outstanding corps of receivers. Dez Bryant is one of the NFL's premier wideouts. Last year, he led the NFL with 16 touchdown receptions. A consistent downfield threat, Bryant is a big, strong and explosive athlete with very good speed, burst and acceleration. The other starter is Terrance Williams, who has emerged as a playmaker opposite Bryant. Twenty-four of his 81 career catches have gained at least 20 yards. Slot receiver Cole Beasley is a crafty underneath receiver who has the ability to adjust to passes thrown a little off line. Beasley did not drop a pass last year. Devin Street can play all the wideout positions and does a good job finding holes in the defense. Lucky Whitehead is a backup slot receiver with speed and quickness.

Dallas has the same three tight ends the Giants faced the previous two seasons, and all three play in multiple personnel groupings. Jason Witten remains one of the NFL's very best at his position in his 13th season. Last year, he missed only 11 offensive snaps. The 10-time Pro Bowler is an accomplished receiver, makes big plays in big spots and moves the chains. Gavin Escobar caught two touchdown passes against the Giants last season in Dallas. He is a big target who does a good job of walling off defenders as a blocker. James Hanna has a quick release and is a reliable blocker. Seventh-round draft choice Geoff Swaim secured a roster spot with an impressive preseason.

The offensive line is arguably the NFL's best. The unit has three All-Pros in left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick. Smith is one of the NFL's premier players at his position. He is strong and athletic with excellent foot speed and balance, and stays with defenders in pass protection. Left guard Ronald Leary is a smart, tough and aggressive blocker who will wrestle with defenders in the box. Rookie La'el Collins possesses a powerful, heavy body and is expected to compete for Leary's starting job. Frederick, the starting Pro Bowl center, has very good football instincts and can control defenders in both the run and pass games. Martin excelled as a rookie last season. He has good foot quickness and is stout in pass protection. Right tackle Doug Free was re-signed in the offseason. He has excellent size (6-6, 325) and arm length. The backups include Mackenzy Bernadeau, Darrion Weems and Jordan Mills.


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DALLAS COWBOYS DEFENSE

Rod Marinelli has returned for his second season as the coordinator of a defense that ranked 19th in the NFL last season, allowing 355.1 yards a game. The Cowboys were eighth against the run (103.1 yards a game), 26th vs. the pass (251.9) and 15th in points allowed (22.0 per game). They forced 31 turnovers last season, the second-highest total in the NFL.

Dallas will not have middle linebacker Rolando McClain (four-game NFL suspension) and cornerback Orlando Scandrick (season-ending knee injury).

The Cowboys lost three of their top six defensive linemen from last year to free agency – including current Giants defensive end George Selvie – but believe the group can be improved. They signed Greg Hardy, but he will also sit out the first quarter of the season because of a league suspension.

Second-year pro DeMarcus Lawrence came on strong in the playoffs and is now the starting left end. He has a quick first step and plays with high effort. Right end Jeremy Mincey led the team last season with 6.0 sacks. He is a tough, physical and productive player with good play strength and quickness. Tackle Tyrone Crawford has impressive awareness and upper body strength. Nick Hayden is a tough tackle who is hard to push off the point of attack. The backup ends are both rookies. Randy Gregory, the team's second-round draft choice this year, had three sacks in the first three preseason games and is expected to contribute as a pass rusher. Ryan Russell has good strength and vision. The sub tackles are Jack Crawford and Terrell McClain.

Sean Lee, who missed the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL, has returned as a defensive leader. He is expected to make the huddle calls, though he now plays on the weak side. Lee was limited to 18 preseason snaps by the Cowboys. He is a highly-intelligent player who quickly diagnoses a play and aggressively attacks the ball. Anthony Hitchens played all three linebacker positions last season as a rookie, but now starts in the middle. He has good lateral quickness and sticks to tight ends in man-to-man coverage. Strongside backer Kyle Wilber is a former defensive end with good size and length. Fourth-round draft choice Damien Wilson played all three spots in the preseason and is expected to push for a starting job.

Scandrick was the Cowboys' slot corner and arguably their best defensive back. That role will be filled by second-year pro Tyler Patmon. The starting corners are Morris Claiborne, who played in only four games last season before tearing the patellar tendon in his left knee, and Brandon Carr, who has grown weary of answering questions about being the closest defender when Odell Beckham Jr. made his one-handed catch for the ages last November. Claiborne is a savvy player with length and strong hands, while Carr is an aggressive press corner.  Strong safety Barry Church and free safety J.J. Wilcox started every game together last season. Church is active in run support and led the team with 110 tackles (75 solo), and Wilcox has speed and range. First-round draft choice Byron Jones has the versatility to contribute at a number of positions outside and inside. Danny McCray, Jeff Heath and Corey White are the other backups.


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DALLAS COWBOYS SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker Dan Bailey was fourth in the NFL last season with 131 points. He has very good leg strength and is accurate from all distances. Left-footed punter Chris Jones can flip the field and place the ball inside the 20. He is also the holder. Because Dwayne Harris now plays for the Giants, the Cowboys have newcomers returning punts (likely Beasley, who has a 6.8-yard average on 10 career returns) and kickoffs (Dunbar, a 22.3-yard average on 15 runbacks).

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