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Eye On: Scouting the Dallas Cowboys

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The Giants face the Cowboys in Dallas on Sunday trying to win their second consecutive game. Here what I saw from studying the NFC East rival:

When the Cowboys have the ball…

The Cowboys have one of the best offenses in football. Here are some metrics four games into the season:

  • 421 yards per game (3rd)
  • 6.38 yards per play (7th)
  • 31.5 points per game (4th)
  • 165.8 rushing yards per game and 5.35 rush yards per play (both 2nd in the NFL)
  • 46.4% Pass DVOA – overall passing effectiveness rating (4th)
  • 27.8% Total Offensive effectiveness rating - DVOA (3rd)

Need any other evidence? What makes the Cowboys so difficult to deal with is their ability to beat opponents in different ways based on the defensive look they are given. Against the Buccaneers in Week 1, Dallas ran the ball only 18 times and threw it 58 times, scoring 29 points. The next three weeks Dallas ran it more than they threw it and averaged just over 32 points per game. If teams play a light box, they will pound the run. If opponents play a heavy box or are adept at stopping the run, they will throw it.

Their running attack is a two-headed monster of Ezekiel Elliott and Toney Pollard. Elliott is fourth in the league in rushing with 342 yards. His 5.34 yards per carry is 6th-highest among qualifying running backs. He can pound it between the tackles and seems to have found some of the burst to break big runs that was lacking the last couple of seasons. His nine rushes of 10 or more yards is tied for 4th-most in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, his 3.4 yards after contact per carry is the 6th-highest in the NFL and he always seems to fall forward after contact. Elliott has seven catches for 53 yards and is considered a strong pass protector.

The argument can be made that Pollard has been more effective than Elliott on a per touch basis. He has 250 rushing yards on only 37 carries. His 6.76 yards per carry is top among running backs that have at least 25 carries this season. He has two runs of 20+ yards. The Cowboys try to get Pollard the ball in space and is a frequent target in the screen game. A former receiver at Memphis, he has 8 catches for 65 yards.

The Cowboys run game has created 20 10+ yard rushing plays this year (tied for 2nd-most in the NFL) and four 20+ yard rushing plays, which is tied for 4th-most in the league.

The Cowboys passing game is varied and can be very explosive. Dak Prescott is having a very efficient year at quarterback. He is averaging 266 passing yards per game on a 75% completion rate (2nd-highest in the NFL) with ten touchdowns (tied for 3rd in the NFL) and just two interceptions. Prescott has focused on the short and intermediate areas of the field. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and head coach Mike McCarthy are adept at using formation and route combination to create open receivers close to the line of scrimmage that can gain yards after the catch. They will also use changes in pace to keep defenses on their heels. Their overall play success rate of 61% is the 2nd-highest in the NFL.

Prescott has only attempted 12 passes that have traveled more than 20 yards in the air, completing four for 128 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. The Cowboys 70.4 passer rating on passes that travel more than 20 yards in the air is only 20th-best in the league. The Cowboys' 12 20+ yard completions is tied for 19th-most in the league.

Despite suffering a serious ankle injury last year, Prescott will still run the football if the opportunity presents itself. He has 54 rushing yards this year, though he has been more willing to slide rather than trying to fight through tackles for extra yards.

The Cowboys primary deep threat, Michael Gallup, has been out since Week 1 with a calf injury. CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper (who is dealing with hamstring and rib injuries) have been Prescott's primary perimeter targets with nearly equal production. Cooper is one of the best route runners in the league and has 22 catches for 258 yards and three touchdowns. Lamb has 20 catches for 264 yards and a touchdown.

The Cowboys rotate all of their receivers in and out of the slot. Lamb has also lined up in the backfield four times this year. They make a concerted effort to get him the ball in space to gain yards after the catch. Cedrick Wilson has been productive in picking up many of Gallup's snaps, catching nine catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns.

Tight end Dalton Schultz has built on a strong rookie year and has been a breakout player this year. He is 4th amongst tight ends with 20 catches and has the 6th-most yards with 201. He has three touchdowns and has been a reliable target for Dak Prescott in the middle of the field. Blake Jarwin is the Cowboys second tight end and has nine catches for 89 yards and a touchdown this year. The Cowboys play 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends) on just under 34% of their snaps, which is the 4th-highest rate in the league.

The Cowboys offense is built around the strength of their offensive line, which is back playing at a high-level despite being without right tackle La'el Collins due to suspension. They have allowed pressure on 29% of their dropbacks, which is the 8th-best rate in the league. Their seven sacks allowed is tied for 6th-fewest in the NFL. They have also played some good pass rush units in the Chargers, Eagles, Buccaneers and Panthers.

After neck/back surgery last season, Tyron Smith looks like his old self. According to Pro Football Focus he has allowed only one sack and four pressures all season long. Neither guard Connor Williams nor Zack Martin have allowed a sack this year. Martin has allowed just one pressure (a quarterback hit), while Williams has allowed three quarterback hurries.

If there are two areas to attack the Cowboys offensive line, it is at right tackle and center. Second-year center Tyler Biadasz has allowed 11 pressures this year, including three quarterback hits. 2020 undrafted free agent Terence Steele has started for Collins the last three games and has allowed six pressures including a quarterback hit. He played a lot as a rookie last year with Collins and Smith missing all but two games with injury, and that experience has made him a better player this season.

The Cowboys offensive line is a big reason why they are one of the best first down offenses in the league. Their 7.56 yards per play on first down leads the league thanks to their ability to run the ball. The Cowboys 57.5% run rate on 1st and 10 is the 5th-highest in the NFL.

The Cowboys are also strong on third down. They are converting at a 50% rate, which is tied for the 3rd-highest rate in the NFL. They are tied for the 11th-most efficient red zone team in the league, converting touchdowns on two-thirds of their trips. It is hard to find a weakness on the Cowboys offense.

Keys when Dallas has the ball:

  1. Stop the run without committing a safety to the box
  2. Figure out how to slow down CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper when they are in the slot
  3. Disrupt Dak Prescott's short to intermediate passing game with tight coverage or with the defensive line

View photos of the Dallas Cowboys likely starters ahead of the Week 5 matchup against the Giants at the AT&T Stadium.

When the Giants have the ball...

New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has his fingerprints all over this Dallas defense and it starts up front. They are a fast and penetrating front that is constantly moving to try to put pressure on opposing offenses. The Cowboys have run stunts and twists on 32.7% of his snaps, which is the 3rd-highest rate in the league.

The Cowboys will vary their defenses with odd and even man fronts. Depending on the situation, they will line up their edge players in a two- or three-point stance. They will run unbalanced fronts and overload one side of the line to open pass rush opportunities.

Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is out until at least mid-season with a foot injury. He has been replaced at left end with a combination of Tarell Basham, Chauncey Golston, Brent Urban, Azur Kamara, Bradlee Anae (recently re-instated from the COVID-19 list) and the injured Dorance Armstrong (ankle). Those players have combined for 1.5 sacks this season.

Randy Gregory has been the team's starter at right end, though he was questionable for their game against the Panthers last week with a knee injury. He has two sacks, four quarterback hits, and 12 total pressures in three games this season, according to Pro Football Focus. He has the speed to bend the edge and has counter-moves inside to keep offensive tackles honest. He will be a strong test for Andrew Thomas.

Then there's Micah Parsons. In Weeks 2 and 3, he played primarily at defensive end as a pure pass rusher, but in Weeks 1 and 4, he was used more frequently as an outside linebacker. His impact has been felt more consistently when he is rushing the passer. ESPN has Parsons with their 7th-best pass rush win rate (30%) in the entire league. PFF has tracked him for 18 total pressures, including his 2.5 sacks and seven quarterback hits. He is raw as an edge rusher (a position he did not play since high school), but his freakish athleticism and relentless effort has made him very difficult to block going after the quarterback.

At defensive tackle, rookie Osa Odighizuwa has stood out. Younger brother to former Giant Owa Odighizuwa, he has two sacks, seven quarterback hits, and 16 total pressures. He is a bit undersized for a defensive tackle at 6'2 and 279 pounds, but he is strong, has long arms and is both quick and explosive. He is constantly trying to get upfield to disrupt the offensive backfield.

Dallas gets pressure on 32% of opponent dropbacks, which is the 19th-best rate in the league. They only blitz on 23% of their pass defense reps, which is the 12th-lowest rate in the league. They try to get home with their front four.

The Cowboys released linebacker Jaylon Smith this week. Leighton Vander Esch, Keanu Neal (recently reinstated off the COVID-19 list) and rookie Jabril Cox are likely candidates to pick up his snaps at linebacker, along with Parsons.

The Cowboys' strong offense has protected the team's run defense. They are only allowing 81 rush yards per game (6th-best in the league) but only six teams are allowing more than their 4.7 yards per carry. It explains the Cowboys poor first down defense, which ranks 29th in the league, allowing 6.8 yards per play. If the Giants can stick to their running game, they might be able to control the game with Saquon Barkley.

Only one team has allowed more than the Cowboys 315 pass yards per game this season. They are a big-play defense that has also allowed their share of big plays. Only two teams allow more than the Cowboys 6.42 yards per play on defense. Dallas has allowed 21 plays of 20 or more yards, which is the 3rd-most in the NFL. 19 of those have come through the air.

The reason Dallas is only allowing 24.3 points per game is their ability to make the big play. Only the Bills have more than the Cowboys' 10 takeaways, and no team has more than their eight interceptions. Trevon Diggs has an interception in every game this season and leads the league with five. Two of those five have been deflected to him, but the others came on plays where he is reading the quarterback and breaking on the ball to get in front of the receiver to come up with the interception. He is a former receiver and rarely drops an interception opportunity.

Anthony Brown is the team's other cornerback. He has played well since struggling against the Bucs' talented set of wide receivers in Week 1. Jourdan Lewis plays the nickel spot and has allowed 14 catches for 161 yards and a touchdown this season.

Offseason acquisitions Jayron Kearse and Damontae Kazee are the team's primary safeties. Kazee plays deep on most plays while Kearse finds himself closer to the line of scrimmage. Strong safety Donovan Wilson may see some snaps near the line of scrimmage if he returns from his groin injury. Former first-round pick Malik Hooker, who was added to the roster right before camp, is playing a couple dozen snaps a game at safety.

Despite defensive coordinator's Dan Quinn history of playing Seattle's "cover-3" scheme, Dallas is playing a lot more man-to-man defense this year. They are in "cover-1" (man-to-man with a single-high safety) 36% of the time, which is the 3rd-highest rate in the NFL. The rest of their snaps are split fairly evenly between different zone looks.

Keys when the Giants have the ball:

  1. Test Dallas' run defense and stick to the run if it is effective
  2. Protect the quarterback
  3. Avoid turnovers and use the secondary's aggressive posture against them with big plays
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