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Secondary preps for tough challenge in WR Dez Bryant


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will play in his eighth NFL season opener Sunday night. He has played in 108 regular-season and nine postseason games in the NFL.

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Landon Collins will play in his first opener when the Giants visit the Dallas Cowboys in AT&T Stadium. His NFL experience consists entirely of relatively brief appearances in three preseason games.

So guess which player confesses to butterflies fluttering in his stomach in the hours prior to kickoff.

"It's a new season, there's so much going through your mind," Rodgers-Cromartie said this week. "You're excited to play, you're nervous to play, it's a new system, you've got new guys. I think you're more excited than anything. So you definitely just got to go out and hit somebody and calm down."

Collins apparently doesn't need calming.

"I'm not going to be nervous, because it's just a game," he said. "It's a big game, but it's a game. Go out there and play my heart out."

Despite the differences in their experience and demeanor, DRC and Collins are being counted on equally to help ground the Cowboys' productive aerial attack. For Rodgers-Cromartie and fellow corner Prince Amukamara, that likely means a heavy dose of Dez Bryant, the physical and skilled receiver who led the NFL last season with 16 touchdown passes.

DRC and Amukamara, who is beginning his fifth season, have played a combined 152 regular-season games with 125 starts. Very little should surprise them at this point in their careers.

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

The back of the Giants' defense is another story. If Cooper Taylor lines up next to Collins for Dallas' first offensive series, both safeties will be making their first career start. And they will do so against a team that was 12-4 last year, and in one of the league's loudest and most inhospitable venues.

The veterans can advise the newcomers about what to expect, but the safeties must experience it for themselves.

"It's kind of hard going into Dallas," said DRC, who has played four games in AT&T. "You got the amazing stadium and things of that nature, so your eyes just kind of - you've just got to tell them to zone in and focus and understand we're there for a job and do what's asked of us."

This will be the first regular-season game for the defense under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The safeties carry a lot of responsibility in his scheme.

"In this defense, a lot is put on the safeties," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "They have to make the call, the adjustments, lining people up and still play. That's kind of hard, but for the most part, guys have been picking it up and we've just been rolling."

It will be a major surprise if Romo and the Cowboys don't test the inexperienced safeties early and often.

"I'm sure they will," said Cooper, whose regular-season body of work consists entirely of 10 games as a rookie in 2013. He spent the entire 2014 season on injured reserve with a foot injury. "With that prolific offense, I think they're going to test everybody. But we're the unknown spot, so I wouldn't be surprised if they did. We're going to go out there and compete and show them what we can do."

"Tony Romo said he's looking for key matchups," Collins said. "If he's going to look for key matchups, he's going to pick on me. … I'm a rookie, but I mean, he comes towards my way, and he won't be happy."

Clearly, Collins doesn't lack for confidence. Part of that is borne of the faith he has in his natural ability. And though he's a professional neophyte, Collins played at the University of Alabama in one of the nation's premier programs. He's played in plenty of big games, and in big venues – including his first collegiate game, in AT&T, where the Crimson Tide crushed Michigan, 41-14.

"We played in big bowl games, we played in games where it cost the most," Collins said. "We played in games that can make or break a season. Same thing, only it's the beginning of the season now. Not really nervous about it."

The Giants traded up in the NFL Draft to select the 6-foot, 225-pound Collins with the first pick in the second round. They have high hopes that he will develop into one of the NFL's premier safeties.

"I'm confident in him. You bet I am," coach Tom Coughlin said. "He's a good football player. And he's demonstrated that throughout his collegiate career and he was taken in the second round."

"(We have seen) a lot of the things we thought when we took him," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "Active guy, runs real well, real fast, downhill speed guy. I think he's a physical guy. In the preseason, trying to keep your guys from getting dings, I don't know if he played as many reps as he probably needed. I know he didn't play as many as he needed. A guy like that that comes in at that position as a rookie needs 1,000 reps in games. But it's just going to take time before he's up to where we want him. He's going to get baptism by fire. That's just the way it is."

The heat will be on Sunday night in Dallas.

"We all realize it's his first game in the league," Spagnuolo said. "But he played on a big stage at Alabama. So hopefully that's prepared him for this particular stage."

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