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Tape Study

Tape Study: What to expect from the Cowboys

View the Dallas Cowboys' key personnel ahead of their Week 17 meeting with the New York Giants.

The problem with trying to preview and predict games so early in the NFL season is that there is such a small sample size available to understand what teams truly are this season. Overreacting to the first week of the NFL season is an epidemic that everyone falls victim to because there isn't any other information to use to frame analysis. 

For example, is the Saints' defensive performance against Tampa Bay a true demonstration of their ability, or was it just a bad week? The same question can be asked of the Cowboys' offense, or even the performance of the Giants' offensive line. How teams play in Week 2 will give a good indication of what the rest of their seasons may look like.

When the Cowboys have the ball

Dallas is still a run-first team, but it did an excellent job last week balancing its first-down plays through the first three quarters before going down by three scores. The Cowboys ran the ball seven times and passed it nine times on first down, with two plays being nullified due to penalty. Despite their unpredictability, the Cowboys struggled on first down, gaining just 31 yards (10 rushing and 21 passing) for an average of 2.2 yards per play.

Those struggles on first down, combined with 10 penalties for 85 yards, go a long way in explaining why the Cowboys were 2-11 (18 percent) on third down. Dallas had the following third down and distances: 26, 12, 10, 11, 7, 3, 11, 11, 7, 23, and 7. The Cowboys' poor conversion percentage should be no surprise given their lengths. Their two conversions came on third-and-7 and third-and-11. If the Giants' defense can keep the Cowboys' offense behind the sticks in long third down and distances, they should have a lot of success getting them off the field.

Here are some things that jumped out to me from the Cowboys-Panthers game film last week: 

• The Cowboys had most of their success running the ball outside. They like to get their athletic offensive linemen on the move, pulling them on runs and getting them onto the second level against linebackers. Setting the edge will be extremely important for the Giants' edge players this week. 

• Even left tackle Tyron Smith, one of the Cowboys' best offensive linemen, had uncharacteristic struggles against the Panthers' front in both run blocking and pass protection. Rookie left guard Connor Williams had intermittent struggles with Kawann Short, and will once again be challenged by a very strong Giants interior defensive line. 

• The Cowboys do not throw the ball down the field much. Dak Prescott had only one throw that went beyond 20 yards in the air, a pass to tight end Blake Jarwin on a quarterback scramble that fell short. Ironically, Prescott was very successful last season on passes that traveled more than 20 yards with a 97.6 passer rating. Prescott has thrown for 250 yards or more only once in his last 12 starts. In his last nine games, Prescott's team is 4-5 with only 186 yards per game, and six touchdowns to go along with nine interceptions. There was plenty of blame to go around last week. Prescott was inaccurate on some throws. On other plays he didn't seen open receivers, and on others the receivers had trouble getting open.

The pass rush is important, but controlled rush is just as important with him. Just like we did last week, we were trying to make him (Blake Bortles) throw from tight wells, making him feeling the pocket close in on him. It’s not about whether you say the word spy or don’t spy, some people use that term. It’s eyes – who has eyes, who is the guy that has eyes on the quarterback as we’re trying to still aggressively rush with four or five, or whatever that might be. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher

• Cole Beasley was the best of the receiver group, with seven catches on eight targets for 73 yards. He is still used primarily in the slot, but he'll line up outside more than in the past, where he ran a nasty double move from last week. Beasley was the only Cowboys player last week with more than three catches and 30 yards.

He creates mismatches in the slot. As coaches, we’ve all been around guys like that where you develop a trust in him. Obviously Dak trusts him. Typically when you’re in the slot, you’re close to the quarterback and he can see you better, sort of knows what you’re going to do, and he finds a way to get open, and he throws him the ball quickly. That’s the challenge that those types of receivers present to the defense. We’ve watched him have success for many years and we’ve watched the way a guy of his size can have an impact on the game. Coach Pat Shurmur on Cole Beasley

• The Cowboys do a lot of similar things to the Jaguars in the passing game off play-action. They will try to leak the tight end out on naked bootlegs or sneak players to the flat behind their offensive line. 

• Tavon Austin will be used primarily as a wide receiver (the Rams used him more as a running back last year) in the screen game, end-arounds and jet sweeps. He will also be used as their punt returner and is dangerous in space. 

• The Cowboys will run the read option, but Prescott has been far more willing to keep the ball himself in red-zone situations than in other parts of the field. It bears watching, however, whether that tendency changes given the Giants' struggles against quarterbacks on naked bootlegs in their last two games. According to Pro Football Focus, the Cowboys were the best running team in the red zone last season. 

• One other special teams note: The Cowboys decided to go away from placekicker Dan Bailey this year, handing the job to 28-year-old Brett Maher. Maher missed his only kick, a 47-yard field goal attempt, wide right in Week 1.

When the Giants have the ball

The Cowboys returned defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and his 4-3 scheme from last season, but added former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard to the coaching staff as their defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator. With him onboard, the team plays a lot of single-high coverage with a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 1. They will, however, mix in some two deep safety looks as well. 

Up front, the Cowboys will use a lot of twists and stunts to free up their defensive linemen on their way to the quarterback. Last season, the Cowboys forced 119 negative plays, tied for the second most in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars. 

Here are some things I saw from the Cowboys-Panthers game film last week: 

• Linebacker Sean Lee had an uncharacteristically poor tackling game. You never see Lee miss a tackle but there were a few instances of that last week against Christian McCaffrey and Cam Newton. Lee did not play much in the preseason, so you wonder how much rust he still has to chip off. Jaylon Smith, who the Cowboys have high hopes for, struggled as well.

Sean is just a good player. He’s in the right spot. He’s kind of the leader of that defense. He’s does a good job of getting them all lined up. He just kind of smells out some things. He’s around the ball. He gets a lot of tackles. We just got to learn to know where he is. He’s going to be in the linebacker positon. We’ll just get our blocks on him, just be aware of him, and see if we can get him to miss some tackles. Quarterback Eli Manning

• The biggest problem the Cowboys' linebackers and defensive linemen faced in the first half was Cam Newton's running. He ran seven times for 64 yards in the first half on read-options and quarterback keepers. Marinelli preaches to his team to get up the field, and their over-aggression caught them in Week 1. It is something the Giants might be able to take advantage of on Sunday night with some of their playmakers on misdirection plays.

• Demarcus Lawrence is not going to be a one-year wonder. He has a great motor through all four quarters and can win with power, speed and technique at left defensive end. He will be just as much of a challenge as anyone the Jaguars rolled out there in Week One.

Quote Book: “He’s a good player. He’s high energy. He brings it every play. He brings it the whole game, all game long. We just got to know where he is and have a great plan for him. We got to mix up protections, mix up drops, mix up the point of where we’re throwing from, so we’re not always sitting there in the same spot every time, and try to get different ways just to slow him down.” – Eli Manning on Demarcus Lawrence

• Keep an eye on Randy Gregory and whether he is able to play on Sunday. He looked explosive as a situational pass rusher splitting time with Taco Charlton at right end, but had to leave the game with a concussion. He did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday. 

• Panthers wide receivers finished with only seven catches for 79 yards against Cowboys cornerbacks. Their group isn't nearly as explosive as the Giants' group outside, so the Panthers fed Christian McCaffrey constantly as he caught six passes on nine targets for 45 yards. The matchups in the secondary will be fun to watch on Sunday.

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