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Tape Study: What to expect from the Cowboys


The Giants wrap up their season against the Cowboys on Sunday afternoon. The game has no playoff implications for either team. The Cowboys are locked into the fourth seed as NFC East Champions. The Giants' draft position can be impacted by whether they win or lose. Right now, they can select as high as the top five or fall out of the top ten, depending on how the teams with 4-6 wins perform this week.

When The Cowboys Have The Ball

The Spotlight: Quarterback Dak Prescott

We'll see how much Prescott plays for the Cowboys this week, but he has had a solid year with 3,498 passing yards and a 68% completion percentage along with eighteen touchdowns and eight interceptions. Despite only having eight picks, ball security has been a problem for him with 12 fumbles.

Prescott is able to make pinpoint throws that make your draw drop, but other times he will miss receivers for what should be an easy completions. He prefers to throw to the perimeter and tries to avoid the crowded areas between the hash marks.

Inside the Numbers: Prescott doesn't throw the ball down the field a lot, but when he does he is successful. He has a quarterback rating of 110 on throws that travel more than 20 yards in the air. The Cowboys have just 34 completions of 20 or more yards this season, the next-to-last lowest figure in the league.  

Prescott has good mobility and is a threat to run the ball on designed runs or when plays break down. The Cowboys like to use him on read-option plays in the red zone. He runs over defensive backs with his 238-pound frame when he gets into the secondary. Despite his mobility, Prescott sometimes fails to avoid sacks, or runs backwards, turning small losses into bigger ones. There have been protection problems in front of him behind a banged up offensive line.

The Matchup: Wide Receiver Amari Cooper

The league raised its eyebrows when the Cowboys traded a first round pick for Amari Cooper, but the move has paid dividends. Since joining the Cowboys, Cooper has played in eight games and caught 48 passes for 694 yards and six touchdowns. He is Prescott's "go-to" receiver.

Cooper is an elite route runner. He adds deception to all of his routes and is nearly impossible to stay attached to in and out of his breaks at the top of his routes. He has the speed to win over the top, the guts to catch passes over the middle, and the quickness to get open near the sideline.

I would expect Janoris Jenkins to follow Cooper around the same way he did with T.Y. Hilton last week. It will be another big challenge for the Giants' top cornerback.

Cowboys Scheme and Tendencies

 • The Cowboys are still a run-first outfit and want to pound the ball on early downs to put the quarterback in third and short situations. Ezekiel Elliott is a workhorse and leads the NFL in rushing yards with 1,434, 183 more than Todd Gurley. Elliott also leads the league in carries with 304 and has 77 catches to lead the league in touches and yards from scrimmage. Elliott has breakaway speed, but it is his power to get additional yards after contact that sets him apart from the field. He runs with a lot of patience and waits for the hole to open before exploding through it. 

Inside the Numbers: Dallas has 60 runs of 10 yards or more, tied for third most in the NFL. 

 • If Elliott doesn't play the whole game, Rod Smith (older brother to teammate and linebacker Jaylon Smith) will play and be a three-down back much like Elliott is. Cooper Rush would go in for Prescott at quarterback. Rush has played in just three career NFL games, completing one of three passes for two yards. Smith has 329 career rushing yards. 

 • The Cowboys use big personnel groups with a fullback and multiple tight ends. They run out of these sets, or run play action. They also move the pocket with Prescott on naked bootlegs and rollouts. The Cowboys have been balanced on first down plays this year, running 52.8% of the time on first and ten, 11th highest in the league. 

Inside the Numbers: The Cowboys are 23rd in the league in yards per game at 338.8 and 24th in points per game at 20.2. Their red zone offense has been abysmal all season, with a 45.7% touchdown percentage inside the 20, better than only two other NFL teams.  

 • The Cowboys offensive line is beat up. Zack Martin has missed the last two games with a knee injury and likely to rest again this week with Connor Williams starting at right guard. Tyron Smith has battled neck and back injuries all season and is also likely to rest with Cameron Fleming starting at left tackle. In-season pickup Xavier Su'a-Filo has been starting at left guard. Pro Bowl Center Travis Frederick has been out all season while recovering from Guillarme-Barre Syndrome with Joe Looney serving as the starting center. La'el Collins has been rock solid at right tackle. The group has performed well enough in the run game, but pass protection has been an issue with Prescott getting sacked 52 times, the second highest total in the league. At the bye, the Cowboys fired offensive line coach Paul Alexander and promoted former NFL offensive tackle Marc Columbo to the position. 

 • Michael Gallup has emerged as the Cowboys clear-cut number two wide receiver. He is improving as a route runner and is a big play threat, averaging 15.2 yards per reception. At 6-1 and 198 pounds, he has the speed and size to win deep down the sideline. Cole Beasley is the slot receiver. He has excellent quickness and hands, making him very difficult to cover in the middle of the field. 

 • The Cowboys play tight end-by-committee, using all four of their players at the position. Geoff Swaim (just placed in IR) and rookie Dalton Schultz are considered the blockers of the group, with Blake Jarwin and Rico Gathers being used as the pass catchers. 

Keys For The Giants Defense

1. Stop the run

2. Pressure Dak Prescott and don't let Amari Cooper run wild

3. Keep Dallas struggling in the red zone

When The Giants Have The Ball

The Spotlight: Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch

The Cowboys' first round pick (19th overall), linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, is competing with Colts linebacker Darius Leonard and Broncos edge rusher Bradley Chubb for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He has played so well at weakside linebacker that the Cowboys coaches chose to leave a healthy Sean Lee inactive for their game against the Buccaneers last Sunday. 

He has the speed to cover and move sideline to sideline and the power at 256 pounds to stop the run. He is a very smart and aware player and anticipates what is coming. Paired with Jaylon Smith, they comprise one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL. 

The Matchup: Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence vs Chad Wheeler

Lawrence is playing through a torn labrum in his shoulder, so there is no telling how much he will play with the Cowboys unable to slide out of the fourth spot in the NFC playoff picture. When he is on the field, Lawrence is one of the most relentless players in the league. His effort is off the charts, and his motor never goes cold. 

He uses a combination of power, speed and technique to get after the quarterback. He has the power to bull rush, and the speed to bend the edge on his way to the quarterback. Lawrence also sets the edge well in the run game. He was franchise tagged by the Cowboys last offseason and has likely played himself into a big long-term contract. 

Inside the Numbers: Along with Lawrence's 9.5 sacks, according to Pro Football Focus, he also has 11 quarterback hits and 38 hurries. 

Cowboys Scheme and Tendencies

 • The Cowboys play the 4-3 and as a typical Rod Marinelli defense, they all flow to the ball with speed. You will see a lot of gang tackles from this group. They are faster than they are powerful but are very fundamentally sound.

Inside the Numbers: The Cowboys do not give up big plays. Only two teams have allowed fewer than their 46 plays of 20 yards or more this season. 

 • The Cowboys slant their defensive linemen, and use pass rush games to get penetration into the backfield. They want their defensive linemen to be aggressive and get upfield. Their best two pass rushing defensive tackles, David Irving and Tyrone Crawford, could miss the game with injuries. Antwuan Woods and Daniel Ross have been good inside against the run. Randy Gregory has been coming on lately as a pass rusher off the right side. He had a sack and forced fumble last week against the Buccaneers but has also committed some key penalties during the season. 

 • Jaylon Smith is the Cowboys middle linebacker and a three-down player. He plays with great speed and power and is an aggressive tackler downhill and sideline to sideline. His speed was evident on his 69-yard fumble return for a touchdown last week.

Keep an eye on these five players in the Giants' 2018 season finale

Dan Salomone

Managing Editor,

Inside the Numbers: The Cowboys struggle on third down. Opponents are converting 41.9% of their third downs, 26th in the NFL. The Cowboys are good in the red zone, allowing opponents to score only 50% of the time, better than all but five teams. 

 • Cowboys secondary coach Kris Richard has been given some play calling responsibility from Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli, especially on third downs. The former Seahawks Defensive Coordinator is not shy against bringing pressure from the linebacker position or off the edge from defensive backs. Expect Richard to be mentioned as a head coaching candidate this offseason. 

Inside the Numbers: Dallas is one of the most effective blitzing teams in football. When the Cowboys blitz, opposing teams have a 77.75 quarterback rating, fifth best in the league. The Cowboys do struggle defending the pass on second down, allowing a quarterback rating of 106.6, ranking 28th in the league. 

 • The Cowboys defensive backs play a lot of Cover Three along with a lot of aggressive man to man defense. Since moving from safety, Byron Jones has been one of the best cover cornerbacks in the league. Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown (slot) have been solid cover guys. Xavier Woods has been a strong coverage safety, while Jeff Heath organizes their defense in the back half. Dallas plays man to man defense and challenges opposing offenses with physical play. 

Inside the Numbers: The Cowboys stop the run at a high level. Opponents only run for four or more yards on 41% of their carries, fifth best in the league. Their 91.3 rushing yards allowed per game also ranks fifth. 

Keys for the Giants Offense

1. Use the Cowboys' speed against them with screens and misdirection

2. Control the pass rush and blitz on third down

3. Run well on early downs