The last time these two teams met seven weeks ago, it was opening night of the 2012 NFL season. There were plenty of questions on the Dallas side of how they would be able to match up with the defending Super Bowl champions, but head coach Jason Garrett and his staff had the Cowboys ready and they clearly outplayed the Giants in all phases of the game. Since that first meeting, though, New York has played well, earning a huge road victory at the 49ers, as well as a come-from-behind home win against the Redskins last week.
When you study the Giants, you know what you're going to get offensively: quarterback Eli Manning, talented skilled players and an offensive line that doesn't blow defenses off the ball, but instead plays on its feet and ties opponents up. Manning is what makes this team go, good or bad. You see games where he is clearly in synch, accuracy-wise, and then others where he is way off the mark. When Manning can sit in the pocket and allow receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks to run their routes, which the Giants do better than anyone in the league, he shows the ability to make huge plays.
Where teams, including Dallas, have seen success is when they can force Manning into having to make plays on the move. Manning is not the most accurate passer when he has to move his feet. As matter of fact, some of his biggest mistakes come when he feels pressure, moves, and then throws the ball off his back foot. Earlier in the season, the Cowboys played one of the best back-foot throwers in the league in Jay Cutler. Manning, however, is one of the worst.
The game plan this week then is to pressure Manning because, while it's rare for him to take a sack, pressure bothers him more than anything and will force him into mistakes, whether it's midfield or in the red zone.
Dealing with Manning is one thing, but these Giants receivers present huge challenges as well. I said earlier that I thought they were the best route-runners in the league as a unit, and this is the way that they attack you:
This group is not all over the place when it comes to their depth or breaks. Cruz, Nicks and Domenik Hixon find ways to win at the top of the route and that is important. They manage to get separation, keeping defenders off balance. When you sit on them, they are by you, and if you think they are going to head up the field, they cut their routes inside. These receivers never give the defensive backs any comfort in their ability to play the route.
It's not just about speed, but also how they use their quickness in and out of their routes. In the last meeting between these two teams, Cruz did struggle with some drops, but defensive coordinator Rob Ryan shouldn't count on that happening again. The secondary has to be ready for a combination of routes across the field, and also their receivers trying to rub defenders off. The Giants did have some success when the Cowboys didn't handle that well.
At tight end, Martellus Bennett has given this New York offense a boost. Bennett still runs the routes underneath for some simple throws, but now you see him with more receptions down the field. The Giants like to use him in a flex position and let him work one-on-one with linebackers and safeties. He has proven he can be difficult to deal with once he's able to get going. As a blocker, he has been OK, but when they need that guy, they turn to Bear Pascoe. Last week we saw Ryan put cornerback Mike Jenkins on Carolina tight end Greg Olsen for a snap in coverage, and he might once again call on Jenkins and safety Danny McCray to match up on Bennett in an attempt to not allow him to have free access down the field.
There is nothing pretty about the way this Giants offensive line plays. David Diehl was the starter at right tackle on opening night, but he has since been replaced by Sean Locklear, who was the starter at left tackle. There are two spots where I see this team having some struggles. The first one is a left tackle with Will Beatty, and the second at center with David Baas.
In the Eagles, 49ers and Redskins matchups, Beatty had the most problems when it came to handling the edge rusher's quickness and power. There were times where Beatty gave up too much ground, but Manning getting rid of the ball saved him from problems. Baas really had a difficult time against Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent, and I would expect more of the same on Sunday. I do like the Giants guards, Chris Snee and Kevin Boothe. Last season, Boothe had to step in and play center and did a really nice job against Jay Ratliff.
When the Giants have had success at Cowboys Stadium, it has been when they've protected Manning well. Early and often pressure on the quarterback will be key in this game, and Ryan and his staff know it.
As much as I have focused on the receivers and Bennett, running back Ahmad Bradshaw means just as much to this offensive attack. I have always had a great deal of respect for Bradshaw and the toughness that he brings to this lineup. When the Giants want to show a physical side, it's Bradshaw that does the majority of the heavy lifting. As a ball carrier, he can run it inside or out with quickness and power. He catches the ball well out of the backfield and is a problem to bring down one-on-one in space.
If Bradshaw has a weakness, it's that he is a poor pass blocker. Any time that Ryan can make him play in this game as a pass blocker, there is potential for a victory on defense.
Andre Brown is the backup to Bradshaw and he, too, is a veteran player that is a physical runner. It doesn't look like rookie David Wilson has made much progress. A side of me believed, after studying his preseason games, that he would be the starter by this time, but he has had his share of problems.
Defensively, the Giants still have a front four that is one of the best in the business. Chris Canty has returned to his defensive tackle spot, and along with Linval Joseph, does a really nice job of holding up in the middle. Canty has the length to give you problems in the passing game because even if he doesn't get up the field, he manages to get his hands up, which can alter the quarterback's passes.
On the outside, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul do an outstanding job of putting pressure on offensive tackles as edge rushers. Over the years, I have found that Tuck is a much better run player than Pierre-Paul. That's not to say Pierre-Paul can't play the run. On tape, the ball just goes his way more than Tuck's.
What defensive coordinator Perry Fewell wants to do is get you in long-yardage situations early, which then allows him to unleash this four-man rush. The Giants are not a huge blitz team and when they do blitz it's usually linebacker Michael Boley or a safety from the back end. Fewell likes to move Pierre-Paul, who normally plays on the right side, to left defensive end, and then put Osi Umenyiora in the game. So, when the Giants go to their nickel rush, the Cowboys are going to have to deal with Tuck, Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka. With that type of lineup, you see why Fewell only has to rush four.
In Week 1, though, left tackle Tyron Smith did an outstanding job against Pierre-Paul, who usually causes offensive coordinators nightmares. Would not be one bit surprised to see the Giants try to get Pierre-Paul away from Smith on Sunday for some better rushes.
Other than Boley, I really don't like these Giants linebackers. I spoke a little about Kiwanuka and his role in the nickel, but I think you can take advantage of middle linebacker Chase Blackburn. Teams that feature running backs with quickness have given him trouble. Also look for Garrett to try and find ways to make Blackburn have to play in coverage. Where the Cowboys have had some troubles in the running game is in getting their center or guards up on the inside linebackers to control them. But because Blackburn is not as athletic, Dallas could take advantage of him.
Where the Cowboys were able to make some plays in the last meeting was in the Giants secondary. Prince Amukamara was injured and did not dress out and Michael Coe got hurt, leaving left rookie Jayron Hosley and Justin Tryon to finish the game. I do not see this as a good enough secondary to keep up with the Cowboys receivers. Amukamara isn't nearly physical enough and Corey Webster at times plays like he doesn't want to be physical. The pass rush of the Giants really hides this secondary and their problems. If Dez Bryant and Miles Austin can turn this into a physical game, the better for the Cowboys.
Although Kevin Ogletree had the game of his life against New York in the season opener, running slant after slant, I don't expect Dallas' receivers to have the same room or free access this time around. The Giants will try and disrupt the Cowboys' routes, but any ball that is caught on the move has a chance for a nice play because safety Antrel Rolle is the only one who wants to tackle. If protection can hold up, look for Garrett and this offensive staff to pound the ball at the Giants corners.