FRISCO, Texas – At long last, we're here.
The regular season got underway on Thursday night, and the Cowboys wound down their preparations for Week 1 on Friday afternoon. There's some minor tinkering left to do, but practice is over and we know what to expect.
Anthony Hitchens has been ruled out with his injury, and Jourdan Lewis is listed as questionable. Other than that, the Cowboys have 51 of 53 players available to them heading into this weekend's game.
That poses some questions for us to answer. I'll try to do that, as well as add some other thoughts, in this week's final notebook.
- I believe the Cowboys will settle on Chaz Green as their starter at left guard. Green is one of the five best linemen on this squad, but I don't see him at this point as the best guard. I have always been a fan of Green's play at tackle despite his injury history. What I do know about Green is that every time they've put him in a situation where he's had to make a start, he has played well. A key to this game will be how the inside three for the Cowboys handle Damon Harrison, Jay Bromley and Dalvin Tomlinson. They can't allow the Giants defensive tackles to control the game from that spot.
- Jaylon Smith and Justin Durant split snaps this week getting ready for the Giants. If you asked me which guy should start, I'd say Smith -- and here's my reasoning. Durant didn't practice with the team all training camp, nor did he play in any preseason games. His overall conditioning and freshness is likely good, but Smith has been preparing for this opportunity since OTAs. He has gone through all the practices and he has played in games – which, in my opinion makes a big difference. I understand that Durant is the veteran and might not need all the work, but I would much rather take my chances with Smith and what I have seen from him.
- In the past when having to deal with a big, athletic tight end, Rod Marinelli has looked to his safeties to match in coverage. I will be interested to see how Marinelli chooses to handle rookie tight end Evan Engram, who fits in that mold. Marinelli has the option of going with Byron Jones or Jeff Heath, but the wild card here might be Chidobe Awuzie. Since OTAs, the staff has been preparing Awuzie as a dime player, which means he can do those things that Jones can do down in the box. Engram has played along the line, in the backfield and wide, so the defense must be ready for him on all levels. If the he determines that Awuzie is capable of that responsibility, Marinelli would be free to use Jones and Heath in other needed areas.
- You might be surprised to know that Eli Manning is one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL. The Giants were ranked third in the league when it came to keeping their quarterback off the ground. Where the Giants have struggled is with the pressure and hits on Manning. He is near the bottom of the league when it comes to facing pressure. His quarterback rating of 75.8 ranks him 25th. Pressure has led to other issues, such as three-and-outs -- where the Giants were ranked near the bottom, as well. Just to put that in perspective, 29 percent of the Giants' offensive possessions ended after three plays. Sacks would be nice in this contest, but, as previous history tells you, that will not be the case. Affecting Eli Manning's eye level is a must, and the more you can get him to stare at the rush, the better.
- In 2016, the Cowboys ranked 23rd in both punt and kickoff returns in the NFL. It was clear that the unit needed some juice, thus the addition of Ryan Switzer. Look for Switzer to handle both the punt and kickoff duties in this game. Studying Switzer from his playing days at North Carolina, you get a player that has sure hands with loose play ability in the open field. He has a running back's mentality with the ball in his hands. What makes him a dangerous returner is his ability to make the first man miss and the vision to see blocks develop in front of him.
- The Cowboys will likely deactivate running one their running backs for this game. Last season, they did it with Alfred Morris once Darren McFadden was healthy enough to play. Rod Smith is not an option here due to what he gives you on special teams, so that once again leaves Morris and McFadden. If you go on just what we have seen in training camp, McFadden should sit. Morris has shown the ability to carry the ball successfully, catch it as well and pick up blitzes. I am not sure the front office and coaches see it the same way, but that's the route I'd take building my 46-man game day roster.
- Tyron Smith and La'el Collins have difficult assignments this week with Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul. Not only are they both outstanding pass rushers -- but quality run defenders, as well. The biggest problem they present, especially in the running game, is their ability to finish plays. If you leave them unblocked, they both have the ability to run the play down from the backside and trap the back for a loss or no gain. They're also difficult to run wide on, especially if the tackles attempt to reach block them. Both Vernon and Pierre-Paul do an outstanding job of keeping their outside arm free to stretch the play. Where opponents have had success on the outside is cracking them with blockers from the perimeter, which the Cowboys were able to do in their game at MetLife Stadium last year.
- Here's my first weekly guess at the Cowboys inactives: QB Cooper Rush, RB Darren McFadden, CB Bene Benwikere, CB Jourdan Lewis, LB Anthony Hitchens, OG Jonathan Cooper, WR Noah Brown.