IRVING, Texas – It felt strange last week not to have any opponents to preview, so I'm happy to be back in the routine.
It took 12 weeks, but we're finally seeing a team for the second time this week, as the Cowboys get set for their second game against the Giants. We talked about some of these guys the last time around, but it's been a month since the first time these teams have played.
A decent amount has changed, so let's start with perhaps the most notable development:
Weapon: Odell Beckham Jr., WR
Not much has gone right for the New York Giants offensively this season under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. There have been problems with Eli Manning and his consistency from game to game. The offensive line has been a patchwork unit that has trouble, not only getting movement in the running game, but protecting their quarterback as well.
Among all these issues, if there has been a bright spotm, it has been in the play of rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham has just begun to hit his stride these last few games after missing the entire preseason with a hamstring injury. His learning curve in transitioning from the college to pro game has been very small.
Even when he doesn't run the perfect route, he is such an explosive player that he can run his way out of trouble. He is the type of player that creates separation with his speed and his ability to get right on top of the corner quickly. He's at top speed by the time he hits his fourth step. There is little hesitation in the way he runs his routes, and you have to respect his ability to get vertical.
Beckham has shown the ability to make the tough catch, but he has also had a drop or two on some inside routes. After studying New York's game against the 49ers and the numerous missed opportunities they had to get him the ball, trust that McAdoo will feature him against this Cowboys secondary.
Nemesis: Larry Donnell, TE
The last time these two clubs met, Donnell was a perfect seven-for-seven on targets and receptions. It was also his highest total yardage of the season to this point with 90 yards.
What makes him such a difficult matchup is how well he can get down the field and position himself to make the catch. There are snaps where you see Manning just throw the ball up for grabs, and he manages to come down with it. He has freakish athletic ability with incredible body control and balance. His reach presents problems, because he is able to extend for balls at their highest point -- which puts defensive backs and linebackers at a disadvantage because of their shorter reach.
The Giants like to line him up at several spots in the formation. The spot where I believe he is the most dangerous is when they put him in the backfield and run him through the middle of the line like he is blocking on a running play. This way, he gets past the linebackers who are stepping up to take on the run.
When he does this, he usually finds a spot behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties, which makes a simple throw for Manning off the play action fake. Where he can also create problems is in the red zone -- not only split wide in one-on-one situations, but working inside along the back of the end zone where he can use his athletic ability to his advantage.
Under Radar: Robert Ayers, DE
Plenty of attention is paid to Mathias Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul, but if you really want to know about a player that jumps out on tape on this Giants defense, it is Robert Ayers.
What has made Ayers such a special player in this scheme is his ability not only to line up at defensive end, but also inside as a nickel tackle. It has been this flexibility that has given the Giants the opportunity to get their best pass rushers on the field at critical points in the down and distance. You still see that burst and initial quickness like he had when he was drafted out of Tennessee in 2009. He also has that ability to turn the corner and bend his rush to the quarterback when he gets the edge.
There is a nice flex to his game and he can put a great deal of pressure on the blocker right off the snap. He's smart in the way he uses his hands to disengage from the blocker, and he would much rather use moves to free himself than go toe-to-toe with a blocker.
He is always going up the field, but Ayers does show some instincts with the ability to defend the run. You have to account for him in the running game due to his nose for the ball. When these two teams met a month ago, Ayers took several rushes against Ronald Leary and was able to get him off balance and get up field. I expect that we will see these Giants defensive coaches go back with that matchup in the game Sunday.