Hey guys! It's been a long time since I've posted something, so I thought I'd do a piece on something we're all looking forward to, the first game of the season. Ever since the last pick on the 2013 NFL Draft, I've had my sights set on the season opener between our New York Giants, and our rivals in the South, the Dallas Cowboys. And laugh all you want about Tony Romo's overpriced contract, or their first round reach of Travis Frederick, but last year we were about a fingertip away from being swept by this team. Rivalry games are always intense, teams always bring their A games. I'm never comfortable when we play a division rival and despite my dislike of Jerry Jones, I have respect for the talent that is on their roster. Whether or not the Cowboys can effectively use that talent is another story though. In interest of the rivalry though.....
Alright, alright, lets get serious. As I was saying, the Cowboys aren't going to be a cupcake team this year. They aren't going to roll over and play dead for us. Also it's worth mentioning that with Rob Ryan out, the Dallas Defense is ushering in a new era under "The Father of the Tampa 2", Monte Kiffin. And while it may very well be the case that the new system starts out with it's share of rough spots, Kiffin is a very talented Defensive Coordinator and he's known for causing turnovers. That should be cause for at least a slight bit of alarm as Eli has been known to commit his share of turnovers.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Here we're going to do a quick overview of the Cowboy's roster. I think that they have a wealth of talent in some areas, but there are certainly a few chinks in the armor that the Giants can expose.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: There's no doubt in my mind that one of the best things about the Cowboys is the fact they have such a large number of guys that can catch the ball. Dez Bryant is an extremely talented guy, and while I wouldn't trade Hakeem Nicks for him, he can exploit our Defensive Backs with his wide array of physical tools. When healthy, the Boys have a great number two option in Miles Austin. Being as we see them right off the bat, it's a good guess that Austin will be 100% and ready to go. Their new draft pick Terrance Williams could end up being a great number three/slot receiver and my prediction is we're going to see a lot of Jayron Hosely versus Terrance Williams match ups in the future. Add in Jason Witten, who is a surefire Hall of Famer, and Gavin Escobar, the Cowboys second round pick, at Tight End, and it's easy to see that the Cowboys have a plethora of receiving options.
Linebackers: If we're looking at the defensive side of the ball, the one thing that really stands out to me is the Linebackers that the Cowboys have accumulated over the years. And yes, I know, a portion of BBV members are extremely jealous right now. Sean Lee at MIKE and Bruce Carter at SAM is an awesome pairing. Despite his injury past, Carter is still an athletic son of a gun, and Lee came out of Linebacker University (Penn State) with one of the best set of instincts in college football. While I'm not sure what Kiffin is going to do with Ware, for now I consider him a WILL Linebacker with great blitzing capabilities. If the Boys do end up putting his hand in the dirt, it will be a major disadvantage for their defense in my mind.
Cornerbacks: What was once an area of extreme weakness for the Cowboys is now a strong, fortified part of their roster. They moved up for Morris Claiborne in the 2012 Draft, and he by all means has the qualities of a number one Corner in the NFL. In the same year they also acquired Brandon Carr via Free Agency. You sure can do a lot worse as far as number two Corners are concerned. It's also said that Kiffin is high on fourth round draft pick B.W Webb.
Defensive Tackles: When I look over the Cowboys roster, I see a glaring hole at the Defensive Tackle spot. I would have bet my college education that they were going to take Sharrif Floyd at the 18 spot in this years draft. Jay Ratliff has had his share of problems as of late, having a run in with the law and multiple injuries during the 2012 season. Jerry Jones says that Ratliff will "flourish" in Kiffin's new system as a 3tech DT, but it's yet to be seen. After the tragic accident that took the life of Linebacker Jerry Brown, Josh Brent will not be playing in the 2013 season. Brian Price, a second round pick for the Cowboys a couple years back, hasn't shown all that much, but he does have potential. But really I see no true, solid 1tech on the Cowboys roster. That can be a problem in the run game. In fact last year it was, as opponents put up over 2000 yards rushing on the Boys, and they gave up about 4.5 yards per carry.
Safety: The Defensive Backfield for the Cowboys seems to be a contradiction. They have very solid Corners, but their Safeties leave something to be desired. Barry Church doesn't really inspire fear in me, so I'm sure he doesn't scare Eli and Co. Will Allen was an adequate backup to Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh, but he's just that, a backup. The Cowboys drafted J.J Wilcox this year, who played for my college's rival, Georgia Southern (two reasons to cheer against him, yay!), but Wilcox played at much lower level of competition. If he does turn out to be a solid player, it may take him a while to get the hang of the NFL. This is where I expect the Giants offense to target the Cowboys this year, just as long as it's not with a 40 yard fly route on 3rd and 1.
How to Win: The Technical Stuff
It's easy to point to where the a team doesn't have a lot of talent and say "that's a weak spot", but it does you no good if you don't know how to exploit that weak spot. While I'm not a coach (at least not yet!), I'd like to offer up my ideas on how to exploit the Cowboys and put together a successful game plan against them.
When We're on Offense
This is where it is a blessing to play a team with the same defense as yours. Eli and Co. practice against the Tampa 2 all the time. Seeing this defense every day will be a huge advantage in the game, and it will make Eli's progressions that much more natural and comfortable. It will make our O-Line's blocking assignment that much more fluid. Rolling into this game, our offense should be very attuned to how the Tampa 2 defense works.
The Tampa 2 itself is an adaption of a regular Cover 2 defense. It's a zone look that plays two Safeties deep, two Corners that protect the sidelines and cover about a quarter of the field each. The SAM and WILL Linebackers have a responsibility to check the run first, and then cover the flats and the short slant routes that come about 5-7 yards off the ball. The MIKE has possibly the hardest job, which is to cover both seams ranging from mid-field to as deep as the Safeties play. All D-Lineman have gap responsibility first, and then pass rushing duties. The 3tech Defensive Tackle being a possible exception if you're using him to shoot into the backfield and mess up the play. This can lead to trap blocks that exploit a defender going too far upfield if you use this strategy too often though. Here's a visual that's easier to understand.
Now this is just the basic Tampa 2, there are many variations of it that could take forever to go into. Plus, since it's a new animal to the Cowboys I can't imagine that they'll have too complex of a Tampa 2 package this year, especially since it'll only be Week One when we first see them.
So how do we exploit the Dallas Defense? I think the simple answer is right up the middle. From their Defensive Tackles, to their MIKE, to their two Safeties, the Giants need to attack the middle of the field. If you gash the middle of their defense and they begin to load the box, it opens up the edges for later in the game.
In the run game, it's all draws, dives, and isos. Yes, David Wilson can hit the edge with explosion, but I think that either this is an Andre Brown type game, or if he's not healthy we harness lightening and keep Wilson between the Tackles. One big advantage we have here is that the Dallas defense is not strong at Defensive Tackle. If Baas, Snee, and Boothe can handle their assignments, the Iso could be our best friend. If he's healthy, sending Henry Hynoski to the second level to deal with Sean Lee is a match up that I like. Yes, Lee is a hell of a player, but I think Hynoski has the advantage. If Hynoski can spring that block, we have a back fast enough in Wilson to clear both the first and second levels in a heartbeat. Having David Wilson in the face of the Dallas Safeties is something I'm hoping to see often during this game.
As far as our passing game goes, lets exploit those seams that Lee has to cover. If we can get the running game to start off hot, it's natural that Lee will cheat up to take on second level blockers. If this happens, I'd be sending Brandon Myers and Adrien Robinson right up those seams. Skinny posts about 8-10 yards deep and just simple fly routes would force Lee to flip his hips and chase the route furiously if he wanted any chance of covering the receivers. Slot routes that go behind the MIKE would be an excellent option as well. If Lee starts to cheat backwards to cover those seams, we have two options. A)We go back to the run, or B) We go deeper and attack the Safeties. I'd like to see Eli throwing at the Dallas Safeties, there's a lot of potential for big plays there. What I would do is send Nicks and Ruben Randle down the sidelines, forcing the Safeties to spread out and protect their sidelines. With this, the deep middle opens up and we can easily exploit it with Victor Cruz running a fly or a deep post from the slot. If Cruz splits the Safeties just right, and Eli hits him in stride, it's a Touchdown.
A guy like Louis Murphy, who has been getting a lot of pre-season hype thus far, could also be used to exploit these seams. Both Murphy and JJ12 have the speed to make the Cowboys secondary pay if they even think about starting to cheat up towards the LOS. This is where I really think Gilbride needs to focus on increasing the number of formations we use on game day. With four or a five Wide Receiver sets, it increases your likelihood of finding the soft spots in the zone coverage. Another package to look into would be a Two Tight End set. Using Robinson and Myers to cross the middle of the field and create confusion would do a lot to exploit the Tampa 2 defense. Say we have Robinson run an in route right in front of Lee's nose, and on the other side have Myers run a post right into the no man's land area of the defense where the MIKE's and the Safeties responsibilities slightly overlap. Now while Lee SHOULD play this deep, and pick up Myers, if Eli pump fakes to Robinson when he's right in front of Lee, Lee might bite and give up a potential 12-15 yard play. Creating confusion with routes is very possible when going up against any type of zone coverage. Make the guy doubt his zone and become undisciplined for one second, and the whole defense becomes vulnerable .
When We're on Defense
Now this is where having the same defense as your opponent can end up hurting you. You can bet on the fact that Romo will be seeing a lot of Kiffin's Tampa 2 coverages as they try to work towards perfecting their new system. Even without all the extra looks in practice, Romo still has a lot of experience throwing against the Giants defense.
One of my biggest concerns going up against the Cowboys offense is bottling up Jason Witten. He's been a Giant killer for pretty much all of his career, and he's a true future Hall Of Famer. Our biggest hope for shutting his game down is relying on the health of Jacquian Williams. In years past Michael Boley was the guy we looked at for shutting down Tight Ends, but with Boley no longer on the roster it's up to our next ultra-athletic WILL to stop Witten from causing too much damage.
After taking care of Romo's security blanket, it's all about covering Dez Bryant. Lately there have been debates on BBV comparing Nicks and Bryant, and while as a Giants fan I'll always take Nicks, there's no question that Dez has some serious physical attributes that lend to making him a threat. This year the key is going to be Prince Amukamara. It's essential that he takes Dez out of the equation. If he can step up and own the #1 Cornerback role, we can almost effectively neuter the Cowboys offense.
This is a game that will force us to rely on our passing defense. That's why I'm a believer in implementing the Buffalo Nickle/3 Safety look early and often in this game. With Will Hill suspended, maybe Cooper Taylor gets a rare shot as a late round draft pick to pick up substantial playing time here. It happened with Kuhn, so don't say it's not possible. If we're able to play Stevie Brown and Antrel Rolle deep, we can put Cooper Taylor in the box and possibly use his size/speed combination to be a potential run stopper and take away those quick slants that Kevin Ogletree murdered us with in the first game of the 2012 season last year. I'm imagining that after we take the run game away, our base package consists of our front four, Williams and Herzlich as our Linebackers, with Taylor in the box and Brown and Rolle deep. With this defense we can still keep our eye on the run, but it can potentially be a great pass defense. Like I said, a lot of it comes down to Prince being able to lock up Dez, and Cooper Taylor possibly stepping up early.
Now what about our run defense you ask? Well this leads me to highlight a match-up that has me very excited. More than likely, Travis Frederick will be the starting Center for the Dallas Cowboys. On our side of the line, Linval Joseph is slated to be our starting 1tech Defensive Tackle. Now while Frederick may well turn out to be a strong player in this league, it's going to be very rough for him to take on a guy of Joseph's caliber in his very first NFL game. Linval is very quick for a man who weighs in around 330 pounds, and it would be wise to have Linval smash down on Frederick every play. This will take away running lanes from the Cowboys offense and very well could force their offense to become one dimensional. Throw in the fact that DeMarco Murray never seems to be 100% healthy, and it bodes well for our defense in this aspect of the game.
The overall theme here is make Romo throw. Take away the running game and force him to constantly throw at a defense who is ready for the pass. Also, the more we make the Cowboys offense one dimensional, the easier it is to rush the passer. Take away Murray and the running game, and it allows our Defensive Ends to pin their ears back and go after Romo. We didn't get to see a lot of this last year and a big reason for that was we didn't have healthy Defensive Tackles, meaning we gave up a lot of rushing yards and couldn't force teams to pass. That shouldn't be a problem this year, barring a really bad injury bug at the DT position again, which we're really hoping against.
I think that this is going to be an air-it-out type game for both offenses. When the Giants and Cowboys meet, it always seems to be a shoot em' up type game, it shouldn't be any different this year. At the end of the game the scoreboard will probably have some big numbers on there. So in this type of game, it ultimately comes down to two big factors.
1) Who has the best Quarterback
2) Who has the best Defensive Backfield
The answer to question one seems pretty obvious to me. If I'm putting money on a QB to win me the game, it goes Manning over Romo every time. Two Superbowl wins and MVP's, a boatload of 4th Quarter comebacks, and calmness under pressure all lead me to believe Eli is the better man here.
As for #2, it's not quite so clear cut. I love Prince, but as of now I believe Claiborne and Carr are the better Cornerback duo when lined up with Prince and Corey Webster. Still, it's going to be their first year in a zone heavy defense, and that plays away from their strengths. When talking about Safeties, I think the scales lean in the Giants direction as there is no proven commodity at Safety on the Cowboys roster while guys like Rolle and Brown have both shown value, although nobody would confuse them with world beaters. So, at the end of the day, the Giants eek out an advantage in this category as well since it's a familiar system and our Safeties don't suck as much.
With that being said, my prediction for Game One of the 2013 NFL season is
Any thoughts guys?