Will it be the efficient, mistake-free unit that scored 35 points per game during a three-game winning streak that gave the Giants hope this season would be better than last? Will it be the discombobulated, dysfunctional unit that showed up Sunday night during a 27-0 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles that brought the Giants crashing back down to reality?
That depends largely, if not nearly entirely, on which offensive line shows up against the Cowboys. Will it be the solid group that surrendered only three sacks during the winning streak and allowed quarterback Eli Manning the time to post passer ratings above 100 in each of those victories? Will it be the over-matched, out of sorts group that gave up a ridiculous eight sacks against Philadelphia and committed a half-dozen penalties?
How the Giants will replace injured star wide receiver Victor Cruz has drawn much of the focus this week, and finding the right ways to use their remaining pieces at that position is important. That doesn't matter nearly as much, however, as does getting better play from the offensive line than they got against the Eagles. If the Giants don't block, who runs the ball or which guys Manning has to throw to makes no difference.
Manning tried to spread the blame for Sunday's offensive debacle saying that "everybody took a little bit of a step back" on offense.
"It is not just the offensive line. They had some sacks, but some of those were on me for holding the ball. Some of those are on receivers [who] have to get open and do their jobs. Some were on the running backs picking up their protection, so it is a combination of the whole offense having to do a better job," Manning said. "I have to get the ball out quicker some and the offensive line has to play better as well."
About The Cowboys
The Cowboys were abominable on defense in 2013, last in the league in yards per game allowed at 415.3 and 26th in points allowed at 27.0 per game. When middle linebacker Sean Lee was lost during OTAs to a season-ending knee injury and second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence broke his foot during training camp, most figured more of the same was coming from the Cowboys. The defense would be awful and if Dallas was going to win games the offense would have to score a ton of points.
A funny thing has happened, however. Or, maybe not so funny for the Giants and the rest of the teams competing with the Cowboys. With Rod Marinelli taking the reigns as defensive coordinator from Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys have been outstanding defensively in the season's first six games.
- Dallas is giving up only 21 points per game, eighth in the league.
- They are surrendering 342.5 yards per game, nearly 60 fewer than a year ago.
- Pro Football Focus gives the Dallas defense a grade of +14.3 overall so far, 12th in the league.
- Football Outsiders, using its DVOA formula, ranks Dallas 16th. That isn't top five, but it's not bottom of the league, either.
- The biggest chink in the armor of the Dallas defense, statistically, is that the Cowboys are surrendering 5.1 yards per rushing attempt, 31st in the league.
Here is one more number, from our friends over at Blogging The Boys:
After the Saints game, the Cowboys were ranked 11th with 19.5 first downs allowed per game, after the Texans game they moved up to 5th with 18.6 first downs allowed per game, today they rank 2nd in the NFL 17.0 first downs allowed per game.
After six games, it's probably fair to say that this is more than a fluke.
"They're playing good football. Their defense is playing fast, they run to the ball, they're making plays. Not many teams are scoring a lot of points on them," Manning said. "Their offense does a great job of holding on to the ball, winning the time of possession, so you're not getting, the opposing offenses aren't getting many possessions. They're finding ways to win games, so you've got to give them a lot of credit. They've got a good team and their players are playing well."
After playing horridly a week ago, the Giants offensive line will have to deal with a Dallas team that appears rotate players effectively. Dallas has only seven quarterback sacks on the season, led by 1.5 from defensive tackle Henry Melton. Melton (+8.5) and defensive ends Tyrone Crawford (+7.4) and Jerome Mincey (+4.9), however, all have excellent pass rush grades from Pro Football Focus. After surrendering four sacks a week ago, Giants right tackle Justin Pugh will likely be matched with Crawford or George Selvie most of the time.
Linebacker Rolando McClain, picked up off the NFL scrap heap when Lee went down, has been a revelation for Dallas. The troubled former Raider and Raven is the team's highest-graded defender at +9.0, including +5.9 in pass coverage.
The Giants would seem likely to try and establish the running game with Andre Williams, which would help keep them in rhythm and keep league-leading rusher DeMarco Murray, Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and the rest of the Dallas offense on the sideline. Williams, replacing the injured Rashad Jennings, has 228 yards on 70 carries thus far, 3.3 yards per carry. As a team, the Giants are averaging 3.7 yards per carry. Doing better than that against a Cowboys defense that appears to have had some difficulty against the run could be critical on Sunday.
What about when the Giants throw the ball? First and foremost, the Giants have to keep Manning upright. They failed miserably in that department last week, but Dallas does not appear on paper to have the pass rush Philadelphia presented the Giants with. Philadelphia is second in the league with 19 sacks, while Dallas has only seven. You can bet, however, that the Cowboys went to school not only on Pugh's struggles, but on the Giants inability against the Eagles to handle blitz pressure straight up the middle.
If and when the line does give Manning ample opportunity to throw the ball, it will be interesting to see how the Giants utilize their remaining receivers.
"We have people that are going to get their chances, their opportunities," Coughlin said. "We still have an outstanding receiving group on the field and we'll have to do a really good job of picking our spots, putting people in the right spots, doing things that they can contribute the best."
Preston Parker (11 receptions) replaces Cruz as the slot receiver, with Rueben Randle and rookie Odell Beckham Jr. on the outside. Expect the Giants to mix and match, occasionally moving Beckham or even Randle into the slot to find match-ups they like. Perhaps 6-foot-4, 215-pound rookie Corey Washington will see increased opportunities. The Giants signed veteran Kevin Ogletree on Tuesday, but it is hard to imagine Ogletree making a significant contribution Sunday.
Perhaps, as was suggested by 'Invictus' earlier in the week, the Giants will employ fewer three-wide receiver sets and more two-tight end formations.
One thing is certain. The Giants have to find ways to get the ball to tight end Larry Donnell. After catching 25 passes, four for touchdowns in the first four games, Donnell has only one reception in the past two games.
The Cowboys are without cornerback Morris Claiborne. Like Cruz, Claiborne is out for the season with a torn patellar tendon.