Welcome to December Football. Every game in the NFL matters, from the first game of the season. But the games played in December really matter. To paraphrase New York Giants ‘ head coach Ben McAdoo, for the most of what has been done now is simply setting the table. December is when the playoff teams are separated from the almost-rans and the teams that will go into the off-season with some serious decisions to make.
The NFL schedule makers have upped the ante in recent years, back-loading schedules with divisional games to keep teams from simply coasting into the playoffs. As a result, the last quarter of the season sees the Giants’ playing games against the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins.
Of course, since nothing ever happens easily for the Giants, they will be without one of their best players as the difficulty and stakes ramp up. As everyone probably knows by know, starting defensive end and stalwart Jason Pierre-Paul is out for (at least) six weeks after surgery to repair the injury suffered against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Giants already faced a stiff defensive test against the Cowboys, but can they possibly overcome the loss of JPP?
Stats At A Glance
Rushing Yards - 155.8 (2nd)
Passing Yards - 239.8 (19th)
Total Yards - 395.7 (4th)
Points - 27.8 (7th)
Rushing Yards - 91.4 (5th)
Passing Yards - 265.3 (25th)
Total Yards - 356.8 (17th)
Points - 19.8 (8th)
Contain The Secondary Receivers
For the Cowboys, the passing game is secondary to the running game. The strength of the offensive line run blocking, with Ezekiel Elliott toting the rock and the threat of Dak Prescott’s legs forces defenses to try and stop the running game first, second, and third.
That opens up the passing game, particularly to Cole Beasley and Jason Witten who have 60 receptions for 670 yards and 5 touchdowns, and 52 receptions for 553 yards and 2 touchdowns, respectively. Dez Bryant only has 37 receptions on the season, and is on pace for 53 this year — his lowest total playing more than 10 games since his rookie year. The Cowboys’ ball-control offense clearly flows through Elliott first, Cole and Witten second, then Bryant when the opportunities are there.
Despite being approximately 247 in football years, slowing down Witten is a feat the Giants have only accomplished rarely, and then only when they’ve had Michael Boley and Jacquian Williams healthy to go along with a ferocious pass rush.
Even with improved coverage from Landon Collins, Keenan Robinson, and Jonathan Casillas, the Giants have seemingly struggled to contain tight ends. Adding to the difficulties, the Giants will need to decide between a nickel package to deal with Cole Beasley and a heavier base package to deal with the Dallas running game.
Ultimately, they will likely decide to stay in the base package more often than they have in the past. That will also likely mean more Kelvin Sheppard, to whom Steve Spagnuolo tends to turn in running and short-yardage situations.
The Cowboys, who have gotten extra rest and time to prepare, will almost certainly be aware of how the Giants were gashed by the Steelers’ screen passes. It would be more surprising if they didn’t try the same things than if they did. The Giants will need to play with discipline at all levels Sunday night.
Dak Prescott was efficient against the Minnesota Vikings, completing 67 percent of his passes. That however, sounds much better than his night actually went. He only attempted 18 passes, completing 12 for 139 yards and a touchdown. He was also sacked three times and fumbled twice. The Cowboys won’t be relying exclusively on their running game, and the Giants will need to make them pay when Prescott drops back to pass it.
There will be long downs and distances, and moments in the game where the Cowboys take a shot deep to either test the Giants’ coverage or possibly try to loosen the run defense.
The Vikings first sack came at the end of the first half with fifteen seconds left on the clock. The Cowboys were desperately trying to heave the ball down the field when Danielle Hunter bulled Doug Free back into Prescott on a four-man rush, shedding him for the three-yard sack.
Their second sack came at the end of the third quarter. Mike Zimmer used a fake blitz look to keep Elliott in to pass protect, then cover him in the flat. It was Free who was beaten again, this time on a speed move around the outside by Brian Robinson, who also forced the fumble on that play. That play the Vikings played a mixture of zone and man coverage under a Cover-2 shell. The coverage kept the ball in Prescott’s hand for the extra half second needed for Robinson to get the sack.
The Vikings’ final sack came midway through the fourth quarter. Once again it was the the coverage that did the trick. The Vikings again played a Cover-2 shell with two deep safeties. They appeared to play man coverage underneath the safeties while blitzing a linebacker and using a tackle/end stunt to create confusion on the offensive line. The Cowboys initially picked it up well, but the coverage ultimately forced Prescott to scramble and keep the play alive, giving Danielle Hunter — once again working on Doug Free — the time to get loose and get the sack.
What does all this mean? Well, even with as good an offensive line and running game as Dallas has, it is still possible to get to their quarterback. They will need to play a complete game, with solid coverage on the back end to give the pass rush the time to get to Prescott. They’ll also need their front seven to put the Cowboys in positions where they have the opportunity to rush. They just can’t be overagressive in their rush and neglect their containment. Prescott’s legs are dangerous and missed tackles could turn into big plays. And once again the Giants need to be aware of the screen game, as Dallas could turn to it to slow down the rush.
The Battle In The Trenches
Ultimately, this game will come down to the fifth ranked run defense against the second ranked rushing attack.
I have confession/teaser here: This will actually be the subject of this week’s “Spotlight,” so don’t expect too much in this section.
However it will be, by far, the most important battle on the field Sunday night. Not only will the Giants need to slow down the Dallas run game, but they’ll need to find a way to do it without one of the best run defenders in the NFL in JPP.
They do have some options to turn to.
Romeo Okwara is a big, long undrafted free agent who has quietly been impressive in his rookie season. While not as impressive as fellow UDFA Andrew Adams or past gems like Will Tye, Henry Hynoski, or Victor Cruz, he has earned his defensive snaps.
Fellow UDFA (2014) Kerry Wynn has proven to be an adequate run defender in relief or short yardage situations. He doesn’t offer much in terms of the pass rush, but his strength, leverage, and effort let him take on blocks well.
Finally Owamagbe Odighizuwa is a second year unknown. Even with Jason Pierre-Paul healthy, Owa might be the most physically talented player in the Giants’ front. However, he missed most of his rookie season to injury and is coming off a knee injury that kept him out of the game last Sunday. Odighizuwa hasn’t played as much as expected this season, the Giants seeming to prefer him in a pass rushing role, but kept on the bench by the offense’s inability to put up points. In fact, none of the depth players have played much this year, as Steve Spagnuolo has been forced to rely on his starters to play a huge number of snaps as the defense carried the offense.
The Giants have a third, more unorthodox and perhaps unpredictable option for doing without Jason Pierre-Paul. At times they could use a 3-4 front instead of their base 4-3 front. Moving Olivier Vernon to rush linebacker, a front with Johnathan Hankins and Jay Bromley at defensive end while Damon Harrison plays the familiar nose tackle position could pose a problem for the Cowboys. The Giants do use fronts with three down linemen on occasion, but it still shouldn’t be their new base defense.
It wouldn’t be ideal, and it’s generally not a good idea for a team to stray too far from its DNA. However, it would have the advantage of being both unpredictable and have little tape available. With the Giant suddenly having to overcome a significant handicap, they might need to think outside the box.