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Giants at Cowboys, Week 1: When Dallas has the ball

What does the New York Giants’ defense need to do when the Cowboys have the football?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday Ed gave us an overview of what the New York Giants need to do Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys when the Giants have the football.

Today, we’re going to flip the script and take a look at what the Giants’ defense has to do when the Dallas offense is on the field.

Trench Warfare

I normally resist comparing football to the battlefield.

To me, comparing a game -- a violent game, but a game nonetheless — to war is both cliched and an injustice. In this case, however, I’m prepared to make an exception. While the (on paper, at this point) matchup between the Cowboys’ front seven looks and the Giants’ offensive line like a meeting between a resistible force and a movable object.

The opposing matchup, between the Dallas offensive line and Giants front seven, is the classic thought puzzle: The irresistible force meets the immovable object.

We know how good the Dallas offensive line is, particularly when it comes to run blocking. They are -- for the most part — young, athletic, talented, powerful, and have great chemistry.

The Giants’ defensive front, however, is vastly improved over the unit that took the field a year ago. The combination of Jason Pierre-Paul, Damon Harrison, Johnathan Hankins, Olivier Vernon, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa has been nothing short of dominant. Throughout the preseason, unless there was a mistake, such as Janoris Jenkins taking a poor angle on a corner blitz, starting offenses couldn’t run the ball or convert a first down, and opposing passers were in constant duress.

There will be a pair of critical matchups here:

Starting on the inside will be the mountainous defensive tackle pairing of Hankins and Snacks Harrison against the interior of the Cowboys’ offensive line.

Obviously the Giants will want to stop the Cowboys’ rushing attack. Not only is that the centerpiece of their offense, but without a reliable running game, the pressure will be on rookie Dak Prescott to move the offense. That begins with the Giants’ interior not allowing the Cowboys to enforce their will at the line of scrimmage at the point of attack.

The next matchup to watch will be between JPP and Doug Free. Free is an underrated tackle, but he is also the weak link to the Dallas offensive line. This will be JPP’s first regular-season game with his modified glove, and a full offseason, training camp, and preseason in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. Vernon might be getting paid handsomely to have a breakout season on the other side of the line, but being asked to be consistently disruptive against Tyron Smith is a tall order. Even getting chipped by a tight end, JPP should have an easier time against Free. He was consistently disruptive last season when returning from the Fourth of July accident, but the protective club over his maimed hand limited his ability to finish plays. JPP will need to prove that he can once again be the complete defensive end who terrorized offensive tackles since the second half of 2010. If he can do that, he can help to take away runs to the right and limit Prescott’s opportunities to roll our of the pocket to that side, where he appears more comfortable throwing.

Disciplined Aggression

The Cowboys might employ a smashmouth offensive mindset, but discipline is necessary when playing the Cowboys. Movement, deception, and play-action all figure into the Dallas offense and can victimize an undisciplined defense.

Much of the Cowboy passing game is based off play-action, with roll-outs and bootlegs getting Prescott away from any pressure that might leak through the line. In the secondary, the Cowboys’ receivers benefited from free releases and soft coverage. The Giants will need, and want, to be aggressive and attack Dallas’ offense, upset route timing, and knock Prescott off his spot.

They can’t, however, do so recklessly.

The Dallas offense is talented. Players like Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Ezekiel Elliott all have the ability to make a defense pay if there is a breakdown in protection. The Giants’ defense also needs to adjust for Prescott’s athleticism.

As a Mississippi State Bulldog, Prescott began his career as more of a running back who could throw than a passer who could run. That toughness and athletic ability doesn’t just open up the quarterback scramble as a way in which the QB can hurt a defense, but the Giants need to recognize the potential of the read-option. Combined with Dallas’ already potent run game, the read-option is particularly scary. It takes the numbers advantage ordinarily enjoyed by a defense that doesn’t have to account for the quarterback as an offensive weapon, and throws it out the window. The best way to combat the read option is with a disciplined defense. There can be a number of ways in which the defense takes back the numbers advantage, employing defensive linemen, linebackers, safeties, or cornerbacks, but the main requirement is discipline.

One More Thing ...

Steve Spagnuolo is going to blitz. It’s in his DNA as a coach. Even in preseason he was sending linebacker, corner, and even safety blitzes from the deep center field.

But the Giants are going to want to to get pressure with their front four first.

Jason Witten has long victimized the Giants’ linebacking corps (and pretty much every other teams’ linebackers as well), Beasley is dangerous with room to work from the slot and Elliott is a capable receiver as well. The Giants will hope to establish a four-man pass rush, harassing Prescott with just their defensive front while keeping seven defenders in coverage to stay ahead of the chains. If they can do that, then the door opens for Spags to field his four-aces package and unleash his blitz schemes in favorable — second or third and long — situations.

If the Giants’ defense can’t slow the Dallas running game, can’t play disciplined football, or can’t generate pressure, then they are in for a long afternoon and relying on Eli Manning to carry the team to victory.