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Cowboys at Giants, Week 14: When the Cowboys have the ball

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Can Giants summon strong defensive effort?

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

A New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game this late in the season can typically be one of the highlights on the NFL schedule. That is not the case. This game is so highly anticipated it got bumped from the late afternoon slot to a 1pm game time. Dallas is still technically fighting for a playoff spot -- they have a 7.1 percent chance per Football Outsiders. That Giants have roughly that same probability -- 7.8 percent -- at getting the first overall pick in the draft. Last season the offense for the Cowboys and defense for the Giants were the calling cards for those playoff teams. Both of those units have performed below expectations heading into this Week 14 matchup.

By the numbers

Giants’ defense

Rushing: 130.7 yards per game (32nd), 4.3 yards per carry (19th)

Passing: 260.2 yards per game (30th), 7.7 yards per attempt (27th)

Total Yards: 390.8 yards per game (32nd), 32.81 yards per drive (24th)

Points: 24.3 points per game (24th), 2.04 points per drive (22nd)

Cowboys’ offense

Rushing: 138.8 yards per game (third), 4.7 yards per carry (third)

Passing: 189.9 yards per game (29th), 6.5 yards per attempt (24th)

Total Yards: 328.7 yards per game (18th), 31.70 yards per drive (10th)

Points: 23.8 points per game (10th), 2.21 points per drive (seventh)

No Zeke, no problem: Alfred Morris can go

A lot of the focus on the Cowboys offense is on what it is and isn’t with Ezekiel Elliott on the field. Elliott, of course, is in the middle of his six game suspension and during the first three games without their lead back, the Cowboys scored a total of 22 points. The running game, though, wasn’t the issue. In Elliott’s place, Alfred Morris has stepped in as the top running back and on 78 attempts, he’s averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Elliott was at 4.1 yards per carry on 198 attempts.

Yards per carry isn’t the best statistic because it can be extremely volatile, especially in small samples, but it does help show the rushing offense hasn’t taken much of a step back with Morris at the helm. By Football Outsiders’ DYAR -- their counting stat -- Morris is third among backs with between 20 and 99 rushes. Among all backs, he’d already be 13th despite the limited numbers of carries. By DVOA, which measures efficiency, Morris has doubled Elliott’s production (25.6 percent to 12.4 percent). It should be noted Elliott ranks sixth in DVOA among backs with 100 or more carries and Morris would unlikely sustain his pace over a bigger sample of games, but they don’t need him to keep this pace over a 16-game season. Elliott will return in Week 16.

The switch from Elliott to Morris hasn’t impacted much of Dallas’s game planning on the ground. The Cowboys still love to run, especially on first down. With Elliott active, the Cowboys ran on 1st-and-10 60 percent of the time, which was the fourth-highest rate in the league, per Sharp Football Stats. In the games without Elliott, the Cowboys have run 59 percent of the time on first-and-10, the third-highest rate in the league over that span. Don’t let people fool you, Elliott is a great player, but this run game is set up to succeed with someone less great as the feature.

Disrupting Dak

What really derailed the Dallas offense was teams making Dak Prescott uncomfortable. In the first two games without Elliott, the Cowboys were also without left tackle Tyron Smith. Without Smith -- against the Falcons and Eagles -- Prescott was sacked 12 times on 73 drop backs, a 16.4 percent sack rate. Smith has been back the past two weeks and Prescott has seen much better protection -- three sacks on 52 drop backs (5.2 percent) but he has still looked uncomfortable in the pocket.

Here’s a third-and-2 against Washington last week in the third quarter with the Cowboys already up 17-7. Ryan Kerrigan (91) pushed back right tackle La’el Collins (71) and instead of stepping up or creating more space like Prescott has been known to do, the quarterback made an off-balance throw that sailed over the head of slot receiver Cole Beasley.

At Prescott’s best, he was able to escape that pressure and create a new passing lane without having to force the ball out. From Weeks 1-9, Prescott had a 16-4 touchdown to interception rate with 7.02 yards per attempt and 7.56 adjusted yards per attempt, which accounts for touchdowns and interceptions. But since, Prescott has thrown two touchdowns against five interceptions and averaged 5.47 yards per attempt and 3.79 adjusted yards per attempt. Even in the 38-14 blowout of Washington last week, Prescott only threw for 102 yards and 4.6 yards per attempt.

A surprising lack of play-action

With an offense so run heavy, it would make sense for the passing offense to use that to its advantage with a healthy use of play-action. That’s a lot of what helped fuel the Cowboys passing offense last season. Per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders, Dallas ran the third highest rate of play-action (24 percent) and the 8.8 yards per attempt on play-action passes was the eighth-highest mark in the league.

But this year, the Cowboys have dramatically cut off the use of the play fake. Dallas has used it on just 19 percent of pass plays through Week 13, which is the 18th-highest rate in the league. Along with the lack of volume, they’ve been much less successful with only 6.5 yards per attempt, which ranks 24th.

The Giants defense has seen play-action run against them on 24 percent of pass plays, the third-highest rate in the league. However, they’ve allowed 7.3 yards per attempt on those plays, which is the 11th-best for a defense this season.

Red zone dangers

One place where the Dallas offense is still dangerous no matter who is playing is inside the red zone. The Cowboys rank third in touchdowns per field goal, eighth in points per red zone trip, and fourth in touchdowns per red zone trip. What makes Dallas so dangerous in that area of the field is how many options they can use to score. There’s of course the run -- Dallas’s 47 percent run rate inside the 20 is the third-highest in the league. They also have the typical red zone weapons like Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, who are almost exclusively red zone threats at this point in their careers. And there’s also the possibility of Prescott running on his own.

Then there’s the ability for Dallas to combine all of those with a run-pass option (RPO). That’s how the Cowboys scored on a pass to Witten in the Week 1 meeting. With the ball on the 12, the right side of the Dallas offensive line run block as Ezekiel Elliott ran to that side. The left guard and left tackle pass blocked as Witten went into a route off the line. Prescott watched the coverage on Witten and when it was apparent it was single coverage by Eli Apple on the tight end, Prescott pulled the ball away from Elliott and fired to Witten on the slant for an easy touchdown.

Eli Apple’s role

Speaking of Apple, his role will be one to watch on Sunday if he even plays. The former first-round pick clearly fell out of favor with Ben McAdoo, so it will be interesting to see if that continues under interim head coach and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Apple hasn’t played for varying reasons since Week 10 against the San Francisco 49ers. He was expected back last week, but was a late addition to the injury report and did not play because of a hip injury. He has yet to practice this week with what has been called hip and back injuries.

Apple, in his second season, was not having a great year before he missed time. Among 71 qualified cornerbacks, Apple ranks 68th in Success Rate per Sports Info Solutions charting. In his rookie year, he was 79th of 84. It has not been an easy year on or off the field for Apple and how he’s viewed by the next regime could be a big part of the Giants’ future.