Each week this season we’ll bring previews of what to expect on each side of the ball. Chris already looked at what will happen when the Giants have the ball, so below we’ll take a look at the Giants defense and the Dallas offense. The defense won this battle in Week 1 last season and they’ll look for a similar result Sunday night.
By The Numbers
Giants Defense (2016)
Rushing: 88.6 yards per game (fourth), 3.6 yards per carry (third)
Passing: 251.1 yards per game (23rd), 6.8 yards per attempt (sixth)
Total: 339.7 yards per game (10th), 27.85 yards per drive (fifth)
Points: 17.8 points per game (second), 1.43 points per drive (second)
Cowboys Offense (2016)
Rushing: 149.8 yards per game (second), 4.8 yards per carry (third)
Passing: 226.9 yards per game (23rd), 7.9 yards per attempt (fourth)
Total: 376.7 yards per game (fifth), 35.63 yards per drive (sixth)
Points: 26.3 points per game (fifth), 2.54 points per drive (fourth)
“All Backs Run The Same When There’s Nowhere To Run”
The big news, of course, is that Ezekiel Elliott will play during this game. There was a range of reactions from players and coaches on the Giants upon hearing that news, but perhaps the best quote was earlier in the week when head coach Ben McAdoo said in a press conference, “all backs run the same when there’s nowhere to run.” It was both a welcoming show of personality and a hint of confidence for how the defense could slow down last season’s rushing leader.
In two games against the Giants last season Elliott rushed 44 times for 158 yards, 3.6 yards per carry. That was well below his overall season average (5.8 yards per carry) and splits against non-Giants teams (5.8 yards per carry). Those numbers are a little misleading, though. Yards per carry is a high variance statistic and Elliott’s two-game sample against the Giants is weighed down by his 20 carries for 51 yards performance in Week 1 of 2016.
Still, in those two games the Giants did not let Elliott run wild. Overall, they didn’t really let any running back run wild last season. The run defense was second in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) last year per Football Outsiders and they did that by stopping the big plays. The Giants had the fifth-lowest rate of allowing runs of 12 or more yards on opposing rushing attempts. Elliott led the league with 37 such plays in 2016, but only one came against the Giants -- a run of 15 yards.
Against a back like Elliott and a run offense like Dallas, the little cuts are fine. If the Giants can continue to thwart the kill shot like they did last season, the defense will have the advantage.
“He Doesn’t Have Nothing Else”
When the Cowboys go to the air, the biggest matchup will be Janoris Jenkins against Dez Bryant. In the Week 1 matchup last season, the Giants were still figuring out their coverages and the responsibility of covering Bryant was split between cornerbacks. But in the Week 14 matchup, Jenkins was tasked with taking on the Cowboys’ top option more often, to great success.
Dez Bryant vs. Janoris Jenkins: 7 targets, 2 turnovers, 5 incomplete passes.— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) December 12, 2016
Jenkins, of course, was successful against just about every wide receiver he faced in 2016. Among 82 cornerbacks targeted 40 or more times last season, Jenkins ranked 10th in yards allowed per pass and third in success rate, per Football Outsiders. Bengals receiver A.J. Green went as far as saying Jenkins was one of the five toughest corners he’s ever faced in a recent article in The Players’ Tribune.
In the article, Green highlights Jenkins’s interception against Bryant from last season when he read Bryant’s slant, played physical, and jumped the route. Jenkins went into further detail during a radio interview in Dallas during the offseason with quite a few quotable remarks about his battles with Bryant:
“I played better than he played. For real, though, to be honest, when you look at film and you break down your opponents and the receivers that you're facing, you notice what they like to do. Take away the slant and the dig, and when they get in 21 personnel and Dez is inside the numbers, you take away the corner post. He doesn't have nothing else.”
“Everything's got to be a double move to get him open because he's not fast.”
“I've got to play Dez two times a year for the next five years so out of those five years, I'm not always going to have a lock-down game against Dez. I understand that. When he does get the best of me, he got the best of me. I can't be mad. But I'm going to see him again.”
Last season the Giants kept their cornerbacks on sides 60 percent of the time, per Football Outsiders, which was the fourth-lowest rate in the league. When there’s a No. 1 receiver to follow, the Giants will allow Jenkins to do it. Bryant falls into that category and how that battle goes could dictate the success of the Cowboys’ passing game.
Jason Witten, Giant Killer
Even if Jenkins can shut down Bryant, there’s still that Jason Witten fella who can catch passes. If Witten always appears to kill the Giants in some way, it’s kind of because he does. Witten sticks out because he happens to be the tight end the Giants have seen the most -- that happens when he’s a division rival and still playing in his 15th season at 35 years old.
The reality is the Giants are overall terrible at defending opposing tight ends in the passing game. They were 26th in DVOA against opposing tight ends last season, which means somehow six teams were worse.
Last year, the Giants were somewhat successful in stopping Witten. While he was targeted 21 times in the two games -- 14 in Week 1 -- he had just 13 receptions for 86 yards. That’s typically a game for Witten against the Giants, so for that to be spread out over two feels like a win. Witten is getting older, but he still remains a threat over the middle of the field.
One reason why the Giants have long struggled with tight ends is the quality of linebacker play. It’s been some time since the team really invested in the position. While that most notably plays out in coverage against tight ends, it also leaves the Giants susceptible to the play-action pass.
This is one place where the Giants defense was exploited in 2016. Per Football Outsiders, the Giants saw play-action on 21 percent of opposing passes, which tied for the third highest rate in the league -- albeit an eight-way tie. More important than the volume was the result. The Giants allowed 9.3 yards per play on play action, which was the fourth-worst rate in the league. On non-play-action passes, the Giants allowed just 5.2 yards per play, which was the second-best in the league. That 3.6-yard difference was the biggest gap for a defense between play-action and non-play-action passes.
On offense, the Cowboys ran play-action on 24 percent of their passes for the third-highest rate in the league. They were also pretty successful, 8.8 yards per play, which ranked eighth.
The most important part of a play-action pass for an offense is how well the run is sold. It doesn’t really matter how well or how often the run occurs as long as it’s sold on that given play. Defenders -- especially the linebackers -- react to the keys from the offense. If the play looks like a run, they’ll play run. Dallas is one of the best teams in the league at making play-action look like a run.
In the play below, the Cowboys come out in 12 personnel -- one running back, two tight ends -- on a 1st-and-10. Everything about that hints at a run.
Before the snap Witten is motioned from the left to right of the formation, which pulls both linebackers further to their left. The Giants, expecting run, send a safety to the line of scrimmage and shift to a single-high look with Landon Collins deep.
At the snap, all five offensive linemen blocked to their right as Dak Prescott faked to Darren McFadden and bootlegged to his left. Both Devon Kennard and Kelvin Sheppard bit on the run, which gave tight end Geoff Swaim enough space to get open deep in the zone before Collins could come over.
It’s likely the Cowboys continue to use play-action to their advantage and how the Giants react to it will be key.