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When the Cowboys have the ball: A game of cat and mouse

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Can the Giants defense slow Zeke, handle Dak and give the Giants a chance to win?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Any matchup against the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys is going to feel like a big one, especially when it gets the primetime Sunday Night Football treatment. It might seem like hyperbole to say the course of the rest of the season for these two teams hinges on this game, but it might not be so out there with both teams sitting at 0-1. Consider there’s an average difference of 2.5-wins and 31 percent playoff probability between teams that start the season 1-1 and those that start 0-2. That adds more stakes to this divisional matchup.

When these teams were contenders in 2016, the Giants had one of the league’s best defenses and the Cowboys rolled out one of the league’s best offenses. Those units dropped off in 2017, but they’ll both look to get closer to 2016 as the 2018 season rolls on. Here’s what to watch on that side of the ball come Sunday night:

Landon Collins’s alignment

One of the things to watch in the new James Bettcher defense was how Landon Collins was going to be used. He might not exactly serve the moneybacker role the Cardinals set up for Deone Bucannon, but Collins was often hovering around the line of scrimmage in the season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. On half (16-of-32) of Collins’s first half snaps, he was within five yards of the line of scrimmage, but never between the hashes. He was typically between the hashes and the numbers, split between each side. On only three plays in the first half did Collins line up at least 10 yards from the line of scrimmage.

Collins wasn’t much of a factor, though, and most of his box score stats came in the second half. He was sent on a blitz three times per Pro Football Focus, but did not create a pressure.

It’s likely the Giants remain in a single-high safety look against the Cowboys. In Week 1, Dak Prescott had and below average depth of target (aDOT) of 7.3 and his longest pass of the day traveled just 23.7 yards in the air from where he released it, the fourth-shortest long pass of the week, per Next Gen Stats. Prescott only tried three passes more than 15 yards down the field against the Panthers.

Dallas doesn’t really have a deep threat that would warrant keeping another safety back in coverage, which should allow the defense to continue trusting the cornerbacks in man coverage.

Blocking the box

Because of the lack of talent at wide receiver and because the presence of Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys are going to want to run the ball. The Giants are going to want to stop the run. Earlier this week Landon Collins said, “we really just have to focus on stopping Zeke… we do that, put the ball in Dak’s hands, I think we have a better shot at winning.”

It would be a similar game plan to what the Giants ran against the Jaguars. Per Next Gen Stats, the Giants had eight or more men in the box on 57.1 percent of T.J. Yeldon’s rushing attempts, the third-highest rate for a running back with at least 10 carries in Week 1. But we know box usage is heavily influenced by offensive personnel and the Jaguars spent much of the game in heavy formations running with the lead.

Dallas didn’t have that luxury against the Panthers. The Cowboys played catch up and Elliott saw an 8-man box on just 13.3 percent of his carries, the sixth-lowest rate for a back with at least 10 rushing attempts. Dallas wants to come out heavy and run the ball, but without the lead they don’t always have that opportunity.

Prepare for play-action

What could make Dallas dangerous is knowing that defenses know they want to run, come out in those heavy run formations, and run play-action. It’s something the Cowboys didn’t do nearly enough of as a run-heavy team last season — just 22 percent of pass attempts last year included play-action, 19th in the league per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders. They used it on 24 percent in 2016, at that time the third-highest rate in the league (smart teams are realizing more play-action is good for the offense).

With a defense overly committed to stopping the run, play-action is a great way to create passing lanes, open receivers, and easy throws. It’s also something the Giants have been susceptible to in the past. No team had play-action used more on them last season than the Giants and one of the downsides to Bettcher’s aggressive looks at the line is that it can leave space for big gains off play-action if the defense doesn’t react right away. Last season the Cardinals allowed 9.0 yards per play on play-action, the fourth-highest number in the league, but they allowed 5.4 yards per play on non-play-action passes, the third-lowest rate in the league.

The Jaguars used this aggression against the Giants in Week 1 with play-action and misdirection setting up Giants defenders to be out of position. If the Cowboys are smart, they’ll go to that well often, but there’s already been talk about Scott Linehan’s future as offensive coordinator in Dallas, which shows you “smart” isn’t exactly something that would describe that offense at the moment.

Causing confusion

For years, the strength of the Dallas offense has been the offensive line. But that isn’t really the case right now. Travis Frederick is sidelined indefinitely with a serious illness and Zack Martin dealt with a knee injury throughout training camp. With a reworked and not 100 percent line in place, the Cowboys had some communication issues up front against the Panthers.

The Giants could easily exploit this by loading the line of scrimmage and disguising which defenders have what responsibilities — a hallmark of the Bettcher offense. Stunts along the defensive line could also test the communication skills across the offensive line. This is something the Giants could easily do to manufacture a pass rush, especially if Olivier Vernon is not available to play again. If the Giants can create some pressure just backfield penetration by confusing the offensive line, everyone else on the defense will have an easier job.

The ghost of Jason Witten

With Jason Witten retired and in the Monday Night Football booth, he’s no longer a concern for New York Giants linebackers. For his entire career, Witten was a monster against the Giants, even as he slowed down significantly in the latter years. Without Witten, the Cowboys aren’t exactly deep at tight end. Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin combined for three catches for 18 yards on five targets against the Panthers.

More good news for the Giants, they didn’t give up a touchdown to a tight end in Week 1 — well, not officially. Austin Seferian-Jenkins did score a touchdown against Alec Ogletree, but the play was called back because of an illegal hands to the face penalty against Andrew Norwell. Officially the Giants only allowed 25 yards to Jaguars tight ends and finished ninth in VOA (DVOA without the opponent adjustments) against tight ends in Week 1, per Football Outsiders.