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Giants vs. Cowboys: 8 things to watch Sunday night

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Let’s take another look at what you might see in this huge rivalry game

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Carolina Panthers
Dak Prescott against the Panthers last Sunday/
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

We have already detailed the difficulty of making the playoffs after on 0-2 start. We have looked at what might happen Sunday when the New York Giants have the ball, and conversely when the Dallas Cowboys have it.

We have heard from Giants coach Pat Shurmur and safety Landon Collins on what the Giants need to do to increase their chance of winning. We have heard from Dave Halprin of Blogging The Boys.

Let’s wrap it all up nice and neat with a look at things to watch Sunday night when the Giants (0-1) travel to Texas to face the Cowboys (0-1) on Sunday Night Football.

“Challenge accepted”

Landon Collins talked about it. Pat Shurmur talked about it. It’s hardly a state secret. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is Dallas’s best offensive player. Quarterback Dak Prescott has thrown for less than 200 yards in 8 of last 11 games and longer has Dez Bryant or the security blanket of tight end Jason Witten as potential targets.

The deal with Dallas is that you have to stop Elliott first and make Prescott try to win games with his arm. He hasn’t been able to do that recently, and considering that the Cowboys don’t have big-time receiving weapons to help him putting the game in his hands seems like a good idea for the Giants.

Prescott’s response to the Giants’ chatter about feeling better if they put the game in his hands?

“Challenge accepted,” Prescott said. “Challenge accepted.”

Challenge “met” is different than “accepted.” We’ll see how this turns out.

Meeting at the quarterback

The Carolina Panthers found a way to penetrate the vaunted Dallas offensive line and sack Prescott six times last week. If you are going to load up against the run and force Prescott to beat you through the air, you need to be able to put pressure on him when he does.

Unfortunately, the Giants’ ability to do that is questionable.

The Giants sacked Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles only once last week. Per Pro Football Focus, the Giants were 29th in the league in overall pass rush grades.

Olivier Vernon, the Giants’ best pass rusher, has not practiced this week and could be headed toward missing a second straight game with an ankle injury.

New York Giants vs Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Doomed by Demarcus?

Demarcus Lawrence is the Cowboys’ best pass rusher, having had a breakout 14.5-sack season in 2017. Right tackle Ereck Flowers appears to be the weakest link in the Giants’ offensive line. If the Pro Football Focus stats are accurate, Lawrence lined up over the right tackle on 46 of the 48 snaps he played in Week 1. That’s 95.8 percent.

Uh-oh!

The Giants can’t hide Flowers. He has to block somebody. They aren’t starting Chad Wheeler on Sunday night.

So, what will the Giants do about Lawrence?

“The guy assigned to block him has to block him,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “He’s certainly been very disruptive. The thing about him is, he’s long, he’s got a twitch and he can get going quickly. He’s relentless, he plays hard throughout the game, so you’ve got a full day with him. You’ve got to block him 65 or 70 times, or he’ll disrupt the game. You’re asking me about a really good player, and we have our challenge to block him.”

The Giants will use every trick they can come up. Chip blocks from the backs. Using tight ends on that side. Perhaps bunching the formation in front of Lawrence just to create traffic. Moving Eli Manning out of the pocket on occasion.

“Guys have to win one-on-one’s. You’re going to have times where you’re going to slide. You want to mix your protections up whether or not you’re keeping your backs and tight ends in or free releasing them, not being predictable,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing, more so, and it’s whether or not you want a five-man protection or six-man protection or seven-man protection. To start with guys got to know what they’re doing, know where their help is, got to get the ball out on time and then when we have backs or tight ends helping out, chipping on the way out or involved with protection, we got to do a good job with that too.”

Flowers seemed to admit early in the week that he hadn’t studied Jacksonville’s defensive line the way he could have. Shula’s “guys got to know what they’re doing” comment would hint at the same issue. If that’s the case, it’s startling that a guy in his fourth season doesn’t yet understand the preparation it takes to be successful.

Flowers — and the Giants’ offensive line as a whole — is going to have to player better. This was the major worry about the offense going into the season — could the line play well enough to give the immobile Eli Manning the opportunity to use the play-makers at his disposal to their maximum capability?

That did not happen against the Jaguars. It has to happen going forward or the Giants’ offense — and the Giants as a whole — won’t be what they could be.

By the way, remember when Lawrence said before the draft that he hoped Manning was still the quarterback when the teams met in 2018?

Well, that day is here.

Dotting the i’s

Credit the Jacksonville defense. Blame Manning. Blame the offensive line. Specifically blame Flowers. Blame Jonathan Stewart simply because he’s still on the team. Blame penalties. Blame dropped passes. Blame the fact that the sky is blue. Or that water is wet.

Blame whoever, or whatever, you want. The Giants’ offense had opportunities against the Jaguars that it didn’t take advantage of. Five of the six accepted penalties on the Giants last Sunday were by the offense.

Two of these were by Flowers, messing up the first possession of the season. One was a questionable offensive pass interference call that compounded the fact that he dropped a perfectly thrown ball that could have gone for a gain of 30 or so yards. One was a hold on Cody Latimer that turned third-and-6 into second-and-19. One was a hold on Nate Solder that turned second-and-7 into first-and-20.

The Giants should be an offensive capable of big plays, and Barkley’s 68-yard run last week showed that they certainly are that. To be a good offense, though, the Giants have to show some consistency. They can’t have five of 12 drives go without a single first down, as was the case vs. Jacksonville. They can’t come away with an oh-fer in the red zone — they went 0-for-2 vs. Jacksonville. They can’t score just 15 points every week. There are far too many play-makers for that to be acceptable.

Manning and Beckham barely missed on two plays vs. Jacksonville that would have been touchdowns. Blame Manning for those if you must.

Whatever the reason, whatever the circumstances the Giants have to take advantage of those opportunities to score more points. And win some games.

Introductions, please

Tight end Jason Witten retired. Thank you, God, for finally giving the Giants a way to cover him! You know, if he doesn’t play he can’t get open. If he wanted to he could probably come off his couch and catch 10 balls against the Giants on Sunday, even if he runs like Jalen Ramsey’s grandma.

Dez Bryant is an ex-Cowboy, and as of now an ex-NFL-er.

The Cowboys have guys named Dalton Schultz, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers and Blake Jarwin at tight.

The wide receiver group has Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Michael Gallup, Tavon Austin and Allen Hurns. Capable players, but they aren’t going to keep Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple and James Bettcher up at night quaking in fear.

Cracks in the wall?

For several years now, the Cowboys’ offensive line has been thought of as the game’s best. With star center Travis Frederick out while dealing with an autoimmune disease, and a couple of other Dallas linemen playing through injuries, that line might not be as good as its reputation.

Those six sacks by the Panthers last week is one indication of offensive line issues. In his “When the Cowboys have the ball” piece, Dan Pizzuta referenced some video from former NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz detailing issues in the play of the Dallas line vs. Carolina.

Carrie Underwood’s new “Sunday Night Football” theme

Hi there, Saquon!

Do you love it? Or hate it? Or not care at all?

Return game woes

Against Jacksonville, Kaelin Clay returned three punts for 4 yards and had a critical muffed punt that snuffed out the Giants’ last hope of a comeback. Cody Latimer returned one kickoff for 15 yards. The Giants began four drives inside their own 20 and their average starting field position was their own 25-yard line on 12 possessions. Jacksonville average starting at its own 32-yard line on 13 possessions. Over the course of the game that amounted to a 75-yard advantage in field position for Jacksonville.

Special teams coach Thomas McGaughey said this week that Clay and Latimer would continue in those roles.

“I think there’s a lot of things we can do moving forward to get better, especially in the return game,” McGaughey said. “I see us taking big steps moving forward, and I look forward to doing that.”

The Giants certainly need to.