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Giants at Cowboys, Week 1: What to expect when Dallas has the ball

How does the Giants’ defense match up with the Cowboys’ offense?

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

The New York Giants will begin the 2019 regular season as they have so many others in recent memory: By going on the road to play the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1.

The Giants are hoping to start their season off on the right foot by getting a win over a division rival on the road, but that is — as it always is — going to be easier said than done. Dallas looks to once again have a formidable offense, lead by one of the league’s best offensive lines, a dangerous receiving weapon, and a strong running game.

And for the second time in two years we have left the preseason with questions about how a reworked Giants’ defense will perform in the regular season. Gone are Olivier Vernon, Landon Collins, Damon Harrison, and Eli Apple. In their place are Markus Golden, Jabrill Peppers, Antoine Bethea, Dexter Lawrence, and DeAndre Baker.

How will the Giant’s revamped defense stand up to the Dallas offense?

By the numbers

  • The Cowboys are 22-4 (.846) when averaging more than 5 yards on first down plays since the start of the 2016 season -- best in NFL. League average: .526
  • The Cowboys are 10-3 (.769) when within 7 points at the two minute warning since the start of the 2017 season -- best in NFL; League Avg: .496
  • The Cowboys are 13-3 (.812) when passing for more than 250 yards since the start of the 2016 season -- second-best in NFL; League Avg: .515
  • The Cowboys are 15-3 (.833) when making 5 or more explosive passes in a game since the start of the 2016 season -- best in NFL; League Avg: .532
  • The Cowboys were undefeated (8-0) when scoring 22 or more points last season -- tied for best in NFL; League Avg: .726
  • When Dak Prescott is above his average completion percentage (66.3 percent), his team is 21-4 (.840) since the start of the 2016 season -- tied for second-best of 34 Qualified QBs in NFL; League Avg: .628
  • The Giants are 3-16 (.158) when within 7 points entering the 4th quarter since the start of the 2017 season -- worst in NFL. League average: .500
  • When Amari Cooper is below his average number of targets (7), his team is 4-12 (.250) since the start of the 2017 season -- tied for third-worst of 39 Qualified WRs in NFL; League Avg: .559

Dallas’ line is healthy again

Two years ago Dak Prescott went through a bad stretch of football when Tyron Smith missed six games with an injury.

Last year, the Dallas offensive line was plagued by injuries on the interior, starting with center Travis Frederick missing the season with Gullian-Barre syndrome, and followed by injuries to guards Connor Williams and Zack Martin.

Two years ago, per Football Outsiders, Dallas’ offensive line was fourth in run blocking, but 15th in adjusted sack rate with Smith missing time. Last year, injuries forced the Cowboys line down to 8th in run blocking and 28th in adjusted sack rate.

But as we turn to the 2019 regular season, the Dallas offensive line is finally healthy, and that bodes well for their offense. True, rookie guard Connor McGovern was placed on the injured reserve Monday, which has impacted their depth. But barring an injury, that won’t factor in to Sunday’s game.

There are ways an offense can scheme around sub-par (or outright poor) pass protection and run blocking, but it is always easier to run an offense with a stout offensive line. Of course, it’s also true that every quarterback gets worse when they’re under duress, and having a healthy offensive line will make life that much harder for the Giants’ defense. The Giants invested in their defensive front, adding Dexter Lawrence to the formidable duo of Dalvin Tomlinson and B.J. Hill, but the unit behind them is a question. The team is hoping that Lorenzo Carter can take the next step and be a consistent threat as a pass rusher and that Markus Golden will be able to replicate his 2016 season.

There will be other factors at play, but the clearest one in determining who starts the season 1-0 and who starts 0-1 could well be which team wins the line of scrimmage.

Does Jason Witten still have “it”

And by “It,” I obviously mean the Predator’s cloaking device, because that’s the only explanation I can think of for how he continued to not be covered as he declined.

Seriously though, Witten’s ability to run routes and diagnose and exploit coverages so perfectly throughout his career will likely land him in the Hall of Fame once he finally retires for good. But his work in the past doesn’t matter for right now. What does matter is if Witten is still able to be the reliable chain-moving safety blanket in his 15th season and after a year in the broadcast booth.

Specifically for this week, what matters is if the Giants can (finally) cover him. The team has invested heavily in their pass coverage, drafting several corners, signing Antoine Bethea, and formally making 2018 nickel linebacker Tae Davis the starting “moneybacker.” In 2018 the Giants’ coverage over the middle was hampered by slow processing by Alec Ogletree and poor play by Curtis Riley. The hope is that better play and coordination from Bethea, another year in the system for Ogletree, and more speed from Davis will help tighten windows in the middle of the field. But does Witten still have the wheels to find windows if they’re there?

Who’s the real MVP?

The answer to that question, at least with regards to the Dallas Cowboys, is obviously Dak Prescott. Starting quarterback is the most important position in football, and arguably the most important position in sports. As the QB goes, so will go the team.

But what about the other 52 players on the roster?

The focus of the offseason has been on Ezekiel Elliott, his contract, and his hold-out. The presumption has been that the Dallas offense simply can’t function — or at least not well — without him. But while the Dallas offense is almost certainly better with Elliott than without him, I would argue that Amari Cooper is the player the Giants need to focus on taking away.

Last year Dallas was mocked for sending a first round pick to the Oakland Raiders for Amari Cooper, but his acquisition proved to be a turning point in their season. Prior to the trade, Dallas was struggling with a 3-4 record and their play-off future in serious doubt. They went 7-2 after trading for Cooper, winning five in a row as well as their final two games.

Getting Prescott a true “number one” receiver proved to be a boon, and improved just about every facet of the quarterback’s game:

Weeks 1-7 (before Cooper) - 29 attempts per game, 202 yards per game, 62.3 percent completion, 1.1 touchdowns per game.

Prescott’s average AY/A (adjusted yards per attempt, a measure of passing that takes both touchdowns and interceptions into account) was 6.89

Weeks 9-17 (with Cooper) - 36 attempts per game, 274 yards per game, 71.8 percent completion, 1.5 touchdowns per game.

Average AY/A was 8.03.

Elliott was even a better runner with cooper than without. Before the Cowboys acquired Cooper, Elliott average 18.8 carries per game and 4.59 yards per carry. With Cooper impacting the defense and helping to extend drives, Elliott averaged 21.5 carries per game and 4.79 yards per carry.

The NFL is a passing league, and if the Giants can’t get pressure on Prescott and can’t contain Amari Cooper, it is going to be a long night. But if they can mount a pass rush and their revamped secondary can take Cooper away from Prescott, then the Giants have a definite chance to start the season off with a win.