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Giants at Cowboys: 7 things to watch as Giants aim for upset

It’s yet another season-opener on the road vs. Dallas

NFL: Preseason-Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams
Tony Pollard
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants are 7.5-point underdogs in Sunday’s season opener vs. the Dallas Cowboys. Can they pull an upset in Arlington? Here are some things to watch as they try.

Where will the pass rush come from?

That is a question that has been asked over and over throughout the offseason. Second-year man Lorenzo Carter, veteran Markus Golden, third-round pick Oshane Ximines and down lineman like B.J. Hill and Dexter Lawrence are players the Giants hope be the answers to that question in the long run.

On Sunday, the Giants faced the vaunted Dallas offensive line, bolstered by the return of Travis Frederick at center.

“As it goes, I think initially it’s going to be a group effort. I can’t tell you 100 percent as we sit here today who’s going to be the sack leader, the disruptive player,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “To me, I kind of like that, because there is a little bit of unknown for people that are prepping for us. There’s a lot of guys that have something to go play and prove and establish themselves. I think it’s going to be exciting for me as I watch it from my position to see how it unfolds.”

If there is honest-to-goodness consistent pressure on Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, neither Bettcher nor Giants fans is going to care where it comes from.

Revamped defense debuts

The Giants have moved on from defensive stalwarts Olivier Vernon, Landon Collins and Damon Harrison, and have replaced several other players who were key parts of the 2018 defense.

GM Dave Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur have been insistent that the Giants woulda/coulda/shoulda won more games in 2018. If only the defense could have made some key stops.

This group is younger. Well, except for 14-year NFL veteran Antoine Bethea at free safety. Will it be better? We begin to find out on Sunday.

Tony Pollard

Pollard, a fourth-round pick out of Memphis, would have been the Cowboys’ primary running back on Sunday had Ezekiel Elliott not signed his mega-contract during the week. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry (15 carries/84 yards) during the preseason.

Pollard running the ball, though, isn’t what the Giants are wary of. At Memphis, Pollard averaged 30.1 yards over three seasons on kickoff returns with seven touchdowns on 87 tries. The Cowboys didn’t use him in that role, but R.J. Ochoa of Blogging The Boys says the Giants will “definitely” see Pollard returning on Sunday.

Giants special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey is wary.

“He is very, very talented. The guy ran a 4.38, he hits it hard, straight, and fast,” McGaughey said. “He ran through some big holes at Memphis, but he ran all of the way through them and scored. The guy at Memphis, who is at Penn State now, did a great job at coaching him. I promise you, Tony Pollard is a very talented kid.”

The Giants have paid a great deal of attention to special teams the past two years. Recent roster moves like adding linebacker David Mayo and wide receiver Cody Core should have special teams benefits. Pollard should provide an early challenge.

The Giants own return game

When training camp began, the Giants looked fairly deep in the return game. Corey Coleman averaged 26.0 yards on kickoff returns last season and was expected to handle that job as well as perhaps some punt return duties.

Coleman suffered a season-ending knee injury the first day of camp, though. Rookie Darius Slayton was expected to contribute in the return game, but a hamstring injury has kept him on the sidelines. Golden Tate is an experienced punt returner, but he is facing a four-game suspension.

So, what are the Giants left with?

Kickoff returnCody Latimer is listed as the No. 1 kickoff returner on the team’s unofficial depth chart. He has averaged 24.4 yards on 23 returns over five NFL seasons. Rookie Corey Ballentine flashed potential in this department with an average of 29.7 yards on three preseason returns.

Punt return — Starting safety Jabrill Peppers is the primary guy here. Peppers averaged 7.3 yards on 55 returns over two seasons with the Cleveland Browns. No. 2 on the depth chart is backup cornerback Antonio Hamilton. A tremendous return man at South Carolina State who averaged 21.7 yards on 21 punt returns and 24.8 yards on 33 kickoff returns, Hamilton has never been given an opportunity to try his hand in that role during his three NFL seasons.

Zeke’s touches

Can you get ready for an NFL season by spending the preseason working out in Cabo with Orleans Darkwa? That is what Ezekiel Elliott did as his contract drama played out.

Now that he is signed, how much will he play against the Giants? How effective will he be?

Can the Giants get receivers open?

We have talked ... and talked ... and talked about the Giants’ receiving corps since Odell Beckham Jr. became a member of the Cleveland Browns. Can the Giants, with Golden Tate serving his suspension, get receivers open? Can Eli Manning get them the ball if and when they are open? Can they make the plays?

Read Mark Schofield’s very informative piece on how the Giants’ passing attack might unfold.

Will Eli be upright?

The Giants believe they have improved their offensive line with the additions of Kevin Zeitler and Mike Remmers, along with the return to health of Jon Halapio and a year of experience for Will Hernandez.

If Saquon Barkley is going to have a real chance to dominate against the Cowboys, and Eli Manning is going to have an opportunity to find those hopefully open receivers, they need to be right about the revamped offensive line.