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Giants at Cowboys: When the Giants have the ball

Is the Dallas defense really that bad?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Based on the way the first four weeks of 2020 has gone, the matchup between the New York Giants offense and the Dallas Cowboys defense portends to be a meeting of a resistible force and a moveable object.

The Cowboys’ offense has gotten off to an incredible start, racking up an average of 566 yards and 36 points over the last three games. Ordinarily you would assume each of those games to be wins, but — like the rest of the NFC East — Dallas is off to a stumbling start to the season at 1-3.

The Cowboys have needed that ridiculous production from their offense as the Dallas defense has been anything but solid, giving up enough yards and points to counter their offense’s work. It’s also worth noting that Dallas has faced nothing but thoroughly talented or well-schemed offenses over the first four games.

What will the Giants face when they travel to take on the Cowboys?

It all starts up front

Due to a variety of reasons the talent on the Cowboys’ defense is concentrated in their front, and along the defensive line in particular.

EDGE Demarcus Lawrence is the familiar face for Giants’ fans, while Everson Griffen and Dontari Poe are veteran names Giants’ fans should recognize. Dallas also took a chance on Aldon Smith after he was reinstated into the NFL, and have young interior rushers Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore who’s explosive athleticism made them intriguing prospects.

Dallas also still has veteran linebacker Jaylon Smith roaming the second level.

As a group they’re capable pass rushers — Aldon Smith, in particular, has made waves in his return to the NFL and already has 4.0 sacks on the season. But as a whole, Dallas has struggled to consistently get to the quarterback, with a pass rush win rate of just 29 percent (31 of 32 teams, per ESPN).

There’s also the matter of the rest of the defense.

Dallas is clearly suffering for the players who aren’t on the field. The Cowboys lost Byron Jones and Robert Quinn to free agency, while CBs Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown, as well as linebackerss Leighton Vander-Esch and Sean Lee are all on the injured reserve.

While the defensive front can be a competent unit, Dallas is hurting at the second and third levels of their defense, and it shows.

All of that together means that there should be opportunities for the Giants to pick up chunk yardage. However, considering how their offensive line has performed over the first four weeks, they should be overconfident or greedy. While Dallas is vulnerable at the second and third levels, they are still capable of winning up front and have done so against lines playing at a higher level than the Giants’ has been.

Too complicated?

This past week Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy addressed his defense’s struggles this season, and he refused to say that he and DC Mike Nolan would narrow the scope of the defensive playbook.

“The worst thing we can do is narrow everything down and be a one-call defense,” McCarthy said. “I refuse to do that. That’s not the path. We have a defense that fits our players, and we have to make sure we are getting those guys in position.”

That might sound like the Cowboys are running an ambitious and exotic blitz scheme, but Dallas has only sent pressure on roughly one quarter of their opponents’ passing plays.

However, they do use a scheme that is heavy in communication, with players constantly adjusting to match offensive motion. Likewise they also seem to employ a fair number of hybrid coverages, mixing and matching man and zone concepts within their coverage schemes.

And there is an argument to be made for that style of defense, but given the circumstances surrounding the 2020 season, it’s fair to wonder if the Cowboys’ defense is being made to think too much. They have frequently lost track of the ball, biting hard on play-action or misdirection plays, and their secondary routinely gives too much cushion to receivers.

This might be the easiest 11 yards of OBJ’s career:

Given how Dallas has played over the last three weeks, it is likely a bit much to assume the Cowboys won’t try to make any changes. But we shouldn’t expect a complete schematic overhaul, either. Assuming Dallas’ trends continue, there should be opportunities for the Giants to pick up chunk plays.

The best defense is a good offense

As things stand right now, the 2020 Dallas Cowboys are all about their offense. That shouldn’t be a surprise considering Mike McCarthy’s history as a head coach and the sheer amount of resources invested in the Cowboys’ offense.

They boast one of the most high-powered attacks in the NFL, and similar to the Giants in 2011, that offense means they are never truly out of games. But their offense has also been something of a double-edged sword as far as their defense is concerned. Despite the historic pace set by Kellen Moore and Dak Prescott, Dallas is currently sitting 32nd in the NFL with a -7 turnover differential.

Against the Atlanta, the Dallas offense put the defense in a 17-point hole with turnovers. The Seattle Seahawks scored 16 points off of turnovers, and the Cleveland Browns scored 14 points, while both games also had (effectively) ended with interceptions from Prescott.

As good as Dallas’ offense is capable of being, they have also put their defense in a number of bad positions. Those turnovers have forced the defense onto short fields, keeping them on the field, playing defense while trailing, and not applying any pressure on opposing offenses to deviate from their game plans.

We should keep in mind that Dallas’ defense might not actually be as bad as it hasshown. They’ve been playing against the likes of Matt Ryan with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, Russell Wilson with D.K. Metcalf, and Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt, and Nick Chubb, all while being put in difficult spots.

What we haven’t seen from Dallas is what their defense looks like playing with a lead. Their offense is capable of sprinting down the field and putting up points. If they can play a clean game, they could jump out to an early lead and really help their defense.

And that might be the biggest question facing the Dallas Cowboys: Can this week be the one where they (finally) play a game of complementary football?