Somehow, in a year that feels like it’s lasted a decade, we’ve come to the end of the 2020 regular season — and it feels as if the time has flown past us.
For the last game of the regular season, and one of the first games of 2021, the New York Giants will take on the Dallas Cowboys with the division crown potentially on the line.
The last time these two teams met turned out to be the Giants’ most explosive offensive displays of the year. At that point in the season the Cowboys’ defense was one of the very worst in the NFL and they were a team in disarray. But things have changed over the last month. Dallas has found some traction and the Cowboys’ defense has played better than in the first part of the season.
What has changed between Week 5 and Week 17?
A porous run defense
The last time these two teams faced off, the Giants hadn’t yet figured out how to run the ball. The Giants had a pair of rushing touchdowns, but only 89 total yards rushing. Over the last two months, however, the run game has become the Giants’ offensive identity, with Wayne Gallman Jr. carrying the Giants’ offense — usually along with several defenders.
That, of course, is another change since Week 5. Then, Devonta Freeman was the Giants’ lead back. That game he carried the ball 17 times for 60 yards, while Gallman saw just 5 carries.
Dallas has had one of the worst run defenses in the NFL in 2020 — their 161 yards allowed per game ranks 32nd in the league. However, like many aspects of their team, the Cowboys have improved in recent weeks. Over the last three weeks, they’ve been tied with the Washington Football Team for 20th in the NFL. But even with that improvement, they’re still not great and their opponents are averaging 134.0 yards on the ground.
Even with improved play up front from the Cowboys’ defense, they still have significant issues. The biggest is that their defense depends on penetration to disrupt offensive plays. When they aren’t able to attack into the backfield, Dallas’ defenders struggle to avoid being washed out of running plays.
That’s likely the best news of the week for the Giants.
The running game might have become the Giants’ offensive identity over the course of their four-game winning streak, but they’ve struggled to move the ball on the ground of late. the Giants have averaged just 68.7 yards on the ground over their last three games, third-worst in the NFL. There have been a number of reasons for that, but the biggest has been the flow of the game dictating more passing to keep up with opposing offenses.
If there is one main differences between the Cowboys of Week 5 and Week 17 has been their defense. Dallas’ defense still isn’t good, but they have at least become disruptive.
Dallas’ EDGE group has been the strength of their defense on paper, but they’ve finally found their feet and lived up to expectations over the last month or so. The trio of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Aldon Smith have become a disruptive force off the edge for the Cowboys. Each has good size, length, and athleticism, with the ability to win with speed or power. Over the last three games the Dallas defense has averaged between two and three sacks per game and generated a total of 10 turnovers.
Likewise, rookie DT Neville Gallimore has emerged over the last two weeks. He lacks the sheer mass of the Giants’ defensive tackles, but makes up for it with an explosive first step when attacking gaps. Gallimore’s game is built around penetrating into the backfield and disrupting plays behind the line of scrimmage. He’s become a starter and seen his snap count grow in recent weeks, with positive results for the defense.
Dallas uses both 4-3 and 3-4 principles in its defenses, generally looking for ways to get each of their top three EDGE players on the field at the same time. The Cowboys will frequently line Aldon Smith up as a SAM, playing him as a stand-up rusher on the line of scrimmage. They have also been willing to blitz, frequently sending LB Jaylon Smith through the interior gaps or defensive backs on slot or safety blitzes.
Finally there’s the issue of cornerback Trevon Diggs. The rookie out of Alabama has good stats on the season, with 3 interceptions and 12 passes defensed despite missing four games with a fractured foot. Diggs isn’t quite the “CB1” his stats would suggest, but he does have solid ball skills as a converted receiver. Of some concern is that Dallas’ young corners — Diggs and Chidobe Awuzie — aren’t yet dominant players, though they have shown improvement since getting healthy over the last two games. Diggs has only allowed 40 percent completion in his first games back from injury while Awuzie has allowed an average of 55 percent completions over the last two weeks.
Considering the success the Baltimore Ravens had against the Giants’ offense when running aggressive man coverage, we should be on the lookout to see whether Dallas tries to copy the tactic. The NFL is a copycat league, but Baltimore has the personnel for such aggressive coverages. If Dallas does try to play that brand of football, it could provide an opportunity for the Giants.
The best defense is an explosive offense
Whether by accident or design, the Cowboys have been built to play complementary football. It’s unlikely that Jerry Jones, Mike McCarthy, and the rest of Dallas’ brain trust set out to build a mediocre defense with questionable pass coverage and average-at-best run defense.
But where Dallas excels is in playing with a lead. And, frankly, this isn’t anything new — I had a very similar sub-head the last time these two teams met. Some things just aren’t going to change over the course of a season.
They are at their best when their defense is playing with a lead and able to let slip their pass rushers. The good news (for them) is that their offensive weapons — Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, Ezekiel Elliott, Dalton Schultz, and Tony Pollard — have the ability to turn a routine play into a game-changing one. Nick Falato will be going over the details of the Cowboys’ offense, but the relevancy here is that they can rack up yards and put points on the board. That benefits their defense by forcing opposing offenses to be one dimensional to try and keep.
Deficits have been the Giants’ Achilles heel this season. And yes, I realize how elementary that sounds, but think about the difference between the Seattle Seahawks game and the three which followed it. The Giants went into halftime with a five-point deficit, which they were able to erase with their rushing attack in the second half. That game could have looked significantly different if Seattle had recovered the blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown instead of a players hand grazing the backline for a safety. In the Giants’ losses since then, opposing teams have been able to get out to two-score leads and simply walk away over the course of the game.
The ability of Dallas’ offense to score a lot and score quickly favors a defense which is built around its pass rushers.