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Giants vs. Cowboys: What to expect when the Giants have the ball

Scouting the Dallas Cowboys’ defense

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The New York Giants offense suddenly feels good about itself. Last week they were finally able to get out of their own way, generate big plays, and capitalize on an opponent’s mistakes.

But that was last week.

This week the Giants go on the road to play their division rival Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys feature one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL, with a returning Dak Prescott picking up right where he left off when he was injured against the Giants last year.

Considering the quality of the players that Dallas has at almost every offensive position, offensive fireworks should be expected.

What has taken people by surprise has been the play of their defense.

Last year Dallas had a defense that was just bad. They finished 23rd in total yards allowed, 30th in passing touchdowns allowed, 30th in rushing yards per attempt allowed, and 31st in rushing first downs. Their Mike Nolan coached defense just wasn’t good enough and was often an anchor pulling down their offense.

This year, Dallas got a new defensive coordinator and has made significant investments on the defensive side of the ball, and they are an all-around scary team.

Complementary football

The concept behind the Cowboys’ roster construction and defense were clear pretty much from the jump in 2020. They wanted to stress teams with their offense and force opposing offense into situations in which their defense could capitalize. It’s the same philosophy as the Indianapolis Colts used throughout the Payton Manning years and the Denver Broncos used as well when Payton first arrived there.

It’s a philosophy that hinges on having a defense that’s at least good enough on a down-to-down basis, but capable of being highly disruptive when the opportunity arises. The flip side of the coin is having an offense potent enough to take the opposing team’s playbook and game plan, and throw them out the window.

The Dallas offense was clearly holding up its end of the bargain before Dak Prescott got hurt last year. However, they didn’t quite have the personnel nor the coaching in place for a defense to complement the offense.

Dallas seemingly fixed their coaching problem by parting ways with Mike Nolan and hiring Dan Quinn to helm their defense. Quinn rose to prominence as the architect of the Seattle Seahawks’ “Legion Of Boom” over the course of 2013 and 2014. As we should expect from Quinn, Dallas plays a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3 looks, while they primarily rush four defenders.

They also make use of a “multiple” defensive front and a variety of looks, usually using 4-2 or 3-3 fronts with a variety.

Scheming and game plan are all well and good, but teams also need the players to execute those schemes.

Last year the Cowboys didn’t have those players, but the additions they have made over the course of the 2021 offseason have changed that calculus. They invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball, signing LB Keanu Neal, S Malik Hooker, S Jayron Kearse, and S Damontae Kazee in free agency. They also drafted defensive players with their first six draft picks in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The result is a defense that can now play off of its offense. Their young athletes are disruptive and their free agent additions are fitting into their roles. When things go according to plan, Dallas is able to use its high-octane offense to push the pace (and point total) of the game and force opposing teams out of their comfort zones and gameplans to simply keep up. When they’re able to do that, Quinn’s more aggressive schemes and their faster players are able to force mistakes and capitalize.

To put that in perspective, Dallas’ run defense has been mediocre so far this year, giving up 4.7 yards per carry. However, they lead the league with opponents averaging just 17.2 rushing attempts per game. Dallas’ run defense is really their offensive firepower forcing opposing offenses to to abandon the run. That forced urgency creates opportunities for their defense to capitalize on opponents’ mistakes and they are currently second in the NFL with 10 takeaways.

Dallas’ youngsters are stepping up

One of the biggest differences between the 2020 and 2021 Dallas Cowboys is the young players who have stepped up and seized starting roles.

The two I pretty much have to start with are definitely painful for me.

Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys have a long-established history of drafting some of my favorite players in every draft — players I would have loved to see in Giants’ blue.

This past draft, my top target for the Giants was Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons on the off chance he slipped to them at 11th overall. Parsons was, to me, one of the three or four best players in the draft, and the best EDGE defender as well as the best pure linebacker. I also advocated for the Giants to retain Dalvin Tomlinson and select UCLA iDL Osa Odighizuwa in the mid-rounds to replace Leonard Williams on the basis of simple economics.

Dallas selected Parsons at 12th overall and Odighizuwa at 75th overall, and both have looked like steals through the first month of the season.

Parsons is the early favorite to win defensive player of the year, and has been one of the most disruptive defenders in the whole NFL. So far he leads all rookie defenders with 17 pressures, and leads the Cowboys with 2.5 sacks. Parsons is tied for fifth in the NFL in Pass Rush Win Rate with 30 percent. He’s tied with Jadevon Clowney and Harold Landry, and just behind Myles Garrett’s 31 percent win rate. Parsons also has 7 QB hits, 4 knockdowns, and 4 hurries so far this year.

Odighizuwa is currently second among all rookie defenders with 15 pressures.

And as things stand now, only four interior defensive linemen have more pressures than Odighizuwa; Calais Campbell (16), Cam Heyward (17), JJ Watt (17), and Aaron Donald (21).

Odighizuwa is undersized for a defensive tackle at 6-foot, 1 ⅝ inches, 280 pounds, but he is explosive and makes great use of his natural leverage (and a strong background as a wrestler). He has a very powerful lower half, and his stature helps him get under opposing offensive linemen, while his 34-inch arms give him unexpected length for his height.

Both Parsons and Odighizuwa also feature versatility, which has been a boon for Dallas.

Ordinarily, when a team loses two of its best defenders (EDGE DeMarcus Lawrence and iDL Neville Gallimore), it usually doesn’t bode well for their defensive performance. However, Odighizuwa was able to start Week 1 in relief of Gallimore, and Parsons was able to split time between linebacker and defensive end to make up for the loss of Lawrence.

Quinn also moves the two around freely. Not only does Parsons play both the left and right side of the defense, he lines up as an off-ball linebacker, a rush linebacker, and as a defensive end out of a three-point stance. Odighizuwa is used all over Dallas’ defensive line as well, playing a defensive tackle

But that isn’t all for Dallas.

Their other third round pick, DE Chauncey Golston, has contributed after missing the first two games of the season. Over the last two weeks he has two pressures in each game and has currently has a pass rush win rate of 23.3 percent. While he isn’t the threat that Parsons and Odighizuwa are, he is valuable depth behind Randy Gregory and Bradlee Anae (who was just activated from the reserve/COVID19 list).

And finally we come to the progression of second year cornerback Trevon Diggs.

Diggs was solid in his rookie season. He allowed 54.8 percent completion, notching 3 interceptions and 14 passes defensed. Diggs was Dallas’ best cornerback, but teams didn’t shy away from targeting him, and he gave up 5 touchdowns on the season.

Already this year, Diggs has eclipsed his interception total from a year ago, coming up with 5 picks on just 26 targets — to go with another 8 passes defensed. He’s only allowing 46.2 percent completion and quarterbacks have a passer rating of 28.4 when targeting him. And considering he’s faced the likes of Tom Brady and Justin Herbert, that’s pretty good.

Diggs fits well into Dan Quinn’s defense as a big, long, smart, and physical cornerback. He plays well in both Cover 3 and Cover 1 defenses, and has emerged as a top cornerback through the first four weeks. This year he has shown impressive ball skills, reading both receivers and quarterbacks and smoothly undercutting routes. He has a background as a wide receiver and seems to have hit a point in his development where he can bring those skills to bear.

The Giants should expect to see Diggs shadowing Kenny Golladay, and Daniel Jones will want to be careful with his placement and eye discipline. If the combination of Dallas’ own offense and their young defensive linemen force mistakes, Diggs could be the beneficiary.

Reshuffling linebackers

We’ll start here with what has stayed the same. Dallas still has Leighton Vander Esch in the middle of their defense. At 6-foot-4, 256 pounds, Vander Esch is a big linebacker, able to take on and shed most linemen’s blocks. But unlike many linebackers his size, he has uncommon athleticism and remains one of the most explosive downhill players in the NFL. While the Giants could look to isolate Vander Esch in coverage and attack the middle of Dallas’ defense, few ball carriers want to be in his sights as he comes downhill with a head of steam.

Now for the change.

The Cowboys surprised many around the NFL when they cut veteran linebacker Jaylon Smith on Tuesday. Smith was an undeniably great story for Dallas: He nearly lost his career before it even began thanks to an injury suffered in a college bowl game. Dallas took a chance on Smith and he repaid them with Pro Bowl caliber play once he returned to the field after a full year of rehab and recovery. But now, Smith looks much older than his 26 years would suggest. He doesn’t run nearly as well as he once did, and he’s allowed 9 of the 10 pass attempts toward him in coverage to be completed. Between that regression and his sizable contract, it’s small wonder that Dallas moved on.

But the other side of the story is the return of Keanu Neal from the Reserve/COVID19 list. Neal was originally drafted by Dan Quinn’s Falcons back in 2016, and he followed Quinn to Dallas this year. Neal has also changed positions, transitioning from safety to a STAR or WILL linebacker role. That move has helped upgrade the speed of Dallas’ defense, as well as their ability to cover the middle of the field.

The Giants could also see fourth round rookie linebacker Jabril Cox on the field. Cox transferred from North Dakota State to LSU for the 2020 college football season, a move which should have allowed him to show off his ability on some of the biggest stages. However, LSU declined sharply following the departure of QB Joe Burrow and OC Joe Brady for the NFL, and Cox was largely an afterthought in last year’s draft class. That being said, he is an athletic, rangy off-ball linebacker with legitimate coverage skills. While that role has been occupied by Jaylon Smith since 2017, his release could open the way for Cox to come on the field in obvious passing situations.