This will be the NFC East rematch of the season for the Giants. The last time around, back in Week 5, the Giants suffered a 44-20 loss that was only that close because of a meaningless touchdown as time expired. Now, the Dallas offense is showing some cracks as they deal with their own injuries.
However, the Dallas defense has turned into one of the best in the NFL and ranks third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. They’ve been powered by breakout rookie Micah Parsons and second-year CB Trevon Diggs, but reinforcements have arrived in a trio of players returning from injury.
What can the Giants’ offense expect from a revitalized Dallas defense?
Micah Parsons is a monster
... and the rest are pretty good, too
I think I now have some idea how opposing defensive coordinators must have felt when Odell Beckham Jr. loomed on their schedule from the second half of 2014 through 2016.
Cowboys’ rookie linebacker Micah Parsons shouldn’t just have the Defensive Rookie of The Year trophy on lockdown, but he should be in the running — if not the favorite — to win Defensive Player of The Year.
If Parsons was a “problem” when the Giants last met the Cowboys, he’s blossomed into something else entirely in the last two months. Parsons has 9.5 sacks over the last 5 games, bringing his season total to 12.5, along with 41 total pressures, and 17 tackles for a loss. For some reference, T.J. Watt leads the NFL in sacks (16), but only has 38 total pressures and 16 tackles for a loss.
This is all while only being a part-time EDGE defender. Parsons also pulls duty as an off-ball linebacker, and is pretty good at that as well. He’s only allowed 19 completions on 31 targets (61.3 percent), and has yet to allow a passing touchdown.
Because Parsons is “only” a part-time pass rusher, he doesn’t qualify for ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate index. If he did, he would rank 7th in the NFL, with his 24.9 percent win rate coming in just behind the 25 percent shared by Haason Reddick, Derek Barnett, T.J. Watt, and Nick Bosa.
If that weren’t enough, the Dallas defensive front has gotten healthier lately.
EDGE Randy Gregory is back off after being placed on the injured reserve on November 11th with a calf injury. He made a pretty immediate impact in his first game back in Week 14 with a sack, a QB hit, a forced fumble, an interception, and a pass defensed.
Likewise, DeMarcus Lawrence made his return from the IR in Week 13 and had an impact in Week 14 with 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, and 2 tackles for a loss.
Joining Gregory and Lawrence in making a late-season comeback from injury is iDL Neville Gallimore. Gallimore had a sack, a QB hit, and a TFL of his own in last week’s game against the Washington Football Team.
These three additions could make the Cowboys’ defense even more dangerous than it was back in October. As it stands, Dallas’ pass rush is roughly “middling” when it comes to raw sack numbers and team pass rush win rate. However, they rank 3rd in the NFL total pressures with 146 and 3rd in pressure rate at 27.8 percent.
For reference, the Giants rank 30th in pressures with 93 and 31st with a pressure rate of 17.4 percent.
The Cowboys also rank third in QB knockdowns with 56 and knockdown rate with 11.9 percent.
Dallas generally plays a 4-2-5 front and don’t rely too heavily on the blitz. They will occasionally use a 3-3-5 or 3-2-6 alignment, and while they still aren’t particularly common, they are the Cowboys’ most common secondary alignments.
Dallas only blitzes on 24.6 percent of the passing plays, which is 16th in the NFL. That said, when they do blitz it tends to be effective.
The Giants’ pass protection will need to be on point for this game. Not just their offensive linemen, but Mike Glennon will need to identify Dallas’ pressure packages while the tight ends and running backs will need to be sound in their blocking assignments.
Run while you can
For the second time in two weeks the Giants face a poor run defense. Dallas is allowing the eighth-most rushing yards per attempt in the NFL, and is 14th in ESPN’s Run Stop Win Rate (31 percent)
That would, on paper, play into how the Giants want — and need — to play offense.
The Giants want to run the football. They talk about it constantly and that’s who they want to be on offense. While the team would prefer that Saquon Barkley was their “bell cow” running back and getting 20 (or more) carries per game, they’re perfectly willing to hand off to Devontae Booker as well. Getting a favorable matchup should play into the Giants’ tendencies and reinforce their desire to run the ball.
The Giants will be forced to start backup QB Mike Glennon. That already makes throwing the ball a chancy proposition, let alone when the Giants have fielded one of the worst passing offenses in the NFL. Combined with the type of pressure the Dallas defense is capable of generating, it would make absolute sense for the Giants to double down and lean into the running game.
It would, on paper, lessen the load on Glennon and the Giants’ receivers. Likewise, consistently running the ball would (hopefully) keep the Giants’ defense off the field after being dominated in time of possession by the Los Angeles Chargers.
The problem with all that is that, like a number of other teams, their run defense isn’t really predicated on stopping running backs, but rather forcing the ball into quarterbacks’ hands.
While Dallas gives up chunk yardage, they don’t see nearly as many rushing attempts as you would expect. So far they’ve seen the 11th fewest rushing attempts of any defense in the NFL. That’s because their offense is potent enough to sprint down the field and score touchdowns, and over time, opposing offenses have little choice but to throw the ball to just keep up. Playing ball control offense doesn’t have as much impact when the other team doesn’t need to possess the ball for that long in order to score — particularly if you’re settling for field goals, as the Giants so often do.
Working in the Giants’ favor is the absence of Cowboys’ All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith. He aggravated an ankle injury this week and has already been ruled out of the game. Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense tends to be less explosive and more mistake prone when Smith is out of the game. They’ll still be difficult to slow down, but it’s possible that the Giants could be able to effectively run the ball throughout the game if Dallas’ offense falters.
Nothing in a football game takes place in a vacuum. The Giants are going to need to play complimentary football if they want to be able to take advantage of the weakness in Dallas’ defense and come away with the upset.
Take care of the ball
The first time around, we warned that second year cornerback Trevon Diggs was a player to be respected (if not feared) on the outside. At the time he had notched 5 interceptions in 26 targets while allowing 46.2 percent completion with another 8 passes defensed.
Unfortunately, Diggs hasn’t really cooled off since then. He’s up to 9 interceptions on the season (2 returned for touchdowns) and 17 passes defensed, though his completion percentage allowed has skyrocketed up to 54.0 percent.
9 picks in a season is a lot but it’s still a ways off from the record. That’s 14 interceptions(!?) set in 1952 by the legendary Night Train Lane in his rookie season.
Diggs is, obviously, leading the Cowboys in takeaways and is a big reason why they have the second-most takeaways in the NFL (27), and the most interceptions (20).
But he’s not the only reason.
The rest of the Dallas secondary has proven opportunistic when they get the chance. Fellow starting corner Anthony Brown is second behind Diggs with 3 interceptions and is allowing a similarly good 54.1 percent completion with 14 passes defensed. Brown might not have Diggs’ game-changing ball skills, but he’s come into his own as cover corner.
Each of the Cowboys’ other three main defensive backs — CB Jourdan Lewis, S Damontae Kazee, and S Jayron Kearse — have another two interceptions apiece.
Combined with the 6 forced fumbles from Micah Parsons (3) and Randy Gregory (3), Dallas has been excellent at a very dangerous feedback loop.
When their offense is running at full steam and putting up points, they force opposing offenses to throw the ball to just keep up. All those extra passing plays create opportunities for their pass rush to get to opposing quarterbacks. That extra pressure creates more opportunities for their defenders to create turnovers and get the ball back to the offense.
If the Giants want a chance to get the upset against their division rivals, they can’t let this game snowball out of control. They’ll need the defense to keep Dallas’ offense in check, be able to stay with the running game, and for Glennon to take care of the football.
That might be easier said than done.