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Giants at Cowboys, Week 12: What to expect when Dallas has the ball

Will the Giants’ defense have something to be thankful for on Thanksgiving?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants have a very short turnaround before their game against the Dallas Cowboys this week.

The Giants’ defense has just three days to get prepared to face one of the best offenses in the NFL over the last month. It doesn’t help that the offense belongs to a division rival and the Giants are coming off of a (potentially) devastating loss to the Detroit Lions.

As I write this, the Giants are 9-point underdogs on the road against their division rivals and are hoping to avoid their first losing streak of the 2022 season. When New York has won this year, it has been in close games, where discipline and methodical offense have the most effect. But it will come down to Wink Martindale and the Giants’ defense to keep this game close.

What do they have to expect from the Dallas offense? What do the Giants have to do to have an outcome to be thankful for on Thanksgiving?

Dak Prescott’s impact

Divisional play is one of the most interesting facets of an NFL season. It’s the only opportunity that teams have for rematches against prior opponents. That familiarity makes the games much more unpredictable and how teams change over the course of a season can have an outsized impact as compared to a non-divisional or out-of-conference game.

The biggest difference between the Giants’ game against Dallas in Week 3 and their upcoming game is the presence of starting quarterback Dak Prescott.

Dallas also got WR Michael Gallup in Week 4, but Prescott’s presence has a transformative effect on the Dallas offense.

As Dave Halprin of Blogging The Boys told our own Ed Valentine, while Dallas was able to win with Cooper Rush doing so meant a much more conservative brand of offense.

“Under Cooper Rush, there was very little downfield passing and the Cowboys were very conservative. They knew the formula to win under Rush was to run the ball, rely on their defense, and have Rush make as few mistakes as possible.”

With Rush as their quarterback, Dallas had the second-lowest early-down pass rate in the NFL, the 10th-ranked EPA, and 21st ranked running EPA. They averaged 21.4 points per game over that stretch.

With Prescott returning, Dallas picked up just five points in early-down passing (up to 25th in the NFL), but are much more effective. They have the best EPA in the NFL on early-down passes (0.356), and the 10th ranked EPA on early-down runs (-0.037).

Since Prescott has returned, the Cowboys offense has put up an average of 35.25 points per game.

Granted, they’ve faced struggling defenses, but the Giants’ recent injuries could put them in that category themselves.

Next man up?

The last time these two teams played, the Giants were the healthier squad. As mentioned above, the Dallas was still finding its way after having lost LT Tyron Smith in the preseason, QB Dak Prescott in Week 1, and WR Michael Gallup not yet returned from the PUP list.

The Giants, meanwhile had their starting offensive line and most of their secondary intact, while they were also getting Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeeez Ojulari back from injury.

This time, however, the Giants defense has been savaged by injuries over the last couple weeks. It started over the bye week with safety Xavier McKinney and continued with the loss of Number 1 cornerback Adoree Jackson (knee), primary reserve cornerback Fabian Moreau (oblique), and Jason Pinnock (jaw). Coach Brian Daboll said Ojulari will not be activated from IR this week.

We already know that McKinney and Jackson will miss this game, which is a significant blow to the secondary and the defense as a whole. As of this writing, we don’t know what the status of the Giants’ other injured players will be. The Giants have said that their practices this week will be mostly walk-throughs, and Daboll has wanted to see injured players practice fully before activating them.

So with that in mind, it’s probably best to assume the Giants’ injured players will miss this game.

So what does the Giants’ depth chart look like, and what are the key matchups?

Starting up front, Thibodeaux is hitting his stride off the edge. And while he disappeared against the Detroit Lions, he had made impact plays late in games — and drawn multiple holding calls — in previous weeks. The Cowboys rank 32nd in ESPN’s pass block win rate, and the defense needs Thibodeaux, Dexter Lawrence, and Leonard Williams to pressure Prescott to take pressure off of the Giants’ secondary.

Speaking of the secondary, things could be bleak.

The Giants’ starting secondary could consist of:

Cornerback - Cor’Dale Flott, Nick McCloud
Slot - Darnay Holmes
Safety - Julian Love, Dane Belton

As it stands now, the Giants only have two healthy safeties on their roster. They could elevate Landon Collins off of the practice squad, or use Holmes as an emergency safety (as they did late against the Lions).

They’ll be asked to match up with CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, and Noah Brown. Dallas’ receiving corps isn’t as dangerous as it was a year ago with Amari Cooper as their “X” receiver, but they’re still formidable. And while the Giants’ secondary depth has been much better that what we were afraid it could be, that was with Jackson, McKinney, and Love providing a foundation.

The lack of safety depth will also likely impact the Giants’ defense in the middle of the field. The Giants have frequently used three-safety sets to off-set their weak linebackers. With just two healthy safeties, the Giants might not be able to use those big nickel or dime packages. That will make containing RB Tony Pollard and TE Dalton Schultz difficult.

This game could well pivot on whether the Giants’ defensive line is able to win up front, because Prescott and the receivers can’t be afforded time to work on the Giants’ secondary.

Kellen Moore vs. Wink Martindale

The first game between these two teams arguably came down to the chess match between the Giants’ defensive coordinator and the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator.

Kellen Moore has emerged as one of the top offensive minds in the NFL since 2019. He’s produced one of the most dangerous, high-octane offenses in the NFL and is difficult to stop once he hits his groove.

Martindale, meanwhile has been one of the top defensive coordinators in the NFL over that same period. He has produced a remarkably resilient defense in New York, and his high-pressure scheme has been a critical factor in the Giants’ 7-3 record.

The first time around, Moore simply out-coached Martindale. As we mentioned above, the Cowboys were trying to figure out how to play without their starting left tackle, starting quarterback, and Number Two receiver. And yet they were able to find success and consistently move the ball, particularly in the second half. That game, Rush completed 21 of 31 with 215 yards and a touchdown. Those are hardly Earth-shaking stats, but it was efficient play and the Cowboys were able to avoid giving up sacks or turnovers. Moore did an excellent job of identifying Martindale’s tendencies and calling the right play at the right time.

This time around, Martindale is going to have to win that chess match if the Giants are to come away with the upset.

We will need to see how Martindale employs his secondary, and whether he simplifies his coverage schemes or continues to rotate coverages behind his blitz schemes. Frankly, it would be a stunning development if Martindale doesn’t turn his pressure packages up to “11” to try and compensate for his weakened secondary.

The Giants will also need to account for Tony Pollard’s speed at running back. The Giants have struggled against more athletic runners (Pollard included) this year, particularly on outside runs. Between Dexter Lawrence’s power and Leonard Williams’ quickness, the Giants’ interior defensive line is very stout against the run. However, speed to the outside and runs with pullers have been big contributors to the Giants’ struggling run defense.

This game could get ugly fast if Dallas being able to use a “pick your poison” offense, and the Giants could struggle to match up from a personnel perspective. That will make the job Martindale does scheming to put the players he has available in position to succeed that much more important if the Giant are to come away with the win.