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Giants-Cowboys: What to expect when Dallas has the ball

The Giants’ defense seeks to return to its pre-Raiders form

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants
CeeDee Lamb
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants’ season is, for all intents and purposes, over. The question is if they will even win one more game — and whether such a win would be counterproductive.

Well, that’s one of the questions. The other is evaluating which players are part of the future of the franchise and which are not. On the defensive side of the ball, that starts with Xavier McKinney, a player about whom they may have answered the question before the season even started. But there are others, too: Jason Pinnock, Dane Belton, Isaiah Simmons, D.J. Davidson, Adoree’ Jackson, Cor’Dale Flott, Azeez Ojulari, Nick McCloud, and Darnay Holmes are among the players whose roles on the 2024 Giants are being assessed, either whether they’ll be on the team at all or whether they’ll start.

That evaluation process starts with one of the hardest tests for the Giants over the past decade. They’re 1-12 in their last 13 meetings with the Dallas Cowboys and 0-3 under Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll. With Tommy DeVito under center, if the Giants have any chance of keeping this game close, it will need to come from the defensive side of the ball.

What can we expect when the Cowboys have the football, other than an absolute drubbing?

CeeDee on fire

CeeDee Lamb has been on an absolute tear of late, putting up 469 receiving yards on 30 receptions over his previous three games. He’s caught 81.1% of his targets during that time with 15.6 yards per reception, two touchdowns, an incredible 3.81 yards per route run, 5.1 YAC per reception, and four of five contested catches. For the season, Lamb ranks ninth among 72 qualified receivers in catches, fourth in yards, fourth in yards per route run, ninth in contested catch rate, sixth in missed tackles forced, and eighth in targeted passer rating.

How are the Giants going to even think about stopping him? Adoree’ Jackson clearly wasn’t the answer, as Lamb had two catches for 58 yards against him. Tre Hawkins allowed a catch for 19 yards when going up against Lamb. Micah McFadden allowed only one catch for no yards, but a linebacker will not be regularly covering a wide receiver. Overall, Lamb had four receptions for 77 yards in a game that Dallas won primarily with their defense and special teams.

Lamb has lined up in the slot on 65.7% of his snaps this season, which means he will likely draw Cor’Dale Flott as a matchup. Pro Football Focus has been up and down on Flott’s performance this season: he has a 68.7 coverage grade, which ranks in the 71st percentile among cornerbacks with at least cover snaps. On the other hand, he’s had a coverage grade below 60 in three of his six games, including 41.0 against Las Vegas. His 1.33 yards per cover snap allowed out of the slot ranks 44th out of 58 defenders with at least 50 slot snaps (although one missed tackle from Bobby Okereke added an extra 32 yards to his total; without that, he’d be at 1.07, which would rank 20th).

Deonte Banks has struggled in his last couple of games, so he’s probably not the player you want to put on Lamb — especially not in the slot, where he’s given up 1.97 yards per cover snap (ranked 124th out of 133 players with at least 30 slot snaps). Flott seems like a better option, although he did allow three receptions for 41 yards against the Raiders. Since the Giants play so much man coverage, whoever covers Lamb is more likely than not to travel with him when he’s in motion, which is often.

Two ideal pass rush matchups

The Giants’ pass rush bitterly disappointed against the Las Vegas Raiders, pressuring him just four times on 25 dropbacks. The 16% pressure rate was the second-lowest faced by any quarterback in Week 9.

Dak Prescott has performed quite well under pressure this season, posting the fourth-highest PFF grade under pressure among quarterbacks (71.6). He has the highest completion percentage under pressure (62.5%). Still, quarterback pressure stats tend to be volatile, and it’s rare to find a passer who performs better when he’s under pressure than when he’s kept clean. Therefore, the Giants need to find a way to put pressure on Prescott, who has the eighth-lowest pressure rate among passers at 32.5%.

The Cowboys’ offensive line actually ranks 19th in pass-blocking grade, per PFF. The reasons for that are right tackle Terence Steele and center Tyler Biadasz. Steele’s 35.0 pass-blocking grade ranks 71st out of 73 qualified tackles (worse than Evan Neal’s). He has an 8.4% pressure rate, while the league average for tackles is 5.5%, and he has allowed six sacks and six other quarterback hits. Biadasz’s 59.9 pass-blocking grade ranks 16th out of 35 qualified centers (which speaks to the level of center play around the NFL this season), and his 5.2% pressure rate is also significantly worse than the 3.3% center average.

These are two spots where the Giants should clearly be able to take advantage. Dexter Lawrence had a disappointing game against Raiders center Andre James, recording no pressures, but James’ pass-blocking grade is a full 10 points higher than Biadasz’s. This is a prime matchup for Lawrence, who still has an absurd 17.8% pressure rate this season.

Meanwhile, the Giants should line up Kayvon Thibodeaux over Steele as often as possible. Thibodeaux did not record a single pressure in Week 1 despite lining up primarily against Steele, but he still has an opportunity to redeem himself in Week 10. He also had no pressures against the Raiders. Still, without knowing whether Azeez Ojulari will play Thibodeaux is the Giants’ only edge rusher with any real pass rush ability, and giving him a favorable matchup should be the priority.

Giants’ LB and S vs. Cowboys’ RBs and TEs

After Lamb, tight end Jake Ferguson and running back Tony Pollard have the next-most receptions. Overall, Ferguson is the second-most targeted player on the team, while Pollard is fourth (with Michael Gallup in between). That means the Giants will need to put a heavy focus on those two players besides Lamb.

The players mainly lined up against running backs and tight ends are the linebackers and safeties. That puts Okereke, McFadden, McKinney, and Pinnock in the primary line of fire.

The coverage results from those players have been mixed. Okereke is one of the top-rated cover linebackers in the NFL, ranking fourth with an 85.5 PFF coverage grade this season. Other than one play where Tyreek Hill ran past Okereke for a 64-yard touchdown, he averages 0.55 yards per cover snap, which would be the sixth-best mark in football. His 13% forced incompletion rate ranks sixth among 67 qualified linebackers, and he has three pass breakups.

Opposite Okereke, though, McFadden has allowed 1.09 yards per cover snap, which ranks 57th. His 52.6 coverage grade may be better than the 30.0 he posted in 2022, but it still ranks 57th, as well. He doesn’t have one long play to blame, either, as his longest reception allowed is 22 yards. He just gets sliced and diced methodically.

At safety, McKinney’s 67.6 coverage grade is actually slightly above average (27th out of 65 qualifiers). Pinnock’s 62.6 is below average (38th). McKinney is allowing just 0.38 yards per cover snap, which ranks 17th among safeties, but he’s benefited from several drops by tight ends. So has Pinnock, but his 0.51 yards per cover snap is slightly below average (34th).

Can the linebackers and safeties take away Prescott’s favorite secondary options?

What about Pollard’s rushing?

Statistically, Pollard is having a lackluster season compared to last year. His 65.1 PFF rushing grade ranks 38th out of 46 running backs with at least 50 carries. He’s averaging just 4.0 yards per carry (22nd) and 2.62 yards after contact per attempt (29th), and he has only eight missed tackles forced all season (40th).

The primary difference for Pollard is his lack of explosive rushes. In 2022, he had 31 rushes of 10+ yards on 193 carries (16.1%). He gained 47.1% of his yardage on breakaway runs (15+ yards), the second-highest rate in the NFL. In 2023, that’s gone down to eight rushes of 10+ yards on 120 carries (6.7%) and 23.2% of his yardage gained on breakaways (24th).

Gaining a lower yardage rate on breakaways can be indicative of a more consistent back rather than an explosive one. In Pollard’s case, though, his success rate is also pedestrian, as he ranks 24th at 38.3%. His EPA per attempt is -0.126, which ranks 30th. He hasn’t been efficient or explosive.

Still, Pollard rushed 14 times for 70 yards against the Giants in the first meeting, so they need to be wary of the run. The Cowboys’ best run formation is 11 personnel, especially on runs to the right.