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

How will the Giants handle a talented Dallas defense?

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The New York Giants open the season at home Sunday night against an arch-rival, the Dallas Cowboys. New York has one win in their last 12 matchups against Dallas and four wins in their last 20. Brian Daboll’s team exceeded expectations last season but lost both their games against Dallas.

Despite only having one divisional win in 2022, the Giants made the playoffs and won a playoff game for the first time since Super Bowl XLVI. With a new and improved roster, the Giants will look to match their divisional win total from last season in Week 1.

Dallas’ defensive changes

Winning in Week 1 will not be easy. The Cowboys ranked sixth in the NFL in scoring defense last season, allowing 19.7 points per game. Their team ranked second in turnover differential (+10), and they led the league in turnovers (33) and forced fumbles (17).

Dallas’ talented defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, was retained and looks to lead a talented unit that’s highlighted by EDGE/LB Micah Parsons, who had 90 pressures last season. Run defense was one vulnerability in last year’s defense for Dallas. The Cowboys allowed 129 rushing yards per game (11th-worst). However, the Cowboys spent their first-round pick on Michigan defensive lineman Mazi Smith, who should help fortify the trenches for Quinn.

The Cowboys also re-signed linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and traded a fifth-round pick for five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who had a good overall season on a bad Indianapolis Colts team last year. Gilmore is an upgrade opposite Trevon Diggs and will allow Quinn to call even more man coverage.

Game plan

The Giants added several explosive offensive playmakers during the offseason. Daniel Jones led the league in play-action bootlegs, and I expect that, and RPO plays, to be a factor in the Week 1 game plan. Offensive coordinator Mik Kafka and Daboll will employ a quick-hitting passing attack, and zone-read plays to slow down the pass rush of Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence.

New York has recently used the run to set up the pass-through play action. This season, I expect the Giants to use more of the pass to set up the run, with Jones’ mobility as a focal point of conflict for opposing defenses. Against Dallas, though, these pass concepts have to be quick.

I expect the Cowboys' end men on the line of scrimmage (EMOLOS) to be more disciplined with their assignments and aware of Jones’ abilities on the ground. Parsons will likely be the read defender on zone reads, but rolling Jones blindly to his side on a play-action bootleg could be risky, due to Parsons’ pursuit, speed, and awareness.

The RPO 25-yard play to Isaiah Hodgins vs. Carolina wasn’t a new concept. New York used it late last season, and it leverages Jones’ mobility while providing the quarterback with several options toward half the field, while the defense’s initial movement is away from the roll-side to account for the run element.

The Giants ran that out of 12 personnel, and I expect similar creative passing concepts from heavier personnel in an attempt to have Quinn go heavier on defense. If Quinn decides to go lighter, the Giants may lean on Saquon Barkley more and force Mazi Smith to prove his first-round value.

The Giants will likely run from condensed sets with Isaiah Hodgins as the slot receiver to block down on crack toss plays. If Dallas runs man coverage frequently, they’ll condense their formation, and the Giants can attempt to exploit space to the outside with power-gap runs; they may look to force linebacker Damone Clark to fit the run well to the outside.

In Week 12 last year, the Giants ran power gap almost four times as much as zone. The sample size was small since the Giants only had 18 designed rushing attempts. Barkley ran power eight times and zone only twice; Brightwell ran four zone rushes with one power, and Brieda added a power rush.

New York will also use 12 personnel and have Daniel Bellinger assisting Evan Neal with his assignment, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see Parris Campbell operate as a wingback in what we called PONY personnel last year, which typically consists of two running backs. Kafka will have creative run and pass designs up his sleeves.

Dallas’ proclivity to run man coverage concepts - typically Cover-1 - will cause the Giants to incorporate condensed stacks with rub routes to create space. That’s not necessarily different from what we witnessed down the stretch of last season, but the presence of Darren Waller, and Jalin Hyatt will enhance the effectiveness, and change how the defense plays the Giants.

Dallas will use physical safety Jayron Kearse in man coverage against Waller. Kearse is one of the better man covering safeties in the NFL; that won’t necessarily stop Waller, who will receive free access routes on the back side of 3x1 sets, as we saw in the preseason.

Hyatt should also receive backside 3X1 duties and will be tasked to run a drag underneath three clear out routes - an Air Raid special. New York tried this twice against Carolina in the preseason; it didn’t work, but, depending on matchups in man coverage, I won’t be shocked to see if the Giants attempt to have him break into space with blockers in front.

Expect Daboll and Kafka to attempt Hyatt deep early in the game to create breathing room for the rushing attack, and the quick passes. Trevon Diggs is a talented cornerback, but Hyatt’s speed is the real deal. The Giants will try their stutter double-move and force Dallas to account for Hyatt’s speed without safety help against middle-of-the-field closed looks.

The Giants coaching staff will have tricks up their sleeves, and they will adjust their game plan to account for Quinn’s in-game tendencies. The Cowboys blitzed 25.6% (13th highest) of the time in 2022. I’m not sure how often the Giants will be in true five-man protection. Even though Dallas doesn’t need to bring the heat with their pass rush, I expect them to apply pressure until the Giants burn them for the decision.

Last season, the Giants did an excellent job using their tight ends and running backs quickly in protection before they released into open space for an easy check-down option. Waller, Belligner, and Barkley will likely operate in this role, and we may even see a screen to one of these individuals early if Quinn decides to bring the heat.

Final thoughts

The Giants will have their hands full on Sunday night, but they have positioned themselves to compete and win this football game. Dallas has impressive talent on defense, and this game will likely come down to how the Giants’ protection holds up against the Dallas pass rush. Evan Neal had a welcome-to-the-NFL moment against Dallas in Week 3 of last season.

Neal, John Michael-Schmitz, and the rest of the Giants’ offesnvie line must give Jones time to find his new toys. In Week 3 against the Cowboys last year, Jones was pressured on 24 of his 37 dropbacks, which was the most by a Giants quarterback since ESPN started tracking that data.

According to Pro Football Focus, Dallas had 35 pressures (individual player pressures) in that game, and 27 in Week 12. For reference, the Giants had 30 total pressures in both games. There are reasons for the disparity other than talent issues, but the point still remains - the team that does a better job protecting their quarterback while harassing the other quarterback has a better chance to win.

Giants’ Nation will don blue and create a hostile environment for Dallas. A win won’t be easy for the Giants, but it is achievable, and it would be a great way for New York to kick off the second season of the Joe Schoen/Brian Daboll era.