Hey guys, I don't know if you've heard, but the New York Giants are playing football this Sunday.
That's right: Real football that really matters.
One of the biggest questions facing the New York Giants coming into the 2015 was their defense. Though the pass rush surged in the second half of the season, buoyed by increased playing time for Robert Ayers (prior to his own injury), Damontre Moore, Kerry Wynn, and Jay Bromley. New York ultimately finished fourth in the league in sacks with 47.
But while the Giants got after opposing quarterbacks, they were among the worst in the league when it came to stopping opponents' running games. The Giants finished the season giving up a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry, and third-worst with 135.1 yards per game allowed.
So, what will the Giants need to do to when the Dallas Cowboys have the ball Sunday night?
Their game-plan has to be pretty simple.
The Cowboys have invested tremendous resources in their offensive line over the past few years, and it finally paid dividends in 2014 when they began force-feeding running back Demarco Murray. That combination allowed them to take pressure off Tony Romo, control the clock, and limit how much the defense was exposed.
As strange as it might sound with a quarterback like Tony Romo and receiving options like Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, the Giants best option to put themselves in the best position to win the game is to stop their run game and put the ball in Tony Romo's hands.
The Cowboys had questions regarding their running back situation coming out of the preseason. Demarco Murray, who lead the league in yards after contact and was second in the league in forcing missed tackles, isn't in the Dallas backfield any more. In his place are Murray's former back-up Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, former Oakland speedster Darren McFadden and new Cowboy Christine Michael. Michael looks to eventually be the new lead back for Dallas after they made a post-preseason trade for him with Seattle, but might not play in the opener. That means the Giants will have to deal with Randle, Dunbar, and McFadden.
For the Giants to defend Dallas' rushing attack, it will take more than talent on the field -- though that will be a necessity -- the Giants will need to play with discipline and respect for their assignments. More than anything, those two things were lacking in their 2014 run defense. All too often players were out of position, opening cutback lanes and exposing other players to blocks. The Giants will need players like Robert Ayers, Owa Odighizuwa, Kerry Wynn, John Hankins, Jay Bromley, Jon Beason, Devon Kennard, Landon Collins, and Cooper Taylor to step up and play disciplined football to deal with Dallas' talented offensive line.
That's something the Giants' players recognize. Cullen Jenkins talked about the importance of adapting to the running styles of Dallas' different backs before the Giants' practice Wednesday.
"Well, you've got to be ready to adjust to any back now. When Murray was back there, you kind of understood what type of runner he was. You prepare for it for most of the game. Now, you know, they've got a lot of choices and a lot of different backs, different styles that they can throw at you. Got to be disciplined, real disciplined up front," Jenkins said.
"It's a running back by committee. They have a lot of different weapons. Still going to be a threatening running game because of the offensive line. That's the strength of their team. Us upfront, that's going to be directly related to us. We've got to match up against their offensive line, hold it down, and help out the guys behind us."
If the Giants can stop the Cowboys' rushing attack, that puts the ball in Tony Romo's hands and makes their offense more one-dimensional. It also exposes the weaker aspect of the Cowboys' offensive line, pass protection. Romo was sacked 29 times on only 435 passing attempts last season. Stopping the run allows Steve Spagnuolo to turn loose the Giants' pass rushers and dial up his trademark blitzes.
"As a unit we've just all got to do our jobs. We've got to be solid when it comes to the run game and when we get our chances to pass rush we've got to make them count," said Hankins.
If the Giants can succeed in getting pressure on Romo, that should increase the Giants' likelihood of getting off the field on third down or getting the ball right back to the Giants' offense with a turnover.
That's at least how it has to work in theory, but it all starts up front with stopping the run.