There are a ton of other stories, like how the Giants will cope with the loss of Jason Pierre-Paul, the potential return of Justin Pugh and Shane Vereen, will have to continue to lean on their defense or will the offense finally pull its own weight.
But it all comes down to the battle in the trenches. It’s simply a fact of life now that the Giants will have to deal with life without JPP. And if the Cowboys are able to stay on the field and control the flow of the game with their rushing attack, it simply doesn’t matter if the Giants get their own offensive act together or if they just stay offensive.
So what are the Giants up against, and how can they deal with it?
Know Thy Enemy
At this point the Giants should know the Dallas offensive line well. It’s effectively the same unit they’ve faced five times in the last three years. Their tendencies are set, they know how to work together, and which plays they run well and which ones they don’t.
There is a lot of gnashing of teeth about the Giants’ offensive play calling, how it is too predictable. However, predictability is often considered a virtue if it works.
“They know who they are, and they dare the other team to stop them.”
That’s the general consensus on the Seattle Seahawks’ defense. They might have an unorthodox defensive front, but there is little disguise or skulduggery in their defense. They line up, play their defense, and simply out-execute and out-play opposing offenses.
The Cowboys’ offensive line is the same way.
They are, at their core, a zone running team. Per Pro Football Focus, they call outside zone runs 42.2 percent of the time and inside zones 20 percent of the time. That is well above league average, which is just above 50 percent of the time for either outside or inside zone runs. So on any given running play, a defense can feel pretty confident that they’re going to see zone blocking, and that it will be an outside zone run.
But knowing that doesn’t really matter because the Cowboys have talented up front who consistently execute their assignments.
But what is a zone run (or more accurately, zone blocking)? Put simply, zone blocking calls on offensive linemen to block an area of the field and whoever is in front of them, rather than a specific player. It calls for more athleticism and teamwork from the offensive line than a traditional man-blocking scheme, but its potential to stress a front and create holes is greater.
As you can see, and probably already should have guessed, the outside zone is an outside run. The offensive line blocks play-side, parallel to the line of scrimmage while the running back runs behind them.
In this case the running back doesn’t have a specific hole to hit, instead waiting for the offensive line to stress the defensive line to the breaking point then either run around the edge or take advantage of a cut-back lane. The back-side blocker, the right tackle in the diagram above, has the responsibility of stopping the left defensive end from pursuing the play and possibly chasing down the RB from behind, especially if he is forced to use a cut-back lane.
The Inside Zone is similar to the outside zone (or stretch) run, but a bit different. The blockers still use zone blocking techniques, but this time rather than getting the defense to flow toward the sideline, they look to open up a hole between the tackles.
Here the center initially blocks the 1-technique along with the left guard, then works to the second level to block the weak-side linebacker. The right guard and right tackle work together to block the 3-technique before the guard releases to block the middle linebacker.
The end result looks a lot like a power run between the tackles, but rather than attacking a specific gap, the running back has the option to cut back and use whatever hole becomes available — aka: “Run To Daylight”.
Winning The Line Of Scrimmage
Knowing what the Cowboys are going to do and stopping them from doing it are two very different things.
We’ve seen the Giants shut down the Dallas running game once before this year, so let’s take a look at how they did it.
Play 1 (Q1, 12:05)
The Cowboys began establishing their rushing attack right at the start of the game. And in keeping with their trend since then, they started with outside zone plays.
The blocking here is a bit different from a straight stretch run, with the tight end and left tackle making man blocks at the snap, but the left guard through right tackle make typical zone blocks to try and get the defense flowing. The guards and center will try to block along the line of scrimmage to create a seam while the right tackle goes up to the second level to block the defender expected to make the tackle.
Jason Pierre-Paul is left unblocked on this play.
Letting the tape advance a couple seconds, we can see the blocking scheme start to develop. Jason Witten has the unenviable task of trying to block Olivier Vernon while Johnathan Hankins is blocked by Tyronn Smith.
Already you can see Damon Harrison doing a fantastic job of using his hands to make Zack Martin’s block an utter non-factor, pushing him to the ground.
The center and left guard have engaged in blocks, but this play is already over.
Witten simply was not a match for Vernon on the play, and he was shed as Ezekiel Elliott approached. Vernon made the tackle, driving Elliott back into Harrison to end the play. Even if they hadn’t made the tackle, Jonathan Casillas closed after forcing Free to miss the block while Johnathan Hankins stood up two offensive linemen, forcing the run back inside towards his teammates.
The Giants defense won handily here, and it had nothing to do with Elliott or Prescott playing their first games. It had everything to do with discipline on behalf of the Giants’ defense and two key players beating their blockers when they had to.
Play 2 (Q4, 11:51)
The natural compliment to an outside zone game is the inside zone. It’s effectively similar to a power run play and could take advantage of a defense that is either expecting an outside run or tired toward the end of the game.
That’s what we have here, midway through the fourth quarter.
The blocking scheme here is fairly simple and the key blocks here are in the middle. The Giants have lined Vernon up as a stand-up rusher in the five-technique (Devon Kennard is effectively the 9-technique from his SAM position) while Damon Harrison is at the 1-technique and John Hankins is the 3-technique.
Harrison draws the double team from the center and right guard, though the guard will try to work up to the second level.
The way the blocks are initially set, Elliott has a three potential choices. Left, Center, and Right. The seam between the left guard and center is immediately taken away by Vernon, who drives the guard back to the center, which also keeps the right guard from working up to the second level.
That leaves Elliott with the right B or C gaps between the right guard and tackle or tackle and tight end respectively. Thanks to Vernon and Harrison, Kelvin Sheppard is unblocked to defend the B gap while Casillas is in position to defend the C gap or D gap outside of the tight end.
The Giants’ front already had this play well defended, with the blockers properly dealt with, not giving an inch on the line of scrimmage, and linebackers with solid gap discipline.
Then Hankins goes and makes the extra effort to limit this to just a two yard gain. He does a tremendous job of shedding the right guard, getting free enough to start the tackle on Elliott. Casillas comes in to make sure the running back goes to the ground rather than wriggle out of Hankins’ tackle. Putting an emphatic period on the play, Harrison gets away from the double team and jumps on the tackle.
Can the Giants still deal with the Cowboys’ running game? The answer should be a cautious “yes.” They won’t have the same kind of force on the outside, but they will need the trio of Romeo Okwara, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, and Kerry Wynn to step up and at the very least not lose their battles. The Giants can be pretty certain that the Cowboys will test whichever side of the line one of those three relative unknowns is on.
Beyond that, the zone running plays the Cowboys frequently employ demand discipline from defenders. Not only will the defensive line need to keep their gaps — build the “picket fence” at the line of scrimmage — but the linebackers will need to come up and fill the correct gaps. Individual players will win and lose individual match-ups over the course of the game, that’s just the way things are, but if the defense wants to remain stout without JPP, nobody can do any less, or any more, than his job. If a defender freelances and tries to do too much, it can be just as bad for the defense as if they loaf on a play.
The good news for the Giants is that they still have Vernon, Harrison, and Hankins up front, and that is a lot more than most teams can say.