3TFO: Giants @ Cowboys, Week 1
It’s rare that a contest between two non-playoff teams is deserving of the first Sunday Night Football game of the season — but few rivals spark the excitement of the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. Big Blue may be 4-0 at Jerry Jones’ new stadium, but three of those contests have been decided in the final seconds, with New York being a Dez Bryant finger length away from a crushing loss in Week 9 of last season. And given how similar these two rosters are, we’re likely in for another thriller Sunday night. Both quarterbacks will leverage their talented receiver group to attack suspect safeties, while both offensive lines will try to rise above their injuries against a dangerous pass rush. As hotly contested as the NFC East is, a Week 1 divisional victory could pay great dividends in late December. Here are three matchups that could decide whether New York or Dallas gets a big leg up to start the 2013 season.
The Giants have had schizophrenic results when covering Jason Witten over the years, and that held true in 2012. After being limited to a mere two receptions in the season opener, he exploded for an absurd 18 catches in their midseason rematch. Whether by design or by product of a desperate Cowboys comeback, Witten ran 63 pass routes in Week 8, after just 23 in Week 1. He dominated the seam, earning 16 receptions on out-routes and hitches. Six of them came at the expense of the since-departed Michael Boley, but nearly every member of the Giants’ linebacking and safety corps fell victim to Witten.
It’s unclear how the Giants will cover the All-Pro tight end now that Boley is gone. Nickel linebacker Jacquian Williams, who wasn’t active for that Week 8 game, is an obvious replacement, but he’s had limited experience with Witten. Antrel Rolle has covered the Cowboys tight end on five targets over the past three seasons, allowing just 13 yards with a pass defensed, but he’s struggled when playing in the box as part of the Giants “big nickel” package. However the Giants approach it, all of their linebackers and safeties will have to be on their game to keep Witten under wraps.
The Cowboys may not be able to use Witten as they’d like if they have to keep him in as a blocker, which could be the case if their revamped offensive line doesn’t gel quickly. The Giants pressured Tony Romo on 33.7% of his drop-backs in their two meetings last season, forcing him into four sacks and two interceptions in their Week 8 victory. Jason Pierre-Paul was the main culprit, collecting 12 quarterback pressures in the two contests, with seven of them coming at Tyron Smith’s expense. Smith earned the fourth-highest grade of any offensive tackle in 2011, but struggled significantly when he moved to the blindside last season. Given some of the turnover on the rest of their line, the Cowboys will need a bounce-back effort from him.
On the inside, left guard Ronald Leary and center Travis Frederick will be seeing the first snaps of their NFL careers. Leary allowed just one quarterback hurry in 44 pass block snaps this preseason, but Frederick had the third-lowest run block grade of any center in August. Mackenzy Bernadeau brings a veteran presence at right guard, but he was also the Cowboys’ poorest pass blocker last season. The biggest challenge for this trio will come from an old nemesis — Cullen Jenkins. He earned two sacks and six quarterback hurries in two games versus Dallas last season, and the former Philadelphia Eagle seems primed to continue his reign as one of the league’s best pass-rushing defensive tackles. New York’s secondary is suspect, but Dallas may not be able to test them if they can’t hold back the Giants’ pass rush.
Giants Wideouts vs. Cowboys Corners
As Jones watched Eli Manning torch the Cowboys’ cornerbacks in the Giants’ Week 17 division-clinching victory back in 2011, I imagine the Cowboys’ general manager vowed right then to overhaul his secondary. The following offseason, he signed Brandon Carr to a huge contract and traded up in the draft to select Morris Claiborne. If last year’s games against New York were any indication, the investment has already paid off. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz combined for 491 yards and 2.77 Yards Per Route Run against the Cowboys in 2011, but managed just 165 yards and 1.24 YPRR last season. Even in New York’s Week 8 win, Carr and Claiborne allowed just 68 yards in coverage on 13 targets.
The wild card here could be second-year receiver Rueben Randle. Mario Manningham brought an extra dimension to the Giants’ pass attack in 2011, something New York missed last season. Randle had the most success in the last game against the Cowboys, totalling 68 yards on just seven pass routes. Slot cornerback Orlando Scandrick performed well against Cruz last season, but Randle’s success on the outside could open things up for the Giants in the middle. Throw in Dallas’ inexperienced safeties and New York’s banged up offensive line, and you can see the advantage that the winner of these one-on-one matchups will get.
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