3TFO: Cowboys @ Giants, Week 12
We’ve come a long way since the Dallas Cowboys defeated the turnover-plagued New York Giants in the season’s first Sunday Night Football game. That loss sent Big Blue spiraling into an 0-6 start, but they’ve since recovered with four straight wins. The division win set Dallas up nicely to take the lead in the NFC East, but the Cowboys have ping-ponged across the .500 mark all season and now find themselves looking up at the Philadelphia Eagles in the standings.
They took different paths to get here, but these two teams are where they usually are at this time of year: firmly in the NFC East race, but one loss away from having their season derailed. A win would put the Cowboys back in the division’s driver’s seat, but a loss would drop them into a tie with New York. A victory for the Giants would prove that their recent streak isn’t just due to weak competition, but a defeat would make the last month’s work all for naught. Although I’m not sure who will be spilling blood on Sunday, I do know that the following matchups will likely decide the winner.
Defending Dallas’ Dominant D-Line
New York’s turnover troubles monopolized the headlines after their Week 1 loss, but the most dominant force on the field in that game was the Cowboys’ defensive line. Dallas pressured Eli Manning on 41.3% of his drop backs, and 23 of their 24 pressures came from their front four. DeMarcus Ware provided six of them en route to his highest single-game grade since 2010. George Selvie’s seven quarterback pressures and +3.3 grade are still his highest marks this season. Together they shared our Game Ball, but they also got help on the inside from Jason Hatcher. Our fourth-highest graded defensive tackle this season, he added six pressures of his own versus New York and has a +17.0 PFF grade in his last five games against the Giants. It looks like Ware and Hatcher will be returning from injury this week, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for a defense that will be desperate for playmakers without Sean Lee.
Though the Giants allowed a season-high nine combined sacks and quarterback hits in Week 1, Manning should expect more reliable protection this time around. Will Beatty earned a career-low -4.4 grade versus Dallas to kick off an awful September, but he’s since righted the ship and looks more like the franchise left tackle who the Giants invested in this offseason. Rookie Justin Pugh has also improved of late, allowing just seven quarterback pressures in his last five games after surrendering 28 in his first five. And while halfbacks David Wilson and Da’Rel Scott allowed a sack and two quarterback hits in pass protection against the Cowboys, Andre Brown and Brandon Jacobs have surrendered none so far this season. All three of Manning’s interceptions in that game came when he was under pressure, so a clean pocket would do wonders to avoid turnovers this time around.
Cruz, Nicks, & Randle vs. Cowboys Secondary
Despite the constant pressure by the Cowboys in Week 1, Manning still managed to move the Giants up and down the field to the tune of 450 passing yards and four touchdowns. Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Rueben Randle each passed the 100-yard mark, in one of just two games this season where all three of them earned a positive grade. In what’s become a trend in recent years, only Wes Welker has more yards from the slot this season than Cruz. Manning-to-Randle was a spotty connection during New York’s 0-6 start, with a 48.7 completion rate and six interceptions. But since then the two have gotten on the same page, completing nine of their 10 targets with three touchdowns and no picks. The question mark right now is Nicks, whose problems go beyond his inability to find the end zone. Even in his injury-plagued 2012 campaign he earned our 20th-highest wide receiver grade, but a career-low 1.67 Yards Per Route Run and six dropped passes have him looking very average this season. If he is going to break out at some point, there’s no better opportunity than against the Cowboys’ poor secondary.
The Cowboys took a risk relying on so many young players in their defensive backfield, and it hasn’t panned out well for them. Highly-touted Morris Claiborne surrendered 139 yards in coverage in Week 1 and has since been benched and injured. He should be healthy this week, but that may not be a good thing considering his previous performance against New York. Third round draft pick J.J. Wilcox should also be back in the lineup, but the rookie safety earned three straight negative coverage grades before his injury. In three starts for Wilcox, undrafted free agent rookie Jeff Heath was torched for 226 yards and four touchdowns. The Cowboys had better have made good use of their bye week, because Manning will certainly test these youngsters on Sunday.
Improved? Prove It
Romo didn’t have the biggest passing day in that Week 1 matchup, but he made the most of the opportunities the Giants gave him. New York limited Dez Bryant to a season-low 22 yards, but that came at the cost of covering Dallas’ other weapons. Miles Austin, who should be healthy this week, caught 10 of his 11 targets for 72 yards. As he so often does, Jason Witten abused the Giants’ linebackers for eight catches and 70 yards, including three first downs and two touchdowns. The Giants will likely key on Bryant again, so it’s up to the other Cowboys receivers to once again make New York pay for guarding them one-on-one.
However, the Giants have reason to believe that they can win these isolated matchups this time around. Continuing a remarkable comeback from three ACL surgeries, slot cornerback Terrell Thomas has led the Giants in both tackles and defensive stops in two of their last three games. Antrel Rolle has had his struggles in the past, but he currently has four straight games with a positive coverage grade for the first time since 2008. And after returning from a suspension and taking over the starting free safety spot, Will Hill has allowed an average of just 8.8 yards on completions into his coverage. This all comes with the caveat that the Giants have faced an incredibly easy slate of passers in the last month. Here is New York’s chance to show that their improved secondary, and their winning streak as a whole, was about more than just weak competition.
Follow Pete on Twitter: @PFF_Pete