Giants' run defense key to breaking Cowboys' win streak
When facing the Dallas Cowboys, job No. 1 is obviously to stop the run game. Doing that alone won’t guarantee a victory, but it’s the single-biggest hurdle an opponent needs to clear to have a shot. A week ago, the Minnesota Vikings held rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott to his lowest rushing total since Week 2, and while the Cowboys still found plays elsewhere, Dallas ended up with its lowest point total (17) of the season.
The Vikings have a decent enough run defense, but the New York Giants are even better in that regard. In the first week of the season, the Giants held Elliott to just 51 rushing yards on 20 carries. That was both the lowest rushing total and average per-carry mark of Elliott’s season so far by some distance, and it marked the only other time this season that Dallas has put up fewer than 20 points in a game.
Some things have changed since that first encounter between the NFC East rivals, and two notable personnel changes, in particular, have swung in Dallas’ favor: the loss of DE Jason Pierre-Paul for the Giants, and, strangely enough, the loss of starting LG La’el Collins for the Cowboys.
Pierre-Paul is currently the seventh-highest-graded edge defender in the entire league this season (sixth if you discount Justin Houston and his 172 total snaps). JPP has barely left the field, playing 793 snaps through Week 13. The only edge defender to have more playing time this season is his teammate, DE Olivier Vernon, and Pierre-Paul is 59 snaps (or a whole game) clear of any other player on the edge.
Dallas’ La’el Collins has sky-high potential, but in reality, he has never been particularly close to fulfilling it. Most of the games he plays in feature highlight-worthy plays of a crushing block, or even impressive hustle to make it down field and pick up a defensive back, but on a play-by-play basis, he gets beat—a lot. The team lucked into a significant upgrade when Collins went down injured and was replaced by Ronald Leary.
That first game against the Giants was by far the worst outing that Collins produced this season (37.9 game grade), and people forget that Leary was a starting guard before Collins fell into the team’s lap because of highly-unusual draft circumstances. Dallas essentially felt compelled to start Collins at guard just to get him on the field; it wasn’t a position that Leary necessarily lost on merit.
Defending the run in today’s NFL is all about execution. There isn’t a whole lot of surprise in terms of the run concepts that teams utilize, and most teams are running the same things every week. It’s simply a case of how quickly a defense can recognize the run concept, and whether they can win their assignments to defeat it.
League-wide, teams run either inside or outside zone on 56.7 percent of their run plays. Dallas is even more predictable, because they are a heavily outside-zone favoring team. The Cowboys run outside zone on 42.2 percent of their run plays, with inside zone being used 20.0 percent of the time. A defense knows what they are going to see when playing the Dallas Cowboys’ run game—the question is simply whether or not they can can stop it. The answer to that begins right in the middle of the defense.
Minnesota’s Linval Joseph is one of the better run-stuffing defensive tackles in the game, but he was completely dominated by the Dallas zone-running game, and it took him until late in the third quarter to even get a win on his assignment against those concepts.
The exact blocking assignments on outside zone runs will differ snap to snap, depending on the exact alignment of the defensive front, but the play remains the same. This first example from Thursday night is the typical example. Joseph is lined up at nose tackle in Minnesota’s 4-3 defense at a one-technique spot (shade of the center), and the run is going to head to his side of the field.
This should be advantage to the nose tackle, because in order to execute his block, C Travis Frederick has to get all of the way around him, and then cut off his pursuit to the ball.
That’s exactly what he does, without any help, and by the time Elliott hits the line, there is a widening running lane opening up in front of him. If Joseph had simply maintained his gap, this lane doesn’t exist and the run is diverted. That really is run defense in a nutshell—maintaining gap control.
Two plays later, the Cowboys run outside zone to the left side (from their perspective), and this time Frederick has a head start by alignment.
This can be played in one of two ways, given how the two teams line up. Either Frederick can help RG Zack Martin make up the gap to cut off Joseph, or they can execute a “pin-and-pull” block, where Frederick down-blocks on Joseph to cut him off, given his leverage advantage, and Martin pulls around to assume what would have been Frederick’s assignment normally, and head to attack the linebacker.
They go for the pin-and-pull option, and Joseph is stoned at the line. By the time Elliott is hitting the numbers on that side of the field, Joseph has barely progressed past the hash marks where the play began.
This was a dominant display by Dallas against one of the league’s better run defenders in Joseph; in Week 14, however, the Cowboys will be facing against arguably the best run defender in the NFL: Giants DT Damon Harrison.
Harrison has the league’s highest run-defense grade among defensive interior players, at 87.7, has recorded a run stop on a league-high 17.1 percent of his snaps against the run (almost 5 percent higher than Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald in second place), and won PFF’s award for the best run defender in the league at any position a year ago.
If you take a look at how Harrison performed this week against Pittsburgh’s offense—with the Steelers running the same outside zone play that the Cowboys likes to run—we see a marked difference from Joseph.
This is effectively the same situation as the first play we looked at, with Harrison in the one-technique spot to the play side, and immediately he changes how the Steelers execute their blocks. While the Cowboys trusted Frederick to make his block one-on-one with no help, even though he had to get all the way around Joseph to make it happen, the Steelers elect to give C Maurkice Pouncey help from LG Ramon Foster to get the block seated. This little chip delays him from attacking the linebacker and already changes the angle that Le’Veon Bell has to attack, because LB Keenan Robinson now has leverage outside Foster to turn the play back inside.
The Steelers run so little outside zone that it’s tough to say if the help they gave Pouncey a specific result of Harrison being the opposing DT, or just because that’s how they run their outside zone plays. The bigger point is how Harrison defeats Pouncey’s block, rather than the help he drew from the chip. While Joseph allowed Frederick to work all the way around him, Harrison engages him quickly and rocks him back, cutting off his progress and maintaining his leverage to the gap he started off in. The play gets collapsed down from the backside, and Harrison, along with Pouncey, ultimately ends up in a heap on the floor. The pair, however, have collapsed to the play side and created a giant mess at the intended point of attack in the space that had been opened up by Dallas and Frederick’s block.
Harrison isn’t a one-man band in New York, but he is the league’s best run defender, and the most important player the Cowboys need to be able to block if they are going to have the same kind of rushing success they typically rely on.
The rest of the Giants’ defensive front has also defended the run well this season, though the loss of Pierre-Paul is potentially a body blow against this unit. The biggest issue with JPP missing is the complete unknown quantity that brings into the equation. With Pierre-Paul and Vernon playing so often, there have been very few snaps to go around for New York’s other defensive ends. Owamagbe Odighizuwa has played just 122 snaps this season, and never more than 21 in a single game. His grades have not been good, but he has had very limited opportunity to distinguish himself one way or another, and is the only other defensive end to play more than 100 snaps this season.
Vernon, Harrison, and DT Johnathan Hankins represent three-quarters of arguably the best defensive line the Cowboys have run up against when it comes to defending the run, and one that did a great job of limiting them the first time they played. The Giants have lost one of the four horsemen with the injury to JPP, however, and that could be enough for Dallas to exploit and keep on trucking on the ground.