Despite their incredible success in 2016, the 11-1 Dallas Cowboys still have a glaring concern on defense. This is no small issue with Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr. and the rest of the New York Giants' offensive weapons waiting for them on Sunday night.
Ranked 18th overall, the Cowboys defense is especially weak against the pass. Here is a quick rundown of just how bad it's been:
- 29th in total yards allowed
- 31st in completion percentage
- 31st in interceptions
- T-22nd in sacks
- 29th in opposing QB rating
It hasn't been pretty. And unfortunately, the Giants are well built to exploit it.
As we prepare for Sunday's big divisional showdown, here's a profile of the Giants' offense. Naturally, we're going to start with the head of the snake.
It feels weird to use “iron man” and “Eli Manning” in the same sentence, but you have to give the guy his due. Since taking over as the Giants' starting quarterback in 2004, Manning hasn't missed a game. He has the third-longest consecutive games streak in NFL QB history behind just his brother Peyton and Brett Favre.
Eli is one of the ultimate examples of a QB whose play goes up or down with the amount of pressure you can put on him. He will carve you up if you don't get in his face, and that's been a big problem for the Cowboys all year.
Last week, Dallas harassed Sam Bradford about as well as they have any quarterback all season. If they can get a few hits on Eli and force that first turnover, he's prone to unraveling. There aren't many above-average passers who get rattled faster than Eli, or who will give your defense more gifts once they're losing their nerve.
The problem for the Cowboys is that the Giants offense doesn't allow much time for you to get to Manning. They have one of the lower yards-per-attempt in the league. They like hitting Odell Beckham, Victor Cruz, and other receivers on short passes and letting them use their speed to pick yards up after the catch. The ball comes out fast and, once he has rhythm, Manning will dink and dunk you all the way to the endzone.
The Giants use both 31-year-old Rashad Jennings and rookie Paul Perkins fairly evenly. They have the 31st-ranked rushing offense in the NFL. Normally this would be a positive, but Dallas can't get comfortable after last week.
The Minnesota Vikings went into last Thursday's game with the worst run game in the league. They were also missing their starting center that night. Still, the running
backs averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
The Giants' passing offense is far more threatening than Minnesota's, meaning things should be even more open for the running backs than last week. New York's already had rushing success against Dallas this year, getting 113 yards yards on 24 carries in Week One.
The Cowboys do have a few things they can feel good about. The linebacker position is far more stabilized now than it was then. Youngsters Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson have improved throughout the year and will be much better in support. They will have to be, because the safeties will likely be staying deeper than usual.
You also have to watch out for the Giants' backs in the passing game. Last week, Rashad Jennings had six catches for 34 yards and a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He and Paul Perkins combined for seven catches against the Chicago Bears two weeks before that.
It's another great season for Odell Beckham Jr. He is currently in the top five in the NFL for catches, yards, and touchdowns. His numbers tend to take a big hit against the Cowboys, however.
Beckham has only ever had one eye-popping performance against Dallas. Here is a look at his five games against the Cowboys:
Obviously, the Cowboys have done a good job through the years of scheming for Beckham and keeping him contained. It will be interesting to see if they go with veteran Orlando Scandrick or standout rookie Anthony Brown in coverage against the Giants' top weapon.
There is still plenty to be concerned about after OBJ. The Giants drafted Sterling Shepard to replace Victor Cruz, but then Cruz got healthy and now they have both playing well. Both are capable of making big plays both on a deep pass or running after a short route. It could be a rough day for Brandon Carr, who struggles against speed.
All year, Dallas has been content to give up short yardage to opposing offenses. They have focused on stopping big plays and forcing you to march the field and chew up clock. It's obviously worked during the 11-game win streak, but it can backfire if your offense isn't performing at its usual efficiency.
Last week, Dallas got away with this because the Vikings just didn't have enough offensive firepower. The Giants don't have that problem.
New York uses both Larry Donnell and Will Tye a fair bit, with Tye being the more dangerous receiving threat. He is currently third on the team in catches behind Beckham and Shepard.
The Cowboys have had their issues with opposing tight ends through the years, and this season is no different. According to Yahoo, they currently give up the 6th-most fantasy points to tight ends.
What's worse, they haven't even seen the best players in the league. This year, Dallas has only played against two (Jordan Reed & Zach Miller) of the league's top-10 tight ends as rated by Pro Football Focus.
As already mentioned, the Cowboys will likely give up some big chunks of yards to the tight ends as they would any other receiver. The key will be keeping these big targets from hauling in touchdowns once they get down to the redzone. Tye and Donnell only have one score apiece this year, so that's one positive.
The Giants' offensive line isn't a stellar group. Still, they do a good job of keeping Eli Manning clean in a passing-focused offense. Manning helps with his quick release on a lot of short routes.
Here is a quick rundown of the Giants' starting linemen and their Pro Football Focus ratings for their positions:
LT – Ereck Flowers (60th)
- LG – Justin Pugh (4th)
- C – Weston Richburg (25th)
- RG – John Jerry (24th)
- RT – Bobby Hart (46th)
Clearly, their biggest weakness is on the edges. This is good for the Dallas defense, which has its biggest problems at defensive end. DeMarcus Lawrence may get his best matchup all year against Flowers.
The Giants will hope that Pugh returns from injury this week, which he's currently projected to do. He is one spot below Zack Martin in guard rankings and a key to whatever run success they might be able to have.