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.
Ezekiel Elliott vs Byron Jones Part II: The Case For Paying Zeke
It's a debate that has raged on social media for some time now and it likely won't slow down as the offseason progresses and the Dallas Cowboys begin to hand out massive contracts to their top players. Pay Ezekiel Elliott? Pay Byron Jones? If you could only pay one, which would you pay?
This week fellow Inside The Star Staff Writer, Kevin Brady took to Twitter to poll the populous and his results were a bit surprising to me.
if you can only pay one it should be
The results inspired me to see what would happen if I put the same poll on my timeline.
Inspired by my teammate @KevinBrady88, if you can only pay one, which would it be?
On Monday, Kevin wrote a piece looking at one of the difficult decisions facing the Dallas Cowboys this offseason or next. If the Cowboys could only extend Byron Jones OR Ezekiel Elliott, who should they choose? Kevin, as am I, is a firm believer in Byron Jones ability and says the Cowboys should extend them, and I agree. But let's look at the other side of the argument.
To begin, the Cowboys should and probably will get both guys contract extensions either this offseason or next. It's not impossible with the cap continuing to increase at a rate of about $8-12 million per year that the Cowboys will have the space to get the deals done that they need to get done. Ezekiel Elliott and Byron Jones included.
Byron Jones settled in nicely at cornerback during his first full season at cornerback and knowing what we know about Jones, he won't be satisfied with a second team All-Pro appearance. Expect him to get better. However, if there's a single player that represents the current identity of the Dallas Cowboys, it's Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys made him the fourth overall pick in 2016 and haven't looked back in their plan to establish the running game. For his career Elliott has averaged 26.9 touches per game over the course of his 40 games.
Here's a look at what Elliott's per game and per 16 game paces look like through the first three seasons of his career.
As you can see from the table above, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 131.2 total yards per game for his career. In his rookie season he had 1,994 total yards and he sat out the week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when the Cowboys had the NFC and home field advantage locked up. In 2017, Elliott sat out six games and still had nearly 1,000 yards rushing. In 2018, Elliott broke through the 2,000 total yard barrier after seeing a huge increase in his targets and receptions.
Ezekiel Elliott has been everything the Dallas Cowboys could have hoped for and more. With the leadership role he's taken with the team, he's a player that leads both vocally and by example. There are few players on the Dallas Cowboys that give as much effort as he does each snap. How many times has it looked like Elliott was about to get dropped for a two or three yard loss only to grind through tackles to pick up a four yard gain? How many times has he bounced off tacklers to get to the first down marker? Ezekiel Elliott is the human personification of dirty yards, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Elliott can't take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Elliott's is a game breaker who threatens the defense every time he steps on the field.
In 2018, Elliott led the NFL in yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. His 949 yards after contact in 2018 would have ranked 13th in the NFL in rushing, which was better than David Johnson's 940 yards rushing last season.
Not many running backs effect a football game like Ezekiel Elliott does.
Few players outside of the quarterback position are as much of a focal point for their offense while being an attention grabber for opposing defenses like Ezekiel Elliott is. In 2018, he saw eight or more men in the box on nearly 25% of his carries in 2018. Some of that is related to the Dallas Cowboys insistence on using two tight ends on 50% of their running plays (per Sharp Football), but the other aspect is related to how much they respect the Dallas Cowboys running game. Since the 2014, the Cowboys have been synonymous with running the football. DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and now Ezekiel Elliott have been the faces of that running game behind the Cowboys elite offensive line.
Even in a down year for offensive line play from the Dallas Cowboys, Elliott still managed to lead the NFL in rushing for the second time in three seasons. Elliott made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years as well. Were it not for the railroad job done by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017, there's a really good chance that Elliott leads the league in rushing three years in a row and that the Dallas Cowboys make the playoffs all three seasons.
Sure, the running back position is undervalued in the NFL and rushing yardage can be replaced, but there are intangibles to Elliott's game that are very difficult to replace. His ability to grind out the dirty yards, break big plays, create yards after contact, pass protect, be a threat as a receiver, and his leadership make him a player that is difficult to replace.
Yes, Byron Jones was really good in 2018 and deserves to get paid by the Dallas Cowboys as well, but you'd be hard pressed to find a player on the Cowboys roster who has been as consistent and dominating week in and week out as Ezekiel Elliott has been over the last three years.
BREAKING: Cowboys Sign Ex-Packers WR Randall Cobb
According to multiple sources, the Dallas Cowboys have signed former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb to a one-year deal to help bolster their depth at the WR position and potentially become Cole Beasley's replacement.
Cowboys are giving former Packers' WR Randall Cobb a one-year, $5 million deal, per source. https://t.co/8KWFPjSP8T
The Dallas Cowboys met with Randall Cobb earlier this week, but he eventually left Dallas without a contract. He must've had a change of heart or just needed time to ponder the Cowboys offer, but regardless of what transpired in that short time he is now part of America's Team.
During his time with the Packers, Cobb accumulated 470 receptions for 5,524 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. The eight-year veteran will now be expected to replace some of Cole Beasley's production out of the slot for the Dallas Cowboys.
After years of watching Beasley as the Cowboys slot WR, it will be really interesting to see Randall Cobb in that role. He's not as quick twitched as No. 11, but can be just as dangerous due to his ability to be more of a down the field receiver. He also brings added value in the return game and could compete with Tavon Austin to become the return specialist.
This could mean the Cowboys forgo drafting a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, but I wouldn't put it past them. Regardless of what happens, this is an excellent addition.
Welcome to Cowboys Nation Randall Cobb!
REPORT: Dallas Cowboys Re-sign Long Snapper L.P. Ladouceur
L.P. Ladouceur is returning for his 15th season as the Cowboys' long snapper. The veteran free agent was re-signed by Dalals today to a one-year deal.
Thanks to Jason Witten's one-year sabbatical with Monday Night Football, Ladouceur has now been with the Cowboys for more consecutive seasons than any current player. He just turned 38 last week, but Louis-Philippe remains one of the top long snappers in football.
The Cowboys have signed long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur to a one-year deal worth $1.03 million and $90,000 in bonus money, but he will count $735,000 against the cap. This will be Ladouceur's 15th season with the Cowboys, tying Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Mark... https://t.co/2iDsi6RX7e
Retaining Ladouceur is an underrated move for the Cowboys given their situation at kicker.
Brett Maher was only 80% accurate overall on field goals last year. The team could be considering an upgrade in free agency.
Whether they bring Maher back or try someone new, having a long snapper with Ladouceur's performance perfection will make things much easier for them.
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