Dallas Cowboys: David Diehl

NFC East gets wise, looks to the line

April, 26, 2013
4/26/13
12:26
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Justin Pugh, Lane Johnson & Travis FrederickAP Photo, Getty ImagesThe NFC East added offensive linemen Justin Pugh, Lane Johnson and Travis Frederick.

NEW YORK -- Three NFC East teams picked in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday night, and the combined weight of the three players they picked is 922 pounds. Finally, they're paying attention to what's important.

Yes, the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys each picked an offensive lineman in this year's first round. And while that had something to do with the oddity of a first round that included one quarterback, no running backs and nine offensive lineman, it also says a lot about how badly this division as a whole needs to address this long-neglected need.

Tackle Lane Johnson, tackle/guard Justin Pugh and center/guard Travis Frederick, the 2013 first-round picks of the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys, are no cosmic coincidence. They are medicine, ordered with a purpose by teams that have figured out where they're lacking and that they all need to muscle up in the short-term and long-term.

I am of the belief -- and have written at length on this blog -- that one of the main reasons the NFC East is in a down cycle is division-wide offensive line decay. And yes, the division is down. Over the past three seasons, the division's combined record is 97-101 (yes, counting postseason and the Super Bowl). No NFC East team has won 11 games since 2009, which was also the last year in which it fielded more than one playoff team. Two years ago, the Giants won the division with a 9-7 record. This past year, the Washington Redskins won it at 10-6. Bleh.

The NFC East has superstar talent at quarterback and running back and wide receiver and pass-rusher. But with the exception of a magical six-game run the Giants made at the end of the 2011 season, excellence has eluded its once-feared teams. And the consistent issue that seems to be holding them back is the offensive line. To wit:

The Giants have basically been getting by with an aging, patchwork group. Former second-round pick Will Beatty emerged as a star last year when finally healthy, but veterans Chris Snee and David Diehl are fading and Kevin Boothe and David Baas aren't special. Until Thursday night, the Giants hadn't taken a first-round lineman since Luke Petitgout in 1999. You can try and hit on free agents and second- and third-rounders for a while, but eventually you need to add some top-end talent to the mix. Enter Pugh, a college tackle who may project as a pro guard and offers versatility in the short-term and a possible long-term answer at any one of several positions.

The Eagles had a fine line in 2011, but four of their five starters missed significant time due to injury in 2012, and they finished 4-12 and changed head coaches. Enter Johnson, this year's No. 4 overall pick, who likely starts at right tackle right away, moving Todd Herremans inside to guard and serving as an eventual replacement for left tackle Jason Peters.

The Cowboys' neglect of the offensive line had reached epidemic proportions before they took tackle Tyron Smith in the first round in 2011, and if you watched them last year you came away thinking they needed to upgrade every one of the starting line positions but his. Enter Frederick, who was a surprise first-rounder, but not as much of a reach as he initially looked. With four tackles and the top two guards gone in the top 11 picks, the Cowboys decided to trade down from 18 and get the guy they wanted at the tail end of the first round. Quibble if you want with the return they got on their trade. And sure, maybe Frederick would have been there when they picked again Friday night at 47. But (a) maybe not, since offensive lineman are going faster than ever and (b) so what? The Cowboys' short-term and long-term needs at offensive line were significant enough that they needed to come away from this year's first round with an upgrade. Frederick is almost certain to be an upgrade over one or more of Phil Costa, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, and the Cowboys were absolutely right to make this need a priority on this night.

The Redskins' line played fine in 2012 and has a superstar in left tackle Trent Williams. But a lot of its success has to do with the help it gets from its mobile quarterback. The Redskins remain unsettled at right tackle. They didn't have a first-round pick this year as a result of last year's deal for Robert Griffin III, but don't be surprised if they too look to address the line once they start picking Friday and Saturday.

This seems obvious, of course. It's a long-held NFL adage that the best way to build teams is through the lines. Consistent, reliable offensive line play helps you control games and maximize your skill-position talent. Deficient line play helps you squander your skill-position talent, or worse, make it more susceptible to injury. But while it may seem obvious from the outside, the NFC East's teams have let the line play lapse. Thursday was a clear sign that they have realized this and plan to address it moving forward. I don't think these three will be the last offensive linemen taken by NFC East teams in this year's draft, but each is vital to the division's effort to regain its status as one of the toughest in the NFL. Because thanks to the decay of its offensive lines over the past few years, the fact is that it has not been.

Dallas Cowboys could use Eric Winston

March, 7, 2013
3/07/13
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So the Chiefs cut right tackle Eric Winston on Wednesday, probably because they've decided to take a tackle with the first pick in the draft. But this isn't a Chiefs blog. This is a Cowboys blog, peopled by fans of America's Team. So why are we talking about this?

Winston
Because whenever a player of whom fans have heard gets cut in the middle of his contract, one of the first questions fans immediately ask is, "Should [my team] try to sign [this player that was just cut in the middle of his contract]?" And if you cheer for the Cowboys, and the player in question is Winston, the answer is yes.

It amazes me sometimes, the similarities our four NFC East teams can share. They all need help in the secondary, for instance, and they all need help on the right side of the offensive line. So here's a quickie rundown of why the Cowboys should kick the tires on this 29-year-old offensive lineman who is allowed to sign any time.

Dallas Cowboys

Obviously, the Doug Free contract is a huge bust and the Cowboys need a right tackle. They need guard help, too, but a right tackle is a fine place to start. Sadly for the Cowboys, they're too tight up against the cap to really compete for a free agent if that free agent is going to draw interest from multiple teams. I still think they address this in the draft.

Cowboys' tragedy was, sadly, avoidable

December, 8, 2012
12/08/12
4:54
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For the second Saturday in a row, a terrible and avoidable real-life tragedy has shaken up the insular fantasy world that is the NFL. Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent has been jailed on charges of intoxication manslaughter and teammate Jerry Brown is dead as a result of a one-car accident that happened early Saturday morning in Irving, Texas. Tim MacMahon has the sad details as they continue to come in:
Brent, a three-year veteran, was booked in the Irving [Texas] city jail at 4:14 a.m. Saturday morning.

Brown was signed to the Cowboys' practice squad earlier this season. He was also Brent's college teammate at Illinois.

"We are deeply saddened by the news of this accident and the passing of Jerry Brown," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a statement. "At this time, our hearts and prayers and deepest sympathies are with the members of Jerry's family and all of those who knew him and loved him."

The Cowboys are flying to Cincinnati for Sunday's game against the Bengals and had no comment on the accident, other than to say Brent did not make the team's charter. The players were told on the plane just before takeoff of what happened after non-team personnel were asked to go outside.

In June 2009, Brent was sentenced to two years probation and 60 days in jail as part of a plea agreement stemming from a drunken driving arrest in Champaign County, Illinois.

Just awful, and the kind of thing that obviously makes football seem irrelevant. Nose tackle Rob Callaway was promoted from the practice squad and is likely to play Sunday because starter Jay Ratliff is injured and Brent is not with the team. But the real issue here deals with the life of Jerry Brown, which is incomprehensibly over at the age of 25, and the life of Brent, 24, which will never be the same after he apparently made one of the stupidest mistakes an adult human can make -- and made it for at least the second time.

Brent already did time while in college on drunken driving charges, which means the significance of the crime theoretically should have been impressed upon him. Drunken driving is as selfish, avoidable and inexcusable a crime as there is -- especially for high-profile professional athletes, who have myriad other options available to them by the time they decide to go home after having too much to drink. Every single player in the NFL has a "safe rides" program available to him courtesy of the NFL Players Association. Many teams also offer "safe rides" programs, which provide players with a phone number they can call for a ride at any time, anywhere in the United States. And if for some reason a player doesn't want to reach out for help from such a program, he certainly can always call a cab.

The decision to get behind the wheel of a car after you've had too much to drink is flatly irresponsible -- whether you play NFL football or not. But there were a number of NFL drunken driving cases this offseason, including the Giants' David Diehl, the Lions' Nick Fairley and the Jaguars' Justin Blackmon. And although none of those cases resulted in anyone getting injured or killed, this is not the first case in league history that has. It serves as a reminder of why it's so important for the league to make its players aware of the seriousness of the issue, and the number of drunken driving cases the league still deals with serves as a reminder that the message isn't sinking in.

This is an issue that doesn't get treated seriously enough -- by our sports leagues or by our society in general. Even after reading the story of Brent and Brown, people all over Texas and the rest of the United States are going to climb into their cars later tonight after having too much to drink. Some of those people will even be pro athletes with solutions available to them that aren't available to the rest of us. The majority will arrive safely home in spite of their irresponsible decision, and every such success unfortunately makes it more likely that the driver in question will do it again at some point in the future.

The NFL and the NFLPA would do well to make this issue a higher, more public priority going forward than they have in the past. Whether that means working harder to raise awareness, imposing stronger discipline for such violations or some other solution, it needs to be done. What the NFL and its players do gets noticed, and it's even possible that if the league made drunken driving a point of emphasis, the rest of our society would start to take it more seriously. There's nothing to lose by trying harder on this and taking the problem more seriously, and if nothing changes, then what happened Saturday morning in Irving, Texas, is just going to keep happening.

All-NFC East Team: Week 11 update

November, 14, 2012
11/14/12
9:53
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Back to our regular format this week after last week's dalliance as part of a league-wide midseason report. Not a lot has changed, especially at quarterback, where no one seems to be challenging Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III for the lead spot. Perhaps young Nick Foles can make a run. Or maybe Eli Manning gets it together after his bye. And Tony Romo's schedule is soft the rest of the way, in case you hadn't heard, so you never know.

The disclaimer that no one ever reads: This is an All-Division Team based on overall season performance to date. It is not -- repeat, NOT -- simply a list of the players who performed the best in this past week. That's why Andre Brown is not on it.

Anyway, to the team, with my comments to follow -- especially on the tweak I felt necessary to make on the offensive line.

Quarterback: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins (Last week: Griffin)

Running back: Alfred Morris, Redskins (Morris)

Wide receiver: Victor Cruz, New York Giants; Miles Austin, Dallas Cowboys (Cruz, Austin)

Tight end: Jason Witten, Cowboys (Witten)

Fullback: Henry Hynoski, Giants (Hynoski)

Left tackle: Trent Williams, Redskins (Williams)

Left guard: Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles (Mathis)

Center: Will Montgomery, Redskins (Montgomery)

Right guard: Chris Snee, Giants (Snee)

Right* tackle: Will Beatty, Giants (Todd Herremans)

Defensive end: Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants; Jason Hatcher, Cowboys (Pierre-Paul, Hatcher)

Defensive tackle: Linval Joseph, Giants; Fletcher Cox, Eagles (Joseph, Jay Ratliff)

Outside linebacker: DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Cowboys (Ware, Spencer)

Inside linebacker: DeMeco Ryans, Eagles; Bruce Carter, Cowboys (Ryans, Sean Lee)

Cornerback: Prince Amukamara, Giants; Josh Wilson, Redskins (Amukamara, Wilson)

Safety: Antrel Rolle, Stevie Brown, Giants (Rolle, Brown)

Kicker: Lawrence Tynes, Giants (Tynes)

Punter: Steve Weatherford, Giants (Weatherford)

Kick returner: David Wilson, Giants (Wilson)

Punt returner: Dwayne Harris, Cowboys (Brandon Banks)
  • First, the offensive line. Plain fact is, I don't have a right tackle. Herremans, who's had the spot all year, is out for the season. Neither David Diehl nor Sean Locklear in New York deserve the spot, nor does Tyler Polumbus in Washington or obviously Doug Free in Dallas. What I do have is two left tackles playing as well as any in the league -- Williams in Washington and Beatty in New York. So, since this is my team and I make the rules, I'm making Beatty my starting right tackle even though he's played left in all but one game this year. It's a way of recognizing his stellar performance without elevating him past Williams, who I think is outperforming him. And with the right tackle spot basically vacant, it made sense to me.
  • And punt returner! Yes, I have said since the middle of last season that the first guy to return a kick or a punt for a touchdown during my time on this blog would win the spot by default, even if it were a big, burly lineman who caught a line drive and got lucky. Harris is not that, but on Sunday he did become the first NFC East player since DeSean Jackson in 2010 to return a kick or a punt for a touchdown. So, by the arbitrary rule I made up, he gets the spot.
  • Carter has played so well in Dallas that he's making up for the loss of Lee to injury, and he takes Lee's spot on the team since Lee hasn't played in weeks. Man, when the Cowboys pick an inside linebacker in the second round, they don't mess it up, huh?
  • Cox over Ratliff was a tough call, but the kid's been incredible, and he was a standout player for me in Sunday's game. Close call on who's having the better season.
  • Thought about Chris Chester at right guard over Snee, who had a rough game in Cincinnati.
  • Thought about Dez Bryant over Austin at wide receiver, but Austin still has more yards and touchdowns.
  • Wilson keeps his cornerback spot. He's been a fine cover corner this year with one or two spectacularly bad exceptions. I'm sorry, but when I watch those Dallas corners, I don't see what's so great about they way they're playing.

Not much else of real controversy, I don't think, but I welcome your thoughts.

NFC East: What to watch for in OTAs

May, 21, 2012
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John Clayton has a preview of some of the hot issues teams face as organized team activities (or OTAs) begin this week. The only NFC East mentions in his piece are about the Philadelphia Eagles, and they are this one:
The Eagles signed Demetress Bell to replace left tackle Jason Peters, who is out for the season after tearing his Achilles twice. Bell was previously Peters' replacement in Buffalo but didn't stand out.

and this one:
Dream Team, take two: The Eagles were the winners of the 2011 offseason but losers when they underachieved last season and didn't make the playoffs. The key to OTAs is seeing whether they are going in the right direction on defense. Last year, they brought in man-to-man specialists Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and played them in zone. Andy Reid brought in secondary coach Todd Bowles to help defensive coordinator Juan Castillo sort out the plan in the secondary and see whether the Eagles can match up better with the talent on hand.

And yeah, as was the case when the 2011 season started, I think it's fair to say the Eagles will be the most compelling national story out of our division. Much is expected, and given the way they flopped last year, they'll be under even more scrutiny this year.

But we deal with all four teams equally here, so playing off of John's column, I figured it'd be a good idea to pick something to watch for each of our other three teams this week. Remember that these offseason workouts are voluntary, so not all of the players we're looking at will necessarily be on the field. The Redskins' OTAs begin today, the Eagles and Cowboys start theirs Tuesday and the Giants get on the field Wednesday.

Dallas Cowboys

Lining up the line: The injury that will keep free-agent guard Mackenzy Bernadeau out for the spring and summer deprives the Cowboys of a chance they were expecting to see Bernadeau at center. It also removes him temporarily from the offseason competition for one of the guard spots, and will give players such as David Arkin, Bill Nagy, Nate Livings and Kevin Kowalski a head-start on him as they get an early chance to show the coaches what they can do.

New York Giants

The replacements: The Giants have to figure some things out on the line as well, and they'll take a look this offseason at whether Will Beatty is making progress as the starting left tackle and whether veteran David Diehl is the solution at right tackle with Kareem McKenzie gone. But they also want to see whether first-round pick David Wilson can replace running back Brandon Jacobs, whether second-round pick Rueben Randle can emerge from the crowd hoping to replace wide receiver Mario Manningham, and whether Terrell Thomas and/or Prince Amukamara is healthy enough to replace cornerback Aaron Ross.

Washington Redskins

Here, catch! We know rookie Robert Griffin III is the guy who'll be throwing the ball for the Redskins -- now and, ideally, for the long-term future. But Washington still needs to sort out who's going to catch it. Free-agent signees Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan are obviously going to get the first shot at prominent roles in the receiving corps, and the coaching staff remains excited about 2011 rookie Leonard Hankerson. But veteran Santana Moss will also push for a role, and there are several holdovers at the wide receiver spot who will look to catch the coaches' attention this offseason so as not to get lost in the shuffle. And that doesn't even take into account tight end Fred Davis, who was the Redskins' best receiver last year.

NFC East: Free-agency primer

March, 9, 2012
3/09/12
8:54
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Dallas Cowboys

Key free agents: WR Laurent Robinson, S Abram Elam, LB Keith Brooking, LB Anthony Spencer (franchise)

Where they stand: Dallas needs serious help in the secondary and will have to decide whether it wants Elam back at safety while it pursues at least one cornerback. The Cowboys are expected to release Terence Newman, and they could look to add depth at that position and a new starter. Franchising Spencer indicates that while they would like to improve their pass rush, they won't be players in the Mario Williams market. Expect their free-agent focus to be on defensive backs and possibly some upgrades on the interior of the offensive line. They would like Robinson back as their No. 3 receiver, but if he's going to get No. 2 receiver-type offers, they'll likely let him walk.

What to expect: The top two cornerback targets are likely Kansas City's Brandon Carr and Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan. You can't rule out Dallas making a play for Saints guard Carl Nicks, who'd be a huge help to their offensive line. But someone like Baltimore's Ben Grubbs is likely to be more attainable financially. What the Cowboys really need on the line is a center, but it's not a great market for those unless they can get their hands on Houston's Chris Myers. The Cowboys likely will hunt for some second-tier safeties and inside linebackers to add depth, then target defensive back again early in the draft.

New York Giants

Key free agents: WR Mario Manningham, OT Kareem McKenzie, CB Aaron Ross, CB Terrell Thomas, LB Jonathan Goff, P Steve Weatherford (franchise).

Where they stand: The Super Bowl champs must get their own cap situation in order first, as they project to be about $7.25 million over the projected cap. That may mean tough cuts of people like Brandon Jacobs or David Diehl, or it may just mean some contract restructuring (like the big one they apparently just did with Eli Manning). Regardless, don't expect the Giants to spend big to keep Manningham or Ross. They're likely to bring back Thomas on a team-favorable deal as a result of the knee injury that cost him the entire 2011 season, and they'll probably let McKenzie walk and try to replace him internally (which favors Diehl's chances of sticking around).

What to expect: Just like last year, don't expect the Giants to be big-game hunters. They like to grow their own replacements. If Manningham leaves, they won't go after the top wide receivers but might try to find a bargain or two to supplement the young players from whom they're expecting more production next season. They could find a midlevel safety if they don't bring back Deon Grant, and if Jacobs leaves they'll probably bring in a veteran running back or two to compete in training camp with their youngsters. They liked Ronnie Brown last year as a possible Ahmad Bradshaw replacement when Bradshaw was a pending free agent, so there's a name to watch for if you want one.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key free agents: G Evan Mathis, DT Trevor Laws, DT Antonio Dixon (restricted), WR DeSean Jackson (franchise), QB Vince Young

Where they stand: Other than Mathis, whom they're working to try and re-sign before he his the market, the Eagles don't have many internal free-agent issues to worry about. They franchised Jackson because they're not ready to give him a long-term deal just yet. He's a candidate for a trade, but it would have to be a very nice offer. If they traded him, they'd hunt for a wide receiver, but they may do so anyway -- just at a lower level (think Plaxico Burress). The interior of the defensive line is in fairly good hands with Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson as starters, but they could stand to add depth to that rotation. And while they signed Trent Edwards a couple of weeks ago, they'll keep looking for a better veteran backup quarterback option with Young sure to be gone.

What to expect: Do not -- I repeat, do not -- expect the Eagles to be the same kind of player they were in free agency a year ago. Andy Reid made it very clear several times during the 2011 offseason and season that last year was unique, and the Eagles don't like to do business that way in general. They do need linebackers, and they have the cap room to play on guys like Stephen Tulloch or Curtis Lofton or even, if they wanted to get really nutty, London Fletcher. But while you can expect them to add a veteran or two at the position, don't be surprised if they sit out the higher-priced auctions this time around.

Washington Redskins

Key free agents: S LaRon Landry, LB London Fletcher, DE Adam Carriker, TE Fred Davis (franchise), QB Rex Grossman

Where they stand: Mike Shanahan said in December that Fletcher was a priority, but he remains unsigned with less than a week to go before free agency. Presumably, they'd still like to lock him up before he hits the market. If they can't, they'll have to replace a major on-field and off-field presence. Carriker is likely to be back, but the Fletcher situation has to be settled first. Landry likely is gone unless he wants to take a low-base, high-incentive deal to stay. The Redskins are sick of not knowing whether he'll be able to take the field from week to week. Grossman could return, but only as a backup to whatever quarterback upgrade they find.

What to expect: The Redskins could have more than $40 million in cap room with which to maneuver in free agency, and they're going to need it. They need a quarterback, of course, and if they can't make the trade with the Rams to move up to No. 2 in the draft and pick Robert Griffin III, they'll look at Peyton Manning and Kyle Orton and possibly Matt Flynn, though he doesn't appear to be high on their list. What Shanahan really wants is a true playmaking No. 1 wide receiver, which is why the Redskins have their eyes on Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston, who are at the very top end of that market. They'll be able to outbid almost anyone for those guys if they want to, but they may have to get quarterback figured out first if they want to persuade one of them to take their offer over similar ones. They'll also hunt for help on the offensive line and in the secondary, as they need depth in both places.

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Giants preview

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
4:39
PM ET

Scout's Eye
As many ups and downs as the Dallas Cowboys have had this season, the goal of an NFC East championship -- and a playoff berth -- remains in reach. That means the possibility of reaching the Super Bowl is still in play, and that's all you can ask for.

Recent playoff history has proven that if you're in, then you have a shot to win it all. Are the Cowboys good enough to make a serious run? With the way that Tony Romo is currently playing, there is that possibility.

But first there's a little thing about beating the New York Giants --a team that has similar and -- at some positions -- better talent than the Cowboys.

Expect a healthy dose of JPP, Tuck from Giants


When I break down these games, I always try to look at the areas where the Cowboys can get an edge but also where they might run into trouble. To me, both teams are going to have matchup problems.

The area that could give the Cowboys the biggest problem is Doug Free against Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul. If Free was playing at a level like he was in 2010, I'd say this matchup had a great chance of being a wash. Pierre-Paul has gone from a raw rookie pass rusher to a dominant force on the outside and off the edge.

In Week 14, I really believed Free would be able to handle Pierre-Paul because he was more of an athletic pass rusher than a power player. I was mistaken. Pierre-Paul plays with some snap in his upper body and some first step explosiveness, and he was able to get his hands inside Free several times to control him as a blocker. In studying the game in the lab, it appeared that Free was surprised not only how JPP played him, but also the power in which he played him.

With Free there is been technique issues on a weekly basis. But in talking with members of the front office, they'll offer that the lack of a full offseason in the weight room has affected Free as a player. I fully expect Jason Garrett and this offensive staff to give Free help in this game, whether that is making him rush wider with a tight end to that side or chip him with Jones and Morris.

The problem with helping a tackle is that whomever helps -- the back or tight end -- gets in the way of the tackle trying to execute the block. The Cowboys leave their tackles on an island quite a bit so working with extra blockers is something to keep an eye on.

On the other side, Justin Tuck can present problems not only as a pass rusher but also defending the run, where he's been outstanding. Tuck is one of those players that is very smart and crafty, playing well with his hands, and he's able to extend on the blocker and fight down the line of scrimmage. Where Tuck is also dangerous is when he stands up like an inside linebacker and they use him in games or stunts with the other rushers. Where Tyron Smith has to be careful is if you go hard at Tuck, he'll jump around the block and cause you to overextend and miss.

Another matchup to watch is guard Derrick Dockery against defensive tackle Chris Canty. When you study the Giants, Canty is doing a much better job of showing up at key times in making stops. Dockery hasn't seen action since Week 2, but played very well to his credit.

If the Cowboys are going to win, the left side of their offensive line is going to have to do an outstanding job of controlling Canty and JPP to that side.

Cowboys should exploit Giants secondary ...


If the Cowboys have an advantage in this game, it's going to be against the Giants' cornerbacks. There are plays to be made against Corey Webster and Aaron Ross down the field. Webster is the more aggressive of the two.

In the nickel, the Giants will use Prince Amukamara, who hasn’t lived up to his first-round billing. Teams have been able to take advantage of how cautious he has played. Safety Kenny Phillips didn’t play the last time these two teams met, and that will be a boost for the Giants. He is good against the run and pass. His backup, Deon Grant, will make mistakes in coverage. So if Grant does get on the field, look for the Cowboys to try and take advantage.

The Redskins had success against the Giants secondary when they got in bunch formations and ran routes from that. Look to see if the Cowboys use their receivers and Jason Witten in those types of looks to try and confuse them in coverage.

... But look for Giants to do same vs. Cowboys secondary


As the Cowboys can cause problems with their receivers, so can the Giants when they're on offense. In Week 14, the Giants caused plenty of confusion for the Cowboys scheme-wise. Hakeem Nicks is an outstanding receiver, and some of the drops he had against the Redskins and Jets will not happen. He's a Cowboys-killer in the way he plays.

I've said this before about Nicks: He's the Giants version of Dez Bryant. He is a physical body that makes plays all over the field. Despite his drops, I still feel his hands are outstanding and his footwork and body control is even better. Nicks has no fear on where to run routes and he will make defenders pay for having to cover him. He can be a dominant player in the red zone with his body position and his leaping ability.

To me, however, the most dangerous player is Victor Cruz. He has special skills and is a matchup nightmare because he'll line up anywhere in the formation. Like Nicks, Cruz will take his route inside, catch the ball in traffic and take a big hit. When the Giants need to convert on third down, he is usually the man running the route that gets them the first. Manning has a great deal of confidence in him and will do everything in his power to get him the ball on the move. Cruz has the speed and the quickness to get down the field on vertical routes and will make big plays in this way.

In studying the Giants' last two games, they have made more of an effort to attempt more vertical throws. There is no doubt in my mind they'll take shots down the field against Terence Newman and these safeties.

Giants starting offensive line is healthy, intact


The Giants' offensive line was a mess three weeks ago with guard Kevin Boothe playing center and Mitch Petrus taking his spot at guard. After reviewing their win vs. the Cowboys, that group was the reason why the Giants won. Manning wasn't sacked, and they were able to run the ball with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.

This time around, the Giants have their starting group in place with David Baas at center and Boothe at guard. LT David Diehl has had many a battle with DeMarcus Ware, and Kareem McKenzie is on the right side.

What helps this line is Manning’s ability to get rid of the ball quickly, which he was able to do last time. Where the Giants have struggled is when teams make them move their feet in pass protection. McKenzie struggles with this more than Diehl.

If you want me to pick a weak spot, it's at center with Baas. In several games, he's not been able to handle the cut off or reach blocks, and he's struggled in the passing game. Boothe was outstanding against Jay Ratliff in the first meeting, which really surprised me.

Ratliff can not have an off game this time around, or that will be a huge problem for the Cowboys. As banged up as he was last week, Ratliff played well against the Eagles, who are much better at center.

If you don't punish Bradshaw, he'll punish you


When the Giants run the ball on offense, it’s usually with Bradshaw. I know that Jacobs had a huge game last time, but Bradshaw is a real difference-maker for this team. He is a physical back that is difficult to get on the ground. He doesn’t have the elusive moves of a LeSean McCoy, but he has a low center of gravity and will try to punish tacklers. If you don't hit him hard, Bradshaw will run over you.

Final keys to the game


This game can go in two different directions for me. If the Cowboys can't block this Giants front, then there will be huge problems. But if they give Romo time, there are plays to be made against this secondary.

Defensively, the Cowboys cannot allow Manning to feel comfortable throwing the ball. The Cowboys' run defense was solid against the Eagles last week, and Rob Ryan needs that to carry over. But they have to pressure Manning. Of the top quarterbacks in the league, Manning struggles with pressure the most.

The Cowboys defense has to take advantage when he makes mistakes, and we all know that he will.

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Giants preview

December, 9, 2011
12/09/11
10:53
AM ET

Scout's Eye
The Cowboys host the New York Giants on Sunday night -- the first of two matchups that will decide the NFC East champion. The Giants have lost four straight, while the Cowboys are coming off a game that they let slip away in overtime against Arizona. If the Giants win this game, they'll be tied for the division lead and have the tiebreaker. If the Cowboys win, they'll have a firm grasp on the division title with a two-game lead with three to play.

The Cowboys faced one of the better NFL receivers last week in Larry Fitzgerald, who was covered by Mike Jenkins for the majority of the game. Jenkins, making his first start since being sidelined several weeks with a hamstring injury, was outstanding. Where the Cowboys had the biggest problems was allowing down-the-line receivers big days catching the ball.

Five weeks ago, Terence Newman was playing at a high level. In the last three games, however, he's really struggled in his off coverage. Newman was one of those players that were driving on the ball and make plays. Orlando Scandrick, starting in place of Jenkins, didn’t struggle as much as Newman, but we didn’t see the plays that we had when he was in the nickel role.

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ESPN NFL analyst Chris Mortensen hops on to preview this weekend's Cowboys-Giants matchup.

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Giants' Bradshaw will find hole, punish tacklers


There are two areas of the Giants' offense that can hurt you -- running the ball with Ahmad Bradshaw, and Eli Manning throwing the ball to an outstanding group of receivers.

When you watch the Giants, Bradshaw is a real difference-maker for this team. He's a physical back that is difficult to get on the ground. He doesn’t have the elusive moves of a Reggie Bush, but instead tries to punish tacklers. Bradshaw has a low center of gravity, and he doesn’t give defenders much to hit. If you don't hit him hard, he will run over you. He's like DeMarco Murray in that he likes to cut back when he sees a hole.

The Giants' offensive line doesn't blow defenders off the ball. They're more likely to grab and run with you. This fits Bradshaw's style as he doesn't need much of a hole because of his ability to burst through tacklers with power.

Receivers Nicks, Cruz will give fits to Cowboys


On the outside, other than the Eagles, this is the best group of receivers that the Cowboys have faced all season. What makes Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz outstanding is their ability to sell routes to get open and their ability to adjust to the ball and make large gains with the ball in their hands.

I was very impressed watching Nicks on film. He's the Giants' version of Dez Bryant -- physical receiver who can make plays all over the field. His hands are outstanding and his footwork and body control are even better. Nicks has no fear where to run his route and he will make defenders pay for having to cover him. He can be dominant in the red zone using his body position and his leaping ability. Last week, Nicks outfought Green Bay's Charles Woodson -- one of the most physical corners in the league -- for a ball on a fade route where Woodson was in perfect position to defend, but the result was a touchdown.

On the opposite side, Cruz has become a special player for the Giants. With Mario Manningham struggling with injuries, Cruz has taken the opportunity and has excelled. He's tough, instinctive and slippery in the way he plays. I know this is going to sound like too much praise, but he is very similar to the Patriots' Wes Welker in the way he plays. Cruz is able to adjust to any ball and, like Nicks, will take his route inside, catch the ball in traffic and take a big hit.

Cruz lines up all over the formation and, when the Giants need to convert on third down, he is usually running the route that will get them the first down. Manning has a great deal of confidence in Cruz and will do everything in his power to get him the ball on the move. Cruz has the speed and the quickness to get down the field on vertical routes and will make big plays in this way.

Different looks could expose Giants' offensive line


The Giants' offensive line has been shuffled around due to injuries. Against the Packers last week, left guard Kevin Boothe moved to center to start for David Baas, who has struggled with a neck injury. In Boothe's place at left guard has been backup Mitch Petrus. LT David Diehl has had many a battle with DeMarcus Ware, and on the right side is Kareem McKenzie.

This isn't an outstanding offensive line but, much like what is going on here with the Cowboys, Manning's ability to get rid of the ball quickly and Bradshaw's rushing has helped to hide the ills of some less-than-perfect blocking. Where the Giants have struggled is when teams make them move their feet in pass protection. McKenzie will struggle with this more than Diehl.

Look for Rob Ryan to attempt to make the Giants' line adjust on the move. I believe there will be plenty of times where Ryan's defense will have different looks. Where Manning struggles throwing the ball is with pressure in his face. He'll tend to throw the ball off his back foot with no regard for where it might end up.

Don't sleep on Giants' defensive front


I have read throughout the week that the Giants have struggled to get pressure on quarterbacks as opposed to years' past. After studying the Giants, I really don’t understand where all this is coming from. The Giants' front four really does a nice job of creating problems for blocking schemes. The one game they were blocked well was against the Saints. Last week, it was the skill and the mobility of Aaron Rodgers that allowed the Packers to make as many plays as they did.

In the past, Osi Umenyiora has made the most plays. This season, second-year DE Jason Pierre-Paul has caused the most problems for blockers. Pierre-Paul is an explosive player that has outstanding first-step quickness. He is able to get on blockers immediately, which doesn’t allow the tackle much time to adjust. Pierre-Paul is a good technique player, and his hands and feet work very well together.

Justin Tuck plays on the opposite side, but defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is using him in an interesting way as a stand-up player inside at linebacker. Where the Giants are most effective in the rush are when they use twist stunts with their defensive linemen. As mentioned before, this group has the ability to get four-man pressure, which allows them to use their linebackers in coverage to help a secondary that has had its share of struggles.

Where the Cowboys have been weakest this season is when pass rushers have used twist stunts inside. Last week, the Cardinals were able to attack the middle of the pocket because Phil Costa and Montrae Holland have had their problems adjusting. The Cardinals were also affective slanting their defensive line one way and then bringing a rusher the opposite way. The Giants have shown the ability to use these types of stunts.

Cowboys should target Giants' secondary


If the Giants have weaknesses, it's in two areas -- linebacker and secondary.

Michael Boley is the Giants' best play-making linebacker, but he's struggled with a hamstring injury. This is not an athletic group of linebackers, and you can see it when they play. Look for the Cowboys to play one-on-one in coverage or running the ball outside to take advantage of that.

In the secondary, the Giants took some huge hits in the preseason by losing guys to season-ending injuries. Where this group has been able to make plays is when quarterbacks have underthrown passes. CBs Aaron Ross and Corey Webster will miss play balls in the air. They will also miss tackles in the open field. Safety Kenny Phillips is more of a hitter than a cover guy. Antrel Rolle covers a little better, but backup Deon Grant struggles the most. Rookie Prince Amukamara had an interception vs. the Eagles and is dealing with a back issue, but he really isn't ready -- and he plays like it.

If the Cowboys can block this front in the passing game, there are plays to be made down the field. Watch early in this game if the Giants try to attack the Cowboys on passing downs by moving the front. The Cowboys receivers are better than what the Giants have in the secondary, but the Giants' pass rushers are better than this Cowboys offensive line.
Tyron Smith and Danny WatkinsIcon SMIThe Cowboys (with Tyron Smith) and the Eagles (with Danny Watkins) used the draft to address a need along the offensive line.
Our readers like to call this division "The Beast," but I'm not so sure. I mean, I get it -- it rhymes with "East," and it reflects the kind of toughness and meanness that fans like to attribute to their favorite teams. And not long ago, it fit nicely. The NFC East was the NFL's toughest division. Sent three teams to the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. Took out the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. Very Beast-like stuff, no question.

But things change quickly in the NFL, and 2010 wasn't this division's most Beastly year. For the first time in six seasons, the NFC East last year came up with just one playoff team. The division had as many 10-loss teams as 10-win teams, and the only playoff game it has won in the past two seasons was Dallas' January 2010 intradivision victory over Philadelphia.

A fluke? Sure, it's possible. Most people expect the Cowboys to bounce back in 2011 (assuming there is a 2011). And John Clayton pointed out last week that a slate of 2011 games against NFC West opponents could help inflate NFC East teams' records the way that delicious bit of scheduling helped out NFC South teams in 2010. But if the teams in this division want to make sure this little downturn is nothing more than a blip on history's radar, they would all do well to take a look at their offensive lines.

All four teams in the NFC East had offensive line issues last year. The Giants couldn't keep theirs healthy. The Cowboys couldn't seal off the right side. The Eagles couldn't keep Michael Vick's uniform clean. The Redskins were rebuilding. Although most, if not all, of those issues are resolvable, the teams need to work to make sure they're resolved. If there's one area whose erosion can really affect the toughness, meanness and other Beast-like qualities of a team or group of teams, it's the offensive line.

To their credit, the Cowboys and Eagles at least seem to understand they need to do something. Dallas took USC tackle Tyron Smith in the first round in April and spent three of their eight total draft picks on offensive linemen -- snagging guard David Arkin in the fourth round and guard/center Bill Nagy in the seventh. Smith is the only one of the three expected to start in 2011, as he's slated to be the right tackle, but depth on the O-line is never a negative.

Philadelphia needed a right guard so badly that it drafted 26-year-old former hockey player and firefighter Danny Watkins in the first round. He'll surely start at right guard, and Philadelphia picked up two more interior offensive linemen later in the draft. The Eagles still need to figure out what's going on there on the right side with Winston Justice and King Dunlap, and that tackle spot might potentially be something they address in free agency. With a left-handed quarterback, right tackle is to the Eagles what left tackle is to most other teams -- the protector of the "blind side."

Washington used only one pick this year on an offensive lineman, and it was a seventh-rounder. But the Redskins spent the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft on left tackle Trent Williams, who looks as if he'll be a star at that spot, and they're piecing things together across the middle. They will need to address right tackle if they lose both Jammal Brown and Stephon Heyer in free agency, but the Redskins are in rebuilding mode. At least they have the franchise left tackle in place.

The Giants ... sigh. The Giants could have used offensive line help in the draft. But these are stubborn people who don't believe in drafting for need. They used their first-rounder on a cornerback, even though they already had plenty of those. The "value" of Prince Amukamara that late in the round was too much for the Giants to pass up, so they didn't end up taking a lineman until the fourth round, and they didn't bother taking another one after that. Now, if healthy, the Giants' offensive line is the best one in the division. But the five projected starters have an average age of 31.6. Shaun O'Hara missed 10 games and David Diehl missed four last year as the fates practically screamed at the Giants about the value of depth on the O-line. Injury and age on the line didn't sink the Giants' season per se, but they reared their heads and offered a warning. So far the Giants have yet to show they heard it.

The success of the teams in the NFC East -- this year and in the years to come -- will depend largely on the ways in which the four teams address the issues bubbling up across their offensive lines. I believe the division could have three playoff-caliber teams in 2011. The Redskins are doing some nice things but still have a long way to go and, currently, no quarterback to take them there. The other three teams have skill-position talent spilling out of their ears, but holes along the line can keep even the most skilled players from making the highlight-reel plays for which they're paid. Offensive line play was one reason the NFC East looked a little meeker than usual in 2010. It may be the key to "The Beast" regaining its teeth.

Scout's Eye: NY-Dallas Grudge Match

October, 24, 2010
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Giants wide receivers vs. Cowboys defensive backs: As good as the Giants run the football with Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, I could see offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride taking some shots down the field to try and gauge the state of the Cowboys’ secondary this week.

Cornerback Mike Jenkins has struggled with technique in several opportunities this season, and free safety Alan Ball hasn’t played with the instincts and range that I thought he would when he was moved from cornerback.

The challenge that lies ahead for the Cowboys is that Hakeem Nicks has emerged as the go-to guy for Eli Manning. Nicks wasn’t a factor in either of the two games last season, but the second-year receiver has six touchdowns in 36 receptions this year.

Nicks can cover some ground as he works up the field and his hands are dependable. The Giants like to use him on slants and on routes where he can get the ball on the move.

On the other side, Steve Smith was a productive receiver against the Cowboys last season. Smith had 16 catches in two games and, like Nicks, he will go all over the field to catch the ball. He is the quickest of the Giants receiver with the ball in his hands.

Mario Manningham is the third receiver, but you can’t sleep on his production either because he is deceptive in the way he runs his routes and adjusts to the ball. Manningham has a 16-yard average per catch as well.

When the Giants throw the ball, they will do everything in their power to protect Manning when he drops back to pass. You will see tight ends Kevin Boss and Bear Pascoe lining up with Bradshaw in the back field to limit the number of hits that Manning might have to take.

If the Giants protect Manning in this game, the pressure to hold up on the back end is even more critical for the Cowboys and their secondary.

Cowboys offensive tackles vs. Giants defensive ends: Another weekend finds tackles Doug Free and Marc Colombo in a battle with two of the better defensive ends in the NFL in Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck.

In studying these two ends, Umenyiora is playing like a different player than the one that we had seen the last couple of season. His desire and passion once again appear to be back. He is focusing on being that dominant pass rusher that we once saw.

Umenyiora has a variety of pass rush moves that can hurt opponents. He just isn’t one of those ends that rushes up the field and tries to just beat you with quickness or power. Umenyiora likes to take you up the field and get the corner, but he is effective at rushing down inside. He has a very good spin move as well. What Free and Colombo need to be aware of is his movement.

Patience will be a key in handling these ends. They give you a lot of moves and shake. Footwork and punch will be their friends. If you can get your hands on these rushers, you can slow down their progress but technique will need to be sound.

Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell will move Umenyiora and Tuck around in the defense. The Cowboys will need to be aware of where these guys line up at all times.

Watch how the Cowboys handle these rushers. Last week against the Vikings, they went to a quicker passing game with some screen packages mixed in. If they have some success with this, it could slow down and frustrate this Giants rush.

Pressure Giants quarterback Eli Manning: Manning has a career record of 2-3 against the Cowboys on the road. If the Cowboys are going to win this game, Wade Phillips is going to need to find a way to pressure Manning.

As good as Manning has played these last three weeks in victory, he still will make mistakes with the football. In the two losses the Giants have had this season against the Colts and Titans, Manning had been sacked six times and thrown three interceptions.

I spoke of the Giants’ ability to run the football and that might be the direction that they try to go to early in this game to keep the Cowboys’ rush off Manning. If the Cowboys can control the Giants’ running game and put them in some situations where they are behind the chains, the Cowboys will be able to focus on their pass rush.

The problem is that Manning still has is a tendency to try and make something out of nothing. He will throw the ball up for grabs instead of taking a sack and fighting for another play. The worst example of this was in the red zone against the Titans when he tried a left-handed pass that was intercepted.

A key matchup for the Giants will be tackle David Diehl against linebacker DeMarcus Ware. When you study Diehl, he has had trouble with rushers that take an inside rush on him. Ware needs to attack Diehl as hard as he can up the field and then hit him on a move to the inside. Diehl will struggle to handle quickness and power if he makes that move.

As far as scheme adjustments, I would not be surprised to see the Giants lining up Bradshaw and a tight end in the backfield to help in the protection of Manning on passing downs.

Scout's Eye: Giants-Cowboys preview

October, 22, 2010
10/22/10
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Scout's Eye
If the Cowboys are going to make any kind of run this season, it needs to start against the Giants on Monday night.

The goal of the Cowboys should be to even their record at 4-4 by the next time these two teams meet on Nov. 14 in New Jersey.

Three weeks ago, the Giants were in the same shape that the Cowboys are now. A loss to the Titans left the Giants with the reality that penalties and turnovers were killing their season. Tom Coughlin stood before the media after that Titans loss and took the heat for the struggles of his squad and vowed there would be changes the following week.

The Giants have since won three straight, while the Cowboys have lost two of their last three. It’s the Giants that are getting the turnovers and committing fewer penalties. The Cowboys on the other hand, have talked about making corrections and changes but still have been unable to get past those issues that have caused them defeat.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw
AP Photo/Evan PinkusThe Giants' running back tandem of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs has been carving up opposing defenses.
In studying the Giants on offense, there are some areas of this offense that really stand out. When they run the ball now, Ahmad Bradshaw not only does it with power but with more speed than Brandon Jacobs. The ball gets to and through the hole quicker than it had in the past.

The Giants’ offensive line is that of “mauler/brawler” types and not that of a sleek, athletic group. The Giants’ front likes to push and lean on you. When they go to extra tight end packages, they bring in tackle Shawn Andrews as an extra blocker. There is nothing pretty about the way they look or play, but they are effective.

In this contest, I will be interested to see how DeMarcus Ware plays against tackle David Diehl. If Diehl has problems, it’s when rushers take him down inside. In watching Diehl, he really fights hard to work outside with his footwork and set. Ware has the ability to take Diehl up the field then counter on him inside.

The Giants will do all they can to keep Manning upright in this game. Backup tight end Bear Pascoe will line up in the backfield and play as the “F” and help in protection if needed. Manning has been sacked 27 times in career games against the Cowboys.

Manning struggles the most with turnovers when he feels pressure. There are times where his decision-making is poor because of the way he handles pressure. There are times when faced with a rush that he is nowhere near as accurate as he needs to be. He will make his receivers work for the ball way too often.

In going back and studying the first game that the Cowboys and Giants played in 2009, Manning used a quick game to his wide receivers and allowed them to break tackles to make plays. It was a solid game plan by the Giants and their receivers showed the ability to make the Cowboys defenders miss and gain positive yards.

Where the Cowboys also have to be alert in this game is when the Giants try to run vertical and hit plays down the field. All three of the Giants’ receivers can get down the field and make plays. Hakeem Nicks is the most dangerous of the group, then Steve Smith.

Nicks is an impressive player because of his size and his ability to cover ground. Nicks has been Manning’s go-to guy. He plays with dependable hands and will take his routes all over the field.
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Smith was a Cowboys’ killer in 2009 with 16 catches in two games. He, like Nicks, will go anywhere for the ball and has the ability to take short catches and make them into huge gains due to his 4.44 speed coming out of USC.

Mario Manningham is not the fastest of the three receivers, but he has averaged 16 yards a reception this season.

The Cowboys secondary has struggled with the ball going down the field. To combat that last week, safety Alan Ball was playing 23 yards deep. Terence Newman has been the Cowboys’ most consistent defensive back and along with Mike Jenkins will need a huge day against this talented group.

When these two teams met last December, nickel back Orlando Scandrick played much better than he did in September. Scandrick is going to have a key role in this game because the way that the Giants like to use the three-wide receiver packages.

As important as it is for the Cowboys to focus on the Giants’ running game, how they play against these wide receivers could determine if they win the game on Monday night.

*Last week against the Vikings, the Cowboys faced a defense line that had the ability to take over a game and control the line of scrimmage. This week, they face a Giants defense that might not have the inside power of Pat Williams and Kevin Williams but their outside rushers, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, are just as difficult to handle as Jared Allen or Ray Edwards.

When you study Umenyiora and Tuck, they are both playing at a high level. Umenyiora is back to that attacking style that gave offensive tackles so much trouble over the years. Umenyiora has a wide variety of moves so there will not be one move that Doug Free can sit on.

Against the Lions last week, he carried Jeff Backus up the field on one move, he drove hard inside on another and then he used a spin move free himself from a set. Free will need to be on his toes on Monday night.

The Cowboys as a whole across the line will need to do the same because defensive coordinator Perry Fewell will move Umenyiora and Tuck all over the defense to try and get matchups they could win. When the Giants give the Cowboys one of those looks on defense with Umenyiora and Tuck standing up inside, it will be important for Romo to set the protection and the communication of the offensive line takes over to handle the games the Giants play out of those looks.

Terence Newman
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Terence Newman, a 2-time Pro Bowler, has been the Cowboys' most dependable defensive back.
Something to note that could be a problem for the Cowboys, with Montrae Holland starting for Kyle Kosier at guard, watch how well, he, Gurode and Davis are able to communicate and handle what is going on inside. The Giants like to use their linebackers and defensive line in games and stunts to create confusion in blocking schemes. If the Cowboys struggle with the communication of these calls, the offense can get exposed and the results can kill a drive or create a turnover.

I would not be the least bit surprised to see Jason Garrett once again roll out the game plan that he used in Minnesota with the quick passing game, the screen packages and selective running plays to keep their rush off Romo.

Where the Giants are better than the Vikings is in the secondary. Corey Webster and Terrell Thomas are solid corners, but where the Giants have made the most improvement and upgrade is the addition of Antrel Rolle from Arizona at safety.

Rolle paired with Kenny Phillips has been a good combination. Rolle and Phillips are always around the ball. They do a nice job with the range plays as well.

The Giants really struggled last season with the play of their safeties. When Phillips went on IR after the Dallas game in September, it was just one bad game after another for the defense, but you no longer see that for this defense. If you study the numbers, the Giants are ranked as one of the top defenses in the NFL.

The Cowboys can go toe to toe with them on several offensive areas, but if they continue to not protect the football and suffer untimely penalties, it will not matter how many third downs they convert or how many yards they throw for, it will just become another loss.

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