Dallas Cowboys: Mario Manningham

Next Level: Inside the numbers for Cowboys

September, 6, 2012
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The gang at ESPN Stats & Information jumped headfirst into the data from the Cowboys' season-opening victory and surfaced with these gems:

Cowboys get to Manning with five or more rushers

The Cowboys sent five or more rushers after Eli Manning on 10 of his 35 dropbacks (28.6 percent) Wednesday after doing so nearly 38 percent of the time last season. The less aggressive approach made the Cowboys' added rushes more effective, with all three sacks coming when sending five or more. When facing five or more rushers from the Cowboys, Manning only completed 42.9 percent of his passes for an average of 3.4 yards per attempt.

Introducing Kevin Ogletree ...

Kevin Ogletree was targeted 11 times Wednesday, five more than his previous career high. He caught eight of his 11 targets, good for an 72.7 completion percentage with Tony Romo. Since the start of 2008, Romo now has 21 instances of targeting a wide receiver at least 10 times in a game. The 72.7 completion percentage is the fifth-highest of those instances, with the top four all belonging to Miles Austin.

Romo succeeds with deep passes

On passes that traveled 15 or more yards downfield, Tony Romo was 5 of 7 for 150 yards with two touchdowns, including one to Miles Austin in the fourth quarter that put the Cowboys up 24-10. Last season, Romo completed five passes of such length on 11 attempts in two games against the Giants.

Romo creates outside the pocket

Tony Romo threw two of his touchdown passes Wednesday when outside of the pocket. Over the last two seasons, Romo has thrown 12 touchdowns when outside of the pocket, with half coming against the Giants. No other quarterback has more than three against a single team over that span.

Cruz can’t hang on

New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz dropped three passes in a single game for the first time in his career Wednesday night. Cruz had never dropped more than one pass in a regular season game prior to Wednesday. Cruz is the first Giants player with three drops in a game since Mario Manningham in 2009 Week 4.

Giants 'drop' ball vs. Cowboys deep passing

September, 6, 2012
9/06/12
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Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesKevin Ogletree (right) had a career game for the Cowboys.
There were a lot of firsts in the Dallas Cowboys’ 24-17 win over the New York Giants.

The Giants are the first defending Super Bowl champions to lose their season opener since the 1999 Broncos.

For the first time in a regular-season game, Victor Cruz had multiple drops. He's the first Giants player with three drops in a game since Mario Manningham in 2009 Week 4.

The breakout star for the Cowboys was fourth-year receiver Kevin Ogletree, who caught a touchdown pass for the first time in his career – and he caught one more for good measure.

Ogletree had a career day. In three seasons and 31 games coming into Wednesday, he never had more than three receptions or 50 receiving yards in a game, and he never had a reception longer than 33 yards.

Against the Giants, Ogletree had a career-high eight receptions, 114 receiving yards and, most importantly, the first two touchdowns of his career.

Ogletree is the second Cowboys player ever with at least eight receptions, 100 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns against the Giants. The other was Mike Renfro, who had 10 receptions for 141 yards and two touchdowns in 1985.

How about some fantasy football perspective? Ogletree had 21 career fantasy points in ESPN standard scoring in his first three seasons combined. He scored 23 fantasy points against the Giants on Wednesday.

And all of this happened in the first game of the 2012 season, the first NFL game played on a Wednesday since 1948, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The Cowboys are now 6-0 all-time in season openers against the Giants.

How did the Cowboys get it done?

• On passes that traveled 15 or more yards downfield, Tony Romo was 5-of-7 for 150 yards with two touchdowns, including one to Miles Austin in the fourth quarter that put the Cowboys up 24-10. Last season, Romo completed five passes of such length on 11 attempts in two games against the Giants.

• Romo threw two of his touchdown passes Wednesday when outside of the pocket. Over the last two seasons, Romo has thrown 12 touchdowns when outside of the pocket, with half coming against the Giants. No other quarterback has more than three against a single team over that span.

• The Cowboys sent five or more pass rushers after Eli Manning on 10 of his 35 dropbacks (28.6 percent) after doing so nearly 38 percent of the time last season. The less aggressive approach made the Cowboys' added rushes more effective, with all three sacks on Manning coming when sending five or more.

Eli Manning will test Cowboys' upgrades

September, 3, 2012
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IRVING, Texas – To improve their secondary in 2012, the Cowboys gave up $50.1 million in a free-agent contract to Brandon Carr and swapped first-round picks and gave up a second rounder to move up to get Morris Claiborne.

You need to look no further than at what New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning did to the Cowboys' defense last season. Manning completed 51 of 80 passes for 746 yards with five touchdowns and one interception in two New York victories.

“Certainly you evaluate your division opponents maybe more than anybody else,” coach Jason Garrett said. “You have to beat your teams in the divisions.”

Manning will see a reworked secondary with only safety Gerald Sensabaugh returning. Barry Church will be the other starting safety between Carr and Claiborne.

Manning will not have the same weapons as last season with Mario Manningham gone, but he will have Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, who had 100-yard games against the Cowboys, as well as rookie Rueben Randle, a teammate of Claiborne’s last year at LSU.

“He’s an elite quarterback,” Carr sad. “He carries himself that way. He runs his offense the exact same way. I haven’t seen too many throws he can’t make. He has a lot of faith and trust in his offensive scheme and his receivers that if he puts it in the right situation, the right spot, they’ll make a play on it. They’re two of the most explosive in the game right now with Cruz and Nicks. I know they’re going to try to get those guys the ball. In the secondary, we’ve got to bring our A game and match that intensity on each play.”

NFC East: More or Less

June, 20, 2012
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AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot-on?

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: As disappointing as last year's Eagles were, they managed to win eight games. Upgrades to the linebacker corps, a tightening-up of the coverage schemes and an improved comfort level in the new defense all stand as reasons to believe that things will be better in Philadelphia this year. They appear to be loaded with top athletic talent at every position, and on paper (yes, we've heard those words before) they look like the best team in the division and one of the best in the league. After last year, I am far from sold, and I think a lot of this uncertainty rides on quarterback Michael Vick and his ability to limit the turnovers that were so costly during September's slow start.

As for the schedule breakdown, Clayton has the Eagles going 4-2 in the division. They were 5-1 in the division last year, and I don't see any good reason to think they should do much worse. I guess the Redskins should be better, but it's hard to see how the Cowboys (who weren't in either game) or the Giants will be much tougher to beat than they were a year ago. And out of the division, Clayton has the Eagles 6-4. Tough road trips to Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Arizona loom, but road games in Cleveland and Tampa Bay don't look so tough.

More or less? You guys know I don't like to make predictions this early, but because I must, I'm saying Clayton's number for the Eagles turns out to be a bit low.

NEW YORK GIANTS: This would, of course, match the Giants' win total from last year, when they became the first team to win the NFC East and the Super Bowl with fewer than 10 wins in a non-shortened regular season. It also would be one fewer than their win total from 2010, when they missed the playoffs. With Eli Manning at quarterback, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz back at wide receiver and all of those great pass-rushers back for another year, the Giants are strong where it counts, and that's the reason for their year-to-year consistency. But within the confines of the 2011 regular season, they were anything but consistent. They looked terrible twice against the Redskins but beat the Cowboys twice when it counted, then of course got on that January roll that carried them to their second championship in five years.

Clayton has the Giants 3-3 in the division, which is a fair expectation. (I mean, we can't assume they'll beat the Redskins until we see it, right?) And he has them 6-4 outside the division, where they play at San Francisco (they were 1-1 there last year, of course, in two very close games), and have back-to-back trips to Atlanta and Baltimore in December. Free agency ate at their depth, and the Giants will need to do some work to replace the production of important 2011 pieces such as Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs. I guess the question is whether they'll be the playoff-tough team we saw in late December and the postseason or the team that struggled so badly in November against the tough part of its schedule.

More or less? From this far out, this just doesn't strike me as a Giants team that should win as many games as it won last year. For that reason, I say John's nine-win figure is a bit high. But I fully acknowledge the folly of picking against the Giants.

DALLAS COWBOYS: The Cowboys' defense -- particularly their secondary -- imploded completely during the final month of the season, and that and the two losses to the Giants were the reasons they finished 8-8 and missed last year's playoffs. They attacked the secondary by signing Brandon Carr and trading up to draft Morris Claiborne, and they added an inside linebacker in Dan Connor. But the rest of the team looks basically the same -- a potentially elite offense with Tony Romo throwing to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant and handing off to DeMarco Murray, but the same old questions in the middle of the offensive line and on defense.

Clayton has the Cowboys going 3-3 in the division, which again seems fair for a team that looks to be around the middle of the league pack. And with out-of-division games against the Bears, Falcons, Ravens, Steelers and Saints, it's not hard to imagine that a 6-4 record outside the NFC East is possible. If the upgrades at cornerback really do help the pass rush and put less pressure on the safeties, the Cowboys could make a leap. The Romo-led offense should score more than enough points. I just don't feel as though this Dallas team has elevated itself to the top echelon of the league's defenses.

More or less? Clayton's number seems about right to me. I don't think the Cowboys will go 0-2 against the Giants again.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS: The Redskins' biggest need was, of course, quarterback, and they dealt four high draft picks to get one. Robert Griffin III carries the hopes of a desperate fan base and the promise of being better than Rex Grossman, even as a rookie. The Redskins also outfitted him with a pair of new free-agent wide receivers, Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and will team him with a young defense. Will it be enough to vault Washington into actual playoff contention? Clayton thinks no. And in fairness, as great as Griffin projects to be, he is a rookie, and rookies tend to struggle. Questions remain in the running game, on the offensive line, at receiver and in the secondary. There's more work to be done in Washington before the Redskins can threaten to reach the playoffs, most likely.

As for the breakdown, Clayton has the Redskins at 2-4 in the division, which is what they were last year, and 4-6 outside of it. They feel as though they should have won both of the Cowboys games, and it's not ridiculous to think they can win one this year, but regardless of the joke I made earlier, it's hard to imagine them beating the Super Bowl champs twice in the same year again. I just don't think their non-division schedule looks all that terrifying. A road game in Pittsburgh and home games against the Ravens and Falcons, sure. But I think the opener in New Orleans looks ripe for a fired-up team with a new quarterback, what with the Saints' coaches all suspended and especially if the Jonathan Vilma suspension holds up. It's not too hard to squint and find five or six potential non-division wins if the Redskins play slightly better than they did last year.

More or less? I think the Redskins will win more than six. But again, it's June, and I reserve the right to make my real predictions at the proper time.

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 draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


The only NFC East team that didn't trade up in the first round is the one that just won the Super Bowl. That gives you a sense of how hungry the division's other three teams are to catch the New York Giants and take their shot at the Lombardi Trophy they were holding up in Indianapolis a few months ago.

The Washington Redskins made their trade-up a month early, dealing away three first-round picks and this year's second-rounder in order to secure the man they believe will be their franchise quarterback. The Dallas Cowboys made theirs Thursday night, when they decided it was worth spending their first- and second-round picks this year to secure the best defensive player in the draft. And the Eagles made theirs a short time later, when the defensive tackle they wanted, Fletcher Cox, fell further than they expected him to fall and the price to move up and get him became reasonable.

But after the top half of the first round, the NFC East teams' drafts went very different ways. The Cowboys, in need of 2012 help at various places on the roster, oddly began picking project players and unknown safeties. The Redskins made some head-scratchers in the middle rounds before getting workmanlike about their offensive line late. And the Eagles had one of those drafts where everything seemed to be falling their way. Time will tell, of course, and there's no way right now to know how any of these players will perform. But here are some thoughts on how it looks in the very early post-draft light.

BEST MOVE

[+] EnlargeFletcher Cox
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireThe Eagles were able to move up to get their target, Fletcher Cox, without surrendering high draft picks.
Washington's trade to get quarterback Robert Griffin III and Dallas' trade to get Morris Claiborne were the headline-grabbers, and I believe that each team will be happy with its first-round pick. But the four high picks the Redskins gave up and the two high picks the Cowboys gave up keep me from labeling either of these the division's "best move" from this year's draft. Washington doesn't have another first-rounder until 2015. And Dallas, which needed help at multiple positions, spent its first two picks on a position they'd already addressed at great cost in free agency. Not enough value in either deal for it to be called a shrewd move.

So I'm giving this to the Eagles' deal to move up and get Cox. Philadelphia arrived at the draft Thursday convinced Cox was the player they wanted, and they believed they might have to move up to No. 6 or 7 to get him. To do that, they likely would have had to surrender at least one of their second-round picks, and they didn't want to pay either of those or their third. Once Cox fell to No. 12, the Eagles were able to move up by surrendering their first-rounder, a fourth-rounder and a seventh-rounder, securing the player they felt was their top target without giving up the picks they wanted to preserve. So while, yes, of course, I consider Griffin and Claiborne better players, I think the Eagles made the best first-round move of any NFC East team -- getting a player who can make a difference for them in the short-term as well as the long-term without handicapping themselves for the draft's second night.

On Friday, the Eagles converted their two second-round picks into a speedy outside linebacker (Mychal Kendricks) and a pass-rushing defensive end (Vinny Curry) and took the quarterback prospect they wanted (Nick Foles) in the third round. That Day 2 haul, compared with what the Cowboys and Redskins were able to get with their Day 2 picks, is what made the Eagles' trade-up the best overall move of the draft in the NFC East.

RISKIEST MOVE

This is a close contest between the two moves that lost out in the first category. It'd be easy to say Griffin, because he cost so much more. But I'm giving this to the Cowboys' trade-up to get Claiborne. It's a tough call, because I think Claiborne may be the best player any NFC East team got in this draft (barely, if at all, ahead of Griffin) and he cost less than Griffin did. But I'm basing this call on the circumstances specific to each team.

The Redskins are taking a big risk, sure, by picking a kid to be their franchise quarterback and telling him they don't have a first-round pick in either of the next two years with which to build around him. But the Redskins had no choice. Their need for Griffin was overwhelming, and they were right to let it overwhelm their priority list for this draft and the next two. Washington hasn't had a franchise quarterback in 20 years, and once they were convinced Griffin could be one, this was a risk worth taking for them.

I do not think, however, that Dallas' need for Claiborne was nearly as great as Washington's need for Griffin. Yes, the Cowboys' secondary was the obvious weak spot of their team last year -- the main reason they fell one game short of the Giants in the division race. But they'd already spent their big free-agent bucks on Brandon Carr and had Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick at cornerback. Does Claiborne have a good chance to be better than any of them? Yes. Could that happen as early as this year? You betcha. But with needs at safety, linebacker, defensive line and offensive line, the Cowboys should have conserved their picks to address multiple needs. They weren't one great cornerback away from being a championship team in 2012, and by trading their top two picks for Claiborne, and then picking project players and reaches the rest of the way, they decided to operate as though that were the case. It's a big risk, and if lingering weaknesses at those other spots do them in this season, they could regret it.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

Without a doubt, it was the Redskins' selection of Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins with the seventh pick of the fourth round Saturday. It was Washington's third pick of the draft and the second that had been used on a quarterback. Their reasoning is that quarterback is a vitally important position at which it's impossible to be too deep, and as long as they make it clear to the players involved and to their fan base that Griffin is the starter and Cousins is the backup, it can work. They can develop Cousins in the backup role, have a player they like in reserve in case Griffin gets hurt and perhaps eventually trade him for something of great value in a league in which quarterbacks are the most prized commodities.

FILE IT AWAY

Nobody in this division does the draft better than the Giants, and it'll be worth remembering that the wide receiver (LSU's Rueben Randle) they picked at the end of the second round was a player they considered taking at the end of the first. Randle is a dynamic talent who now gets a chance to develop behind brilliant and selfless starting wideouts Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz and with the help of quarterback Eli Manning, who has an outstanding record of getting the best out of his receiving targets. Randle could not have been drafted into a better spot for his own development, and he could potentially be an immediate asset for the Giants in the passing game, because he can play the outside spot vacated by free-agent defector Mario Manningham and allow Cruz to stay in the slot position from which he exploded onto the scene in 2011. The Giants managed to combine need picks and value picks at almost every turn in this draft, and their second-rounder may turn out to be their biggest prize.

NFC East: Free-agency primer

March, 9, 2012
3/09/12
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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.

Leading Questions: NFC East

February, 16, 2012
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC East team as they begin preparations for the 2012 season:

DALLAS COWBOYS

Do they have too much work to do?

It's possible that we expect too much from the Cowboys. Their skill-position talent on offense makes them an easy team to like going into the season. Few teams are as good as they are at quarterback and wide receiver, and if DeMarco Murray comes back healthy, they look pretty good at running back, too.

But the offseason needs for the Cowboys are myriad. They need guards and a center. They need cornerbacks and safeties. They need a pass-rushing outside linebacker to complement DeMarcus Ware. They could stand to beef up on the defensive line.

That's a lot of needs, and it's fair to wonder whether they'll be able to fill them all adequately and construct a 2012 contender. That they were a contender (heck, a leader) in the NFC East right up until the end of the 2011 season leads one to believe they necessarily should be thought of as one again for 2012. But the division was, for the first time ever, won with only nine wins. And the way the Cowboys played defense and protected Tony Romo during their 1-4 finish was more alarming than the 7-4 record was encouraging.

NEW YORK GIANTS

What to do with Osi Umenyiora?

The Giants have other issues, sure. They need to work on the offensive line. They need to find a tight end. They need to make individual decisions on players like Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham. But for a team that believes the pass rush is the cornerstone of good defense, the Osi question is a fair one on which to focus right now.

Last summer, when he had two years left on his contract, Umenyiora was obviously unhappy. He sat out training camp practices. He sought (and received) permission to find a team willing to trade for him. He called GM Jerry Reese a liar in a sworn affidavit as part of one of the lockout lawsuits. The Giants never blinked, and in the end Umenyiora returned and became a major contributor to their Super Bowl run.

Now, he has one year left on the contract he hates, and the Giants must decide what to do. Sign him long term, as he wants? Trade him now, while his value is high coming off the Super Bowl and his postseason performance? Or stand pat again and force him to play out his contract, running the risk that he'll be more resolute in his protests and holdouts this time around?

The emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul at defensive end opposite Justin Tuck gives the Giants leverage, but at the same time, they were much better when all three of those guys were healthy and in the lineup together.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Is a full offseason really what they need?

Last August, after the lockout ended, the Eagles signed a bunch of free agents to play for a revamped coaching staff with a lot of new ideas about how to play defense and offensive line. The party line in Philadelphia now is that this was all too much too soon, and that the Eagles' 3-6 start was due in large part to the inability of all of these new pieces to get on the same page in the absence of an offseason program.

They played well at the end of the season, they point out. Heck, they played well at the beginning of the season, too -- they just couldn't hold a lead. So we'll see whether a real offseason of OTAs and minicamps all spring and summer helps everyone relax and get the most out of a talented roster.

We'll see whether it helps quarterback Michael Vick better handle the new responsibilities he took on in 2011, such as changing the protection at the line of scrimmage. We'll see whether the sting of 2011's disappointment can propel the Eagles to great things in 2012, or if it's all a bunch of hooey and they were never that good in the first place.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Who's the quarterback?

Rex Grossman can't come back as anything other than the backup, and John Beck ... well, just ... no.

The Redskins have many needs, but none as big as this one. Picking sixth in the draft, they'll need to trade up (and outbid other teams to do so) if they want Robert Griffin III, who's the best all-around option and a potential franchise quarterback.

But if trading up means dealing away multiple first-round picks and making it difficult for them to address areas such as wide receiver, offensive line and the secondary, it might not be the wisest course of action. That would necessitate a free-agent pursuit of someone like Kyle Orton, Matt Flynn or -- if they can be convinced he's fully healthy -- Peyton Manning.

Redskins fans aren't likely to be happy with an imperfect, short-term solution. But only one team is going to get Griffin, and if the Redskins are not that team, they need to spend their resources on a No. 1 receiver and help for the line.

They have about $47 million in cap room and the ability to fill enough holes that plugging in a healthy Manning could make them a 2012 contender. And if that's the way they go, there's always a Matt Barkley or Landry Jones-type option next year.

A look back at Rob Ryan's pressure

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
9:44
AM ET


IRVING, Texas -- For the Cowboys to beat the New York Giants on Sunday at MetLife Stadium they will need to get after Eli Manning.

In 2008, the Cowboys sacked him 12 times in two games. In the five games since then they have sacked him twice in 193 pass attempts. They did not get to him in the first meeting this season in which he threw it 47 times.

Coach Jason Garrett said sometimes sacks can be overrated, that pressure means more. That’s true. A quarterback can simply just throw the ball away when under some heat, which means almost as much as a sack.

But the Cowboys did not get much pressure the last time.

I re-watched the first game between the Cowboys and Giants and paid particular attention to the Cowboys pass rush in the second half when Manning threw it 28 times for 254 yards.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan brought five-man pressure (or more) 10 times, four-man pressure seven times, three-man pressure 10 times and two-man pressure once. By my unofficial count, the Cowboys pressured Manning nine times in the second half that included an intentional grounding penalty.

When Ryan brought five or more, the Cowboys pressured Manning six of the 10 snaps. With the four-man pressure, they got to him twice (out of seven snaps) and three-man once (out of 10 snaps).

On Mario Manningham’s 47-yard touchdown catch, the Cowboys rushed six with linebacker Alex Albright serving as a down lineman, faking a rush and dropping into coverage. Unfortunately Frank Walker and Barry Church blitzed, leaving Manningham alone for the touchdown.

A lot of Ryan’s three-man rush came in the red zone where he wanted to clog up the passing lanes, like when he dropped nine guys. But on that play Jake Ballard was able to break free for an 18-yard catch to the Dallas 1 to set up the go-ahead touchdown.

If you’re Ryan, do you blitz and expose the secondary or do you play coverage and expose the pass rush?

Final Word: NFC East

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
12:34
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

Wow, does something have to give: The Minnesota Vikings have played nine games in a row without intercepting a pass -- the longest such streak in the league since the NFL-AFL merger. Their six interceptions for the season is the lowest total in the league, obviously. But this week they get to face Washington Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman, who has thrown at least one interception in 10 straight games and whose 18 interceptions for the season are one short of Ryan Fitzpatrick's league lead -- remarkable considering Grossman has played in only 11 games. One of these streaks ends Saturday. Which way are you betting?

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesHakeem Nicks and the Giants' receivers are among the NFL leaders in dropped passes.
Third and wrong: The New York Giants are working on a streak of five games in which their opponent has converted at least 50 percent of its third-down opportunities. That's the longest such streak since the merger, and the Giants are 1-4 in those games. The good news is that the Jets' third-down conversion percentage of 36.5 is only the 18th-best in the league, much worse than that of any of the five teams the Giants have played during that stretch.

Hang on tight: Even if the Giants' offensive line can keep the Jets away from quarterback Eli Manning, Manning will need his receivers to catch the ball. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Giants receivers have 28 dropped passes this season, second-most in the league behind the Cleveland Browns. Hakeem Nicks' drop of what would have been a long touchdown pass early in the Week 15 loss to Washington stands out, but the team has five drops in the past two weeks. Victor Cruz leads the team with seven this season, and Nicks, Jake Ballard and Mario Manningham have five.

Thank the big guys up front: Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy is in the midst of a special and historic season, having already set a team record with 20 touchdowns and amassed 1,579 yards from scrimmage. But a large part of his success as a runner is due to the job the Eagles' offensive line has done blocking for him. According to ESPN Stats & Info, McCoy leads the league in the percentage of his yards that are gained before initial contact -- 64.4 percent. Of his 1,274 rush yards, 820 have come before he has been hit. McCoy is extremely shifty and excels at finding his way through holes. But his line is also doing a great job of making those holes for him.

Playing clean: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has played three games in a row without throwing an interception and has just two interceptions (against 18 touchdown passes) in his past seven games. If he can avoid turning the ball over against the Eagles, the Cowboys will greatly improve their chances of winning. Philadelphia leads the league with 35 turnovers, and its minus-12 turnover margin is the second-worst in the league.

Dez Bryant: Cowboys have NFL's best WR corps

December, 16, 2011
12/16/11
5:02
PM ET
It wasn’t enough to win, but the Cowboys’ wide receiving corps provided a glimpse of how potent it can be against the Giants.

With Miles Austin back in the mix, the Cowboys’ wide receivers accounted for 250 yards and three touchdowns, with Austin, Laurent Robinson and Dez Bryant each scoring once.

Austin is a two-time Pro Bowler with a $54 million contract, but he’s been the Cowboys’ third most productive wide receiver this season, in large part because he’s missed six games due to hamstring injuries. Robinson and Bryant both have chances to finish with 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown seasons.

“I feel like without a doubt that we are the best receiving corps in the league,” Bryant said.

That’s debatable. There are other receiving corps that can make the same claim, including the one that won Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium. But the Cowboys’ trio is at least in the conversation if Austin can stay healthy.

Here’s how the Cowboys’ wideouts compare to the other elite receiving corps in the league:

COWBOYS
Laurent Robinson – 46 catches, 763 yards, 8 TD
Dez Bryant – 47 catches, 756 yards, 8 TD
Miles Austin – 32 catches, 466 yards, 5 TD

GIANTS
Victor Cruz – 68 catches, 1,150 yards, 7 TD
Hakeem Nicks – 65 catches, 1,023 yards, 6 TD
Mario Manningham -- 36 catches, 466 yards, 4 TD

STEELERS
Mike Wallace – 62 catches, 1,034 yards, 8 TD
Antonio Brown – 55 catches, 925 yards, 2 TD
Hines Ward – 37 catches, 325 yards, 2 TD

PACKERS
Jordy Nelson – 51 catches, 957 yards, 10 TD
Greg Jennings – 67 catches, 949 yards, 9 TD
James Jones – 26 catches, 479 yards, 5 TD
Donald Driver – 31 catches, 357 yards, 4 TD

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Giants review

December, 13, 2011
12/13/11
1:28
PM ET

Scout's Eye
In a contest that could have gone either way, the New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game played out like I believed it would.

There was no doubt in my mind that a missed opportunity on offense or a blown coverage on defense would steer the momentum of the game one way or another. The more I studied, the more it became apparent to me that these teams were similar in the manner in which they played. Both teams had struggled on the offensive line, both teams had problems covering receivers in the secondary, and both had shown the ability to run the ball and make big plays in the passing game on the outside. Where the Giants were a little better than the Cowboys in this game was their ability to get pressure on the quarterback without having to commit extra defenders to the rush. I figured Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was going to be a handful for Doug Free, and he was, but that was only one of many matchups that shaped this game.

Cowboys have communication troubles in the secondary


The game started poorly for the Cowboys. On their second defensive series, with the Giants facing a third-and-7, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan put his nickel package on the field against the Giants' three-receiver set, and Terence Newman was not included. I didn't see Newman have any equipment issues or physical problems following the previous play that would have taken him off the field. Yet Alan Ball lined up at left cornerback. Before the snap, Orlando Scandrick was trying to sort out the coverage responsibilities with Ball, Abram Elam and Frank Walker. At the snap, Ball used an outside technique to cover Hakeem Nicks as the receiver shot up the field, and it appeared Ball thought he would get help from the inside from Elam. Scandrick was in position to get a slight jam on Nicks and alter his route, but he didn't. Meanwhile, the vertical route by Victor Cruz holds Elam in the middle of the field as Nicks streaks by Ball, who is now in chase mode, trailing the route. Ryan sent Anthony Spencer and Sean Lee on the blitz, but neither rusher makes it to the quarterback, leaving Eli Manning with enough time to launch a beautiful pass down the middle of the field to a wide open Nicks, who catches the ball in stride and takes it down to the Cowboys' 5-yard line. The gain of 64 yards set up a Lawrence Tynes field goal to put the Giants up 5-0.

Another example of poor communication and a breakdown in the secondary happened with 5:02 left in the third quarter with the Cowboys clinging to a 20-15 lead. The down and distance is again third-and-7, this time from the Cowboys' 47-yard line. The Cowboys get caught with 12 players on the field as the Giants line up with four receivers. Nose tackle Sean Lissemore sprints off the field as Manning brings his squad to the line. Newman and Scandrick roll to their left to cover Nicks and Cruz. Mario Manningham is in the slot to the Giants' left, with fellow receiver Ramses Barden outside of him. Elam lines up in the slot over Manningham, just outside of DeMarcus Ware. Barry Church and Gerald Sensabaugh are the safeties in the middle of the field.

Manning brings Barden in short motion to the inside. At the snap, Church starts forward from his deep position as Elam, still lined up over Manningham in the slot, also blitzes. Alan Ball, the corner to that side, is left in no man's land trying to split the difference between the two Giants receivers. On the left side, Sensabaugh, Newman and Scandrick are covering Nicks and Cruz, so you have three defenders on two on that side of the field and only one defender on the opposite side. Linebacker Sean Lee drops to the middle of the field. Barden runs an out route, which Ball carries to the outside. That leaves no defenders on Manningham, who heads straight up the field because of the blitzing Elam and Church. Ryan's pressure package is Bruce Carter, Ware, Jason Hatcher and Spencer, along with Elam and Church. Once again, no rusher gets home, and Manning is easily able to get the ball to the wide open Manningham for the go-ahead touchdown. If I had to blame someone in the secondary for this, it would have to be Church, who should have picked up Manningham instead of coming on the safety blitz from where he did.

Newman's struggles with "off" coverage


The final defensive play I want to break down for you happened in the fourth quarter, when Giants coach Tom Coughlin decided to go for it on fourth-and-3. On the left side, Newman is playing eight yards off the ball, covering Mario Manningham. At the snap, Manningham takes off, closing the cushion on Newman, who is playing a technique in which he is turned inside in an attempt to keep Manningham from going that direction on him. Manningham hits the brakes and turns inside to square his shoulders to Manning. Newman tries to come to a halt as well but has trouble gathering his feet to drive on the ball. In the pocket, Spencer takes an inside charge and gets washed out. Manning takes the opportunity to move to the outside, sliding to his right to buy more time. Meanwhile, Manningham is squared up to Manning with Newman still trying to gather his feet. The result: an easy throw and catch for the first down.

The reason I wanted to break down this play was to explain what I'm seeing in Newman. I regularly talk about him not being able to drive on the ball when playing off coverage. Where Newman has been much better this season has been in press coverage; he has struggled in off coverage. We did see him earlier in the game drive on the ball from off coverage, but he couldn't complete the possible pick-six play. If I were Dave Campo and Rob Ryan, I would encourage Newman to play more press coverage like Mike Jenkins, who has been outstanding the past two games. To give Manningham that much space on a fourth-down play is a mistake.

The Jason Pierre-Paul debacle


Offensively, I believed the Cowboys would be able to move the ball on this Giants defense. There were going to be plays in which Free would have to deal with Jason Pierre-Paul off the edge, and while he gave up two sacks, one of those sacks came when he set too wide on the rush and Pierre-Paul got inside on him. Montrae Holland should have been able to help on that play, but he just wasn't quick enough. If Holland were able to move better, then Tony Romo would have been able to move in the pocket better, but the coverage downfield did not allow that.

On the safety early in the game, it was clearly Free's mistake. The Cowboys went empty backfield, and at the snap Pierre-Paul exploded into Free's chest, getting the O-lineman back on his heels. Free tried to adjust as Pierre-Paul worked to his outside shoulder, but Free was already overextended and in poor position. Pierre-Paul slipped past him and around the corner. Jason Witten was open to the left of Romo in the middle of the field, but it looks like he wanted to go to John Phillips on his right. By the time Romo looked back to his left, it was too late; Pierre-Paul was right on top of him. Romo got hit but tried to spin away to his left, but he lost his balance in the end zone, resulting in the safety and an early lead for the Giants.

Dez Bryant
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDez Bryant scored on a 50-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter Sunday night.

Dez gets it done


I realize Dez Bryant's numbers don't suggest he had a good game, but for the second straight week, he once again looked comfortable running routes and at least getting into position for Romo to get him the ball. Bryant had to fight through some press coverage and safety help situations, but he was able to do that; he often was open, but Romo went elsewhere with the ball. On Bryant's touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, it really was a nice read and adjustment on his part to make the play work. Bryant was lined up wide right, with Witten and Miles Austin lined up wide to the left. Romo, in the shotgun, sent Phillips in motion to the outside wide left, joining Witten and Austin. At the snap, Bryant started upfield on an outside release by cornerback Corey Webster and quickly approached safety Antrel Rolle. From the left side of the formation, Witten crossed the path of Rolle, who dropped coverage on Bryant to jump the Witten route. It was the second time a Giants safety jumped a route in the game to give up a big play; Deon Grant had done it earlier. In the pocket, Romo, who had time to throw, faked a throw to the three-receiver side on his left before coming back to a wide open Bryant on the right. What made the play successful was Bryant's ability to get off the press, which he has improved at as the season has worn on. Romo was able to lay the ball perfectly to the wide-open Bryant for the touchdown.

The best play that wasn't


For the second consecutive week, I thought there was a play that was well-designed and thought out by the offensive staff that deserved a better result. Against the Cardinals, it was the "swing arrow." This past week, the pass to Miles Austin with 2:25 left in the fourth quarter that could have sealed the game went incomplete. On the play, Austin was lined up in the slot to the right and Laurent Robinson was outside right, with Witten on the line to the right. Bryant was lined up far left. Romo was in the gun with Felix Jones to his left. The Giants show they are going to rush eight men, and they do. It's total man coverage across the board. At the snap of the ball, Austin sprinted right past cornerback Aaron Ross like he is standing still, and Robinson drives hard from the outside to the inside, all while Romo sees what is developing. In the pocket, the line did their job, and Jones picked up an inside blitzer, leaving Romo with a clean pocket. Austin has four yards on Ross as he is closer to the sideline than the middle of the field. Romo throws the ball inside instead of to the path that Austin is taking wide. Austin looks up to find the ball that is floating more to the inside. He tried to adjust to make the catch, but it's just out of his reach. On the play, it looked like Austin really didn't burst to the ball. I have seen him kick it into gear to get balls, but in this case I didn't see it. I think it would have been really close if he would have dived for that ball. Instead it hits the ground, and the Cowboys have to punt. Once again, the Cowboys had a well-designed play that was called just at the right time, but Romo and Austin were unable to make it work, and it cost the 'Boys a chance to essentially end the game.

Fired-up Friday: Cowboys or Giants WRs?

December, 9, 2011
12/09/11
2:11
PM ET
Remember the Fired-up Fridays? Yeah, we had some fun back in those dark lockout days, didn't we? I remember one time we did a whole post about who had the best wide receivers in the division and I picked the New York Giants (not even aware yet of what Victor Cruz was about to become) and Jeremy Maclin was down there in Philadelphia ripping me on the radio. Ah, memories...

[+] EnlargeVictor Cruz
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesWho has the best wide receivers in the NFC East? The play of Victor Cruz is helping make a compelling case for the Giants.
Anyway, I think it's pretty clear that this is no longer a Giants-Eagles debate but rather, like everything else this week, a debate between the Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. With Miles Austin set to return for Dallas after a season-long battle with hamstring problems and Mario Manningham looking as though he'll be back for the Giants, it appears as if Tony Romo and Eli Manning each will have his full complement of receivers when the big divisional showdown kicks off Sunday night in Dallas. So the question is: Whose wide receivers are better? The Giants' Hakeem Nicks, Cruz and Manningham or the Cowboys' Austin, Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson?

They're two pretty strong groups, especially considering that Cruz ranks among the league leaders in receiving yards this year and Robinson has played at least as well in Austin's absence as Austin was playing just before his most recent injury. Bryant is obviously a huge talent who could end up being the best of either bunch before long. Nicks is an established star who currently ranks as the best, given the sustained success he's had in his first three years in the league and the number of things he does on and off the field to set himself apart. Austin has been a bona fide No. 1 NFL wideout in the past, and while he hasn't looked his old superstar self the past two years, the ability is there. Manningham has become almost an afterthought in New York due to the emergence of Cruz, but you'd better believe opposing defenses aren't forgetting he's there.

The strength of each team's receiving corps, coupled with the relative weakness of each team's secondary, makes me believe we will get to see a lot of these guys performing at a high level Sunday night. And you wouldn't be upset if you got stuck with either threesome on your team. But since we have to pick, I'm sticking with the same pick I made this summer. I think the Giants, led by Nicks and the emerging Cruz, and given the injury problems the Cowboys' top guys have had this year, currently have the best group of wide receivers in the NFC East.

Of course, what I really want to know is what you think. So let me hear it and I'll check the comments to see what kind of feedback you have to offer. What was that we used to say back in the spring and summer when we did this all the time? Oh yeah.

Play nice!!!!

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.

PODCAST
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.

Five-star: Hakeem Nicks will go for 100 yards

December, 8, 2011
12/08/11
10:59
AM ET
Five-star question: Will Victor Cruz be the fourth consecutive receiver to have a 100-yard game against the Cowboys' secondary or will another Giants' receiver do it?

I’ll go with somebody other than Cruz this week. My answer is Hakeem Nicks. He had nine catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns in his last game at Cowboys Stadium.

It’s one thing to allow a wide receiver like Miami’s Brandon Marshall to go for more than 100 yards in a game. It’s a troubling matter when Washington’s Jabar Gaffney and Arizona’s Andre Roberts do it.

Cruz has become Eli Manning’s top target with the wide receivers banged up. He has 62 catches for 1,076 yards and seven touchdowns. He is riding a personal three-game streak of at least 100 yards with 128, 157 and 119 yard games against Philadelphia New Orleans and Green Bay.

But Nicks gets the call for me. He has been targeted 24 times by Manning in the last two games with 14 catches for 175 yards and two scores. He is big, fast and hard to bring down. To me, Nicks is the Giants’ version of Dez Bryant.

If Steve Smith remained with the Giants, I would’ve picked him since he has a history of lighting up the Cowboys.

In the last four games against the Cowboys, the Giants have had four 100-yard games from receivers. Smith had two of them. Nicks had one. Mario Manningham had the other.

It won’t be Cruz on Sunday, but the Giants will have a receiver crack the century mark.

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