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.

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