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 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.