Dallas Cowboys: Justin Tuck

Eight in the Box: Playing for a contract

June, 1, 2013
6/01/13
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player entering a contract year on each NFC East team who must deliver in 2013.

Dallas Cowboys: Playing on a one-year franchise player deal for the second season in a row, defensive end Anthony Spencer is key to the Cowboys' transition to a 4-3 defensive front. He and fellow pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware will switch from the 3-4 outside linebacker position they've always played to a 4-3 defensive end position that will put them closer to the offensive line and likely require them to be more physical in their efforts to get to the quarterback. Spencer took a huge step forward in 2012 as a pass-rusher and was, for much of the season, the best player on the Cowboys' defense. He had 11 sacks, and his previous career high had been six. If he can make the transition to his new position and follow his best season with another excellent one, he'll likely be able to get the long-term deal he seeks. If he can't, the Cowboys will be looking for a new pass-rush anchor next offseason.

New York Giants: Sticking with the pass-rush theme, defensive end Justin Tuck is the Giants player under the most pressure this season to perform the way he used to perform. After racking up 11.5 sacks in 2010, Tuck has collected just nine, total, in the past two regular seasons. The Giants' pass rush took a step backward last season and lost Osi Umenyiora to free agency. They'll replace Umenyiora by moving Mathias Kiwanuka back up to the line from the linebacker spot he played the past two seasons, but their pass rush would function best with Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul as dominant bookend starters. Another lackluster season could mean the end of Tuck's decorated career with the Giants. A return to early-career form could transform the Giants back into a championship contender.

Philadelphia Eagles: Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles' 2009 first-round pick, has averaged 65 receptions, 863 yards and 6.5 touchdowns in his first four seasons in the NFL. His numbers are actually pretty consistent, year to year. But what the Eagles had in mind when they drafted Maclin was a No. 1 wide receiver. And while he's flashed that ability at times, he hasn't been able to maintain that level or develop his game. The Eagles have fellow wideout DeSean Jackson signed long term, but they will have the money and the cap space to sign Maclin next offseason if they choose to do so. Whether they will want to depends on how Maclin plays in the new Chip Kelly offense and, likely, whether he looks as though he can be counted on to carry the load as a true No. 1.

Washington Redskins: I still think it's possible linebacker Brian Orakpo gets his contract extended before the season starts, but if he doesn't, he'll enter the season carrying the pressure of a contract year along with the pressure of having to kick-start the Redskins' pass rush. A pectoral muscle injury in Week 2 ended Orakpo's season, and fellow outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan struggled without Orakpo on the other side to draw the attention of opposing blockers. The Redskins' 3-4 defense is designed around the idea of former first-rounders Orakpo and Kerrigan getting to the quarterback. They need Orakpo to stay healthy and to produce like one of the best pass-rushers in the league.

NFC East draft analysis

April, 29, 2013
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The draft started off heavy in the NFC East, as the three teams with first-round picks this year used them on offensive linemen. And while there were a few little surprises and treats along the way, it never really got hot. All four of the division's teams had workmanlike drafts that balanced need and value and didn't stray into any of the juicy storylines. No Manti Te'o, Geno Smith or Tyrann Mathieu for us.

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There was a trade-down in the first round, as the Dallas Cowboys moved out of a No. 18 spot they didn't like and still managed to get their first-round offensive lineman, while adding a third-rounder to the mix. There were two trade-ups in the fourth round, as the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants maneuvered to add quarterbacks in surprising moves. And there were the Washington Redskins, without a first-rounder but fine with it because they have Robert Griffin III, who waited it out and got two talented safeties in the late rounds for a secondary that needs rebuilding.

We'll be breaking this all down for days and weeks and months, but here's a quick early look at the way the 2013 draft went in the NFC East.

BEST MOVE

In the absence of any earth-shaking moves in the early rounds by NFC East teams, I'm going to have to go with the Eagles taking tackle Lane Johnson at No. 4. They probably could have traded down and out of the pick, but this was a draft in which six offensive linemen went in the first 11 picks, and the value of the third-best tackle with the fourth pick was worth hanging in there. After what happened to their offensive line with injuries in 2012, the Eagles were wise to load up there, taking an athletic player who can start at right tackle right away and maybe move to left tackle down the road once Jason Peters is done. It also helps that Johnson is the kind of lineman who can move. If Chip Kelly plans to run a lot of read-option, or even a lot of bubble screens, Johnson's ability to get out and block at the second level is going to be a big help.

Also considered: The Eagles' trade-up for quarterback Matt Barkley at the top of the fourth round. ... The Redskins' getting two quality safeties in the fourth and sixth rounds in Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo. ... The Cowboys trading down in the first round and getting wide receiver Terrance Williams with the third-round pick they added in that deal.

RISKIEST MOVE

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Thomas Campbell/US PresswireDamontre Moore put up impressive numbers at Texas A&M, but he has to disspell concerns over his work ethic and attitude at the next level.
There weren't any real big risks taken by NFC East teams with their most valuable picks in the first and second rounds, I didn't think. So I'm going with defensive end Damontre Moore, who went to the Giants in the third round. Moore is a big-time talent with big-time production numbers in college -- 12.5 sacks last year, 26.5 over the past three. But there are good reasons a player as good as he is was still there at pick No. 81, and in Moore's case those reasons include a marijuana bust and a reputation as a young man who struggles with attitude and work ethic.

Now, Moore is just 20 years old, and it's wrong to assume anyone that age will always be what he has been so far. But Moore is the player from this draft whose job it is to bolster the future of the Giants' pass rush with Osi Umenyiora gone and Justin Tuck aging. If he's a solid citizen and produces the way he did at Texas A&M, he's going to be a steal. If he's an attitude case who doesn't take to coaching and causes problems, the Giants are going to have to keep looking for long-term solutions at defensive end in the next several drafts. A third-round pick isn't too much to risk on a player with Moore's potential, but it's a pick with which the Giants could have found help elsewhere. So if he does flop, they will regret it.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

The Eagles pulled the surprise of Day 3, moving up three spots to the top of the fourth round, where they selected USC quarterback Matt Barkley. Most analysts were convinced Kelly would seek a fast, athletic, running quarterback when he finally pulled the trigger on that position, but Barkley was a pro-style pocket passer at USC and doesn't fit the "system" everyone seems to be assuming Kelly is determined to run now that he's in the pros. As you know if you read this blog regularly, I think that's hogwash and that Kelly is smart enough to know that the best way to coach is to find talented players and figure out the best way to coach them -- not come wading in with your own "system" and only look for players who fit it.

Kelly knows Barkley from coaching against him in college, and Barkley is a guy who a year ago was thought of as a possible No. 1 overall pick. If 2012 was just a bad year for him and he ends up being a good NFL quarterback, nobody's going to care that he can't run the read-option. For a fourth-round pick and a seventh-round pick, which is what it cost the Eagles to move up and take him, it's a worthwhile risk. And it leaves Kelly with a lot of options at the most important position on his team as he begins his first offseason as an NFL coach.

The Giants pulled a surprise of their own later in the round, trading up six picks to select Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib to develop behind Eli Manning. The 32-year-old Manning hasn't missed a game since 2004, so it's unlikely Nassib sees the field anytime soon. But the Giants decided it was time to start thinking down the road at the position.

FILE IT AWAY

I liked the Cowboys' first round more than most people did, because I thought they absolutely needed to come out of that round with an offensive lineman, and they did. And while Travis Frederick may have been a reach at 31, reaching for an offensive lineman wasn't a bad move for this particular team in a draft in which eight offensive linemen went in the top 20 picks. They traded down from 18 and got the pick that netted Frederick and the third-round pick that netted wide receiver Terrance Williams, and they like that pair better than they liked what was available to them at 18.

But they won't have to look far to remember what might have been. The Giants took Syracuse offensive lineman Justin Pugh at 19, which means the Cowboys could have stayed put and picked up a better-regarded lineman than Frederick (though, obviously, not also get Williams in the third). If Pugh turns out to be a great player for the Giants and Frederick flops in Dallas, the Cowboys could end up regretting the Day 1 trade-down in the long run.

Defenses will decide the NFC East

December, 13, 2012
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Robert Griffin IIIBrad Penner/US PresswireNew York's title hopes may depend on Jason Pierre-Paul and a Giants pass rush that has been underwhelming this season.

Can the New York Giants' pass rush perk up and help a Big Blue defense that held the Falcons offense scoreless during the playoffs last season repeat that performance Sunday in Atlanta?

Can the two men the Dallas Cowboys brought in to be shutdown cornerbacks keep the Steelers receivers covered while Ben Roethlisberger scrambles to keep plays alive?

Can the Washington Redskins scheme, adjust and work around their defensive personnel shortages for another week, keeping Trent Richardson in check and daring Brandon Weeden to beat them in Cleveland?

These are the key storylines Sunday as the NFC East race spins into its final weeks. Amend them with different opponents, and they are likely to remain the key storylines in this division the rest of the way. Although the quarterbacks get all the attention in this division and statistically there's not a top-10 defense in the bunch, the team that plays the best defense in these final three games is the one most likely to emerge with the division title.

The NFC East race is a jumble. The defending champion Giants hold a one-game lead, but they have road games the next two weeks in Atlanta and Baltimore and are far from assured of winning out. The Falcons and Ravens are a combined 11-1 at home this season and 65-11 the past five. Sure, New York is a defending Super Bowl champion that has shown it can win anywhere, but there's not a team out there that could safely assume it would go 2-0 in those games. The Giants are going to have to play the way they played in January, not the way they've played for most of the past month and a half, if they're going to keep control of the division. To do that, they need to be more ferocious on defense.

The Giants have 31 sacks -- tied for 12th most in the league. Jason Pierre-Paul leads them with 6.5. Osi Umenyiora has six. Justin Tuck has only three.

The numbers are fine, but they're not Giants numbers. This is a pass rush that took out Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady en route to its second Super Bowl title in five years. Unless someone gets more than one sack a game the rest of the way, they're going to finish the regular season without anyone in double figures. That doesn't compute, and it has as much to do with why the Giants haven't already put away this division as anything.

It's possible that seeing Ryan and the Falcons will rekindle memories of how dominant they were up front 11 months ago, and if that's the case, the Giants could be the team that gets on the defensive run that gives them the division title.

The Cowboys sit one game back of the Giants, tied with the Redskins for second place. Statistically fine for much of the season, the defense has endured a brutal rash of injuries. Both starting inside linebackers, a starting safety, a starting defensive lineman and their nickel cornerback are on injured reserve. This week, star pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware (elbow) and starting cornerback Morris Claiborne (concussion) have already missed practice. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff remains in doubt, and his backup, Josh Brent, is out because of his well-publicized issues. The Cowboys are running short of players on defense, which could take them right out of this picture if it continues.

But they've made it this far in spite of their deficiencies. They've won four of their past five games. Running back DeMarco Murray is back in the fold, red-hot wide receiver Dez Bryant apparently is determined to play in spite of a broken finger, and the offense is humming.

The defense has to hold it together, and the key is in that secondary. Ware and Anthony Spencer are playing well at outside linebacker, and the defensive line is average and going to stay that way. The defense is counting on Claiborne and fellow corner Brandon Carr to shut down receivers, especially in a game such as this Sunday's against Pittsburgh's receivers. If Claiborne can't go, the responsibility falls to Sterling Moore, who has looked good in his short time in Dallas.

Carr and Claiborne have been occasionally brilliant but generally inconsistent in coverage this season. The price the Cowboys paid for Carr in free-agent money and for Claiborne in draft picks says they're big-time talents who need to play that way. If they can shut down opposing receivers the next three weeks, the Cowboys' chances of coming from behind and stealing this division are a lot better.

In Washington, all eyes are on rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, who has a knee injury and may not play Sunday in Cleveland.

But the Redskins aren't really worried about their offense. They can run the ball with Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon can get open down the field for backup Kirk Cousins, and they can score enough points.

Defense has been the Redskins' issue all season. They rank 28th in total defense and 31st against the pass. A secondary that didn't look all that great to begin with is now missing two starting safeties and a starting cornerback. The defense is also missing its best pass-rusher, Brian Orakpo, and starting defensive lineman Adam Carriker. It has been a struggle.

Yet the Redskins, which have managed to win their past four games to move within a game of the Giants, have a real chance. They have looked bad on defense for long stretches during the streak -- the second half against Dallas on Thanksgiving, the first half against Baltimore last week -- but they've managed to hold on. Coordinator Jim Haslett is doing an excellent job of changing up the game plan from week to week and half to half to maximize any advantage he can find. Outside linebacker Rob Jackson can be a disruptive pass-rusher for a half. DeAngelo Hall can be a decent cover corner for a couple of drives.

They mix, match and patch it together, and so far it's not falling apart. The key will be for the Redskins to keep walking that tightrope, and if they can do it for three more games, they absolutely have a chance.

So if you're trying to make sense of this NFC East race as it hits the home stretch, look not to the big-name quarterbacks and receivers but instead to the defenses. If one of these three teams can do something on defense it hasn't been able to do so far, that could make enough of a difference to decide the division.

Power Rankings: Cowboys trending upward

December, 11, 2012
12/11/12
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The new Power Rankings are out. Let's see how our teams did this week.

7. New York Giants (Last week: 10). Justin Tuck said after Sunday's victory over the Saints that the Giants have been on a "roller coaster," and indeed they have. Up two weeks ago after beating the Packers, down last week after losing to the Redskins, back up this week after dropping 52 on the Saints. No one knows what to make of this Jekyll-and-Hyde team, but with three weeks to go they're right where they want to be -- in front in the division and with their destiny in their hands. I had them at 8 last week and 7 this week. Ashley Fox ranks them No. 6. Mike Sando and John Clayton have them 8th.

12. Washington Redskins (14). A fourth straight win -- this one at home over the Ravens came with a bad portent in the form of a knee injury to star rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. If he has to miss games, that's a big threat to the Redskins' ranking here as well as their playoff hopes. But the Redskins are over .500 and have played very well for the past month, so their highest ranking of the season so far is no surprise. I had them 12 last week and moved them up to 10, one spot ahead of the Ravens, who they just beat. That 10 is their highest ranking among our five voters. Clayton and Ashley each have them 15, which is the lowest.

13. Dallas Cowboys (16). Another suddenly hot NFC East team on the verge of playoff contention, the Cowboy have won four out of five to achieve their highest ranking since Week 6. Can that ranking survive a tough test against the Steelers on Sunday? Can it survive the injuries that continue to batter the roster? We shall see. I ranked them No. 13, as did everyone else in our poll except Clayton, who has them 14th.

27. Philadelphia Eagles (30). A win! At long last, the Eagles get to move back up a couple of notches after breaking their eight-game losing streak Sunday in Tampa. Perhaps rookie Nick Foles can quarterback them back toward respectability before it's all said and done. I have them 27, as does everyone else but Ashley, who has them 28.

Your thoughts?

NFC East race again tightens up

December, 4, 2012
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LANDOVER, Md. -- Maybe the Washington Redskins are just in the New York Giants' heads, right? Maybe the Giants just can't solve what the Redskins throw at them. They have had a miserable time with Washington of late, going 1-3 against them over the past two seasons, and it's possible they just don't match up well against them. Entirely possible that, just as they did last December, the Giants will rebound from a frustrating loss to their division rivals in D.C. and roll on into (and maybe even through) the playoffs from here on out. No one would be overly surprised.

But if they don't -- if this Giants December ends up a repeat of 2009 or 2010 instead of 2011 -- then, wow, will the Giants have plenty of missed opportunities on which to reflect. Monday Night's flop at FedEx Field. The 0-2 stretch against AFC North opponents in early November. A loss to the Eagles (who haven't won since!) in Philadelphia at the tail end of September. All of these loom in memory as avoidable pitfalls, games in which Super Bowl champions should be able to find a way. Had they won just one of those four games I mentioned, the Giants would have a firm grasp on a fairly weak NFC East and be looking ahead to the playoffs.

"We still feel comfortable where we are," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck insisted. "We still have a one-game lead."

That's important to remember, even as fans of the Cowboys and Redskins begin sizing up schedules and researching tiebreakers. The Giants are the one NFC East team that remains in control of its destiny. If the Giants win all four of their remaining games, they will win the division, regardless of what the Redskins and Cowboys do. Those other teams need help. The Giants do not.

But while the Giants have shown, with impressive victories over teams like San Francisco and Green Bay, that they can play with and beat pretty much anybody, they have totally squandered their margin for error. They have the reeling-but-dangerous Saints on Sunday at home, then they have consecutive road games in Atlanta and Baltimore. The Falcons are 32-7 at home over the past five years. The Ravens are 33-6. It's folly to imagine that the Giants can't win either game or both, but neither would be an upset if they lost it. And then in Week 17 loom those pesky Eagles, who are one of the worst teams in the league right now but have beaten the Giants eight times in their last nine tries. No gimme, that.

"You can't be down about it," Eli Manning said. "We still have a great opportunity ahead of us. We have some tough teams to face, but that's what makes it exciting. We have to play better football."

The good news for the Giants is that they know they can. They have the recent memory of the way they played last week against Green Bay, not to mention the not-distant memory of the way they played in last year's playoffs and Super Bowl, to drive, motivate and convince them. They are not worried or scared or nervous, and they really shouldn't be -- yet.

But what Monday Night's loss did is put the Giants on the precipice of trouble. If they lose even one or two of their remaining four games, there are two division rivals who don't like them very much and would be happy to accept the gift of the opportunity the defending champs seem intent on offering. They have, by failing to win the games they needed to win to make their lead comfortable, instead made things much more difficult for themselves than they had to be. And maybe that's the way they like it. Maybe the Giants are at their best when things aren't easy. Maybe this thing with the Redskins is really real, and the Giants just can't figure out that one particular team but will bounce back against seemingly tougher ones. We wait to find out. They have once again, and in spite of what was surely their strong preference to do otherwise, set up the final weeks of the season in a way that's sure to hold everyone's attention.

Look back: Cowboys press strong again

October, 30, 2012
10/30/12
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IRVING, Texas -- In two games against the Cowboys, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has been held to 213 and 192 yards passing with one touchdown pass and one interception.

The pass rush helped even if the Cowboys did not sack Manning often (three times in the opener, once on Sunday) but an aggressive secondary helped more.

In the Sept. 5 meeting, the Cowboys played full press 27 times, half press 15 times and off 10 times. On Sunday the Cowboys played full press 24 times, half press 25 times and off 12 times.

In the Cowboys’ previous two games against Baltimore and Carolina, the Cowboys did not play full press coverage more than 10 times in either game.

That aggressiveness by Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins against the Giants threw off the timing between Manning and his receivers. Carr played press coverage on 27 individual snaps and 15 times he played safety when the Cowboys went with their dime package.

So far this season when the Cowboys play physical up front with the wide receivers they have had success.

** When you call 67 pass plays against the Giants, you’re asking an awful lot of the offensive line. The Giants had four sacks of Tony Romo but the line held up OK against the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Chris Canty.

Bad timing on breakdowns, however, hurt. Nate Livings got overextended as he attempted to block Canty once and the former Cowboy was able to sack Romo for a 12-yard loss late in the third quarter. Doug Free made Umenyiora virtually invisible but on the fourth-and-1 play Umenyiora’s jump off the snap forced Free to hold, which would have negated a first down. Romo’s pass was ultimately picked off so it didn’t matter.

The Giants brought five defenders or more 12 times and Romo completed eight passes. He was not sacked in those instances but was picked once. Jason Witten and Miles Austin caught four passes apiece when New York brought five-plus.

The Giants’ four sacks came on four-man rushes, as did two of the three picks of Romo. The Giants are one of the few teams that can rely on a four-man rush to get after the quarterback.

** Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan relied on a four-man rush most of the time as well. He brought five or more guys just once in the game. DeMarcus Ware’s sack of Manning and Danny McCray’s interception came on four-man rushes.

** On Monday Jason Garrett was asked about the receivers’ ability to break up possible interceptions, pointing to Corey Webster’s pick of Romo as an example with Austin falling off balance as he turned for the deep ball.

On the first series of the game the Cowboys had Reuben Randle covered, but Jenkins slipped on the deep throw, allowing a 56-yard reception. Later in the game Manning threw a sideline pass to Randle when he was blanketed by Carr.

In those cases he might not have made the best decision, but his receivers made a play for him. Counter that for Romo when Austin slipped and Bryant was unable to come up with two down-the-field throws in the second half that were contested catches but plays above-average receivers should make.

Drive of the game: Cowboys' three-and-out

October, 28, 2012
10/28/12
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ARLINGTON, Texas – Momentum can be a funny thing.

The Cowboys had it in the third quarter with touchdowns on their first two drives and a Danny McCray interception. But they quickly lost it after McCray’s turnover.

Leading 24-23 and writing the best comeback in team history, the Cowboys had a real chance to possibly put New York away with another touchdown.

The first thing that went wrong, however, was a replay decision that took away 22 yards on McCray’s return. Instead of first down at the Giants 43, they had first down at their own 35.

On first down, Romo was sacked by Chris Canty for a 12-yard loss. On second down, a Tony Romo screen pass to Felix Jones was incomplete with Justin Tuck providing pressure. On third down Phillip Tanner picked up 13 yards on a dump pass, forcing a punt.

The Cowboys had scored on four straight possessions until that point and would not score again.

The Giants followed that drive with a 43-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes to re-take the lead 26-24 with 10:20 to play.

Final Word: NFC East

October, 27, 2012
10/27/12
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 8:

Getting after Matt Ryan: The Atlanta Falcons arrive in Philadelphia this weekend as the league's last unbeaten team, and quarterback Matt Ryan started the season as hot as any quarterback in the NFL. The Falcons like to throw, and according to ESPN Stats & Information's Next Level stats, they have dropped back 84 percent of the time in sets that feature three or more wide receivers. Teams did start to catch on, though, prior to Atlanta's Week 7 bye. In Ryan's first three games of the season, he completed 74.3 percent of his passes, was sacked just three times, and threw six touchdowns and no interceptions in three-plus receiver sets. In his past three games, he's completed 66.7 percent of his passes, been sacked six times and thrown four touchdowns and four interceptions in such sets. Will the Eagles blitz him? Under defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, the Eagles sent an extra pass-rusher on 19.5 percent of opponents' pass plays over the past year and a half -- the lowest such percentage in the league. Castillo was fired last week and Todd Bowles is the new defensive coordinator, so things could be about to change, and Ryan could see different looks than any the Eagles have put on film in the past two seasons.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Paul Frederiksen/US PresswireThe Redskins' Robert Griffin III is on a record pace with his 70.4 completion percentage.
Be like Ben? Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III leads the NFL so far this season with a 70.4 completion percentage. If that holds up -- or even if it drops a little -- Griffin would break the all-time NFL record for highest completion percentage by a quarterback in his rookie season. The current record-holder will be on the opposite sideline Sunday in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger posted a 66.4 completion percentage for the Steelers in his rookie season of 2004.

D up in Big D: The New York Giants' defense has been taking advantage of opportunities in recent weeks. They have forced 10 turnovers in their past three games -- at least three in each game against Cleveland, San Francisco and Washington. If they can turn the Dallas Cowboys over three or more times Sunday, they'd have the longest streak of three-plus takeaway games since the Falcons did it four weeks in a row in 2010.

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Romo a puzzler: The Giants tend to do well against mobile quarterbacks ... other than Dallas' Tony Romo. Over the past two seasons, when throwing from outside the pocket against the Giants, Romo has a completion percentage of 69.2, is averaging 12.6 yards per attempt and has thrown six touchdown passes and no interceptions. All other opposing quarterbacks combined against the Giants have a 47.8 completion percentage, 6.0 yards per attempt, one touchdown and two interceptions when throwing from outside the pocket. Justin Tuck joked recently that it's unfair that Romo is the least mobile NFC East quarterback he gets to face now, but there is something about Romo on the move that gives the Giants trouble.

Head to head: The Cowboys beat New York in the season opener in New Jersey on Sept. 5, and if they win Sunday they would sweep the Giants for the first time in the regular season since 2007 (and yes, we all know what happened when they played for a third time that season). Dallas is 0-3 against the Giants in the current Cowboys' Stadium since it opened in 2009, and has never lost four straight home games to the Giants.

Cowboys tackles improving but have challenge

October, 27, 2012
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IRVING, Texas -- The Cowboys offensive tackles, Doug Free (right) and Tyron Smith (left), have improved their play the last couple of weeks.

Quarterback Tony Romo wasn't sacked last week at Carolina and the Panthers weren't credited with any quarterback hits.

Everything could change Sunday afternoon at Cowboys Stadium when the New York Giants come calling. In the first meeting, the season-opener, Romo was sacked twice and knocked down twice.

The Giants edge rushers, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora are difficult to defend for any offensive line.

Pierre-Paul leads the Giants with 4.5 sacks and five quarterback hits. Tuck recorded his first sack of the season last week against Washington, but he's got three quarterback hits. Umenyiora has three sacks on the season, second on the team, and four quarterback hits.

"We went into Carolina and we were challenged," Cowboys offensive line coach Bill Callahan said. "We had too many penalties the week prior to that. We felt the week coming out of the Baltimore game, we did better with the presnap penalties and then we went the last game and we did well. From their prospective they’ve shown some improvement, in terms of shutting down the edges. We've been challenged by some really good rushers and the challenge is greater this week when you look at these guys from New York, this is what they do. This is the heart of their defense we’re challenged again."

Penalties are the biggest issue for the tackles.

Free leads the team with nine penalties for 60 yards and had a four-penalty game in Week 4, which included three false starts. Free leads the NFL with six false starts overall and he's tied for sixth with three holding calls.

Smith has eight penalties for 46 yards charged on his 2012 resume. In that Week 1 game against the Giants, Smith was flagged four times, three on false starts.

Smith is second in the NFL with five false start penalties.

When the Cowboys run, they're averaging 5.84 yards per carry going off left tackle, seventh in the league. But when run plays go toward Free's side, the team averages just 2.83 yards per carry, 28th in the league.

"We're getting into a rhythm and we’re getting into a routine of what we want to establish," Callahan said. "It's really not that much different from what (former offensive) coach (Hudson) Houck did. The footwork is improving, their angles are improving and whatever line coach there is will tell you, you can always improve your hands, your punch, your stride all those fundamental type things to shut down a great edge rusher."

Against Giants, Tony Romo good on the move

October, 25, 2012
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IRVING, Texas -- In the season-opening win at the New York Giants, Tony Romo was at his improvisational best.

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His first touchdown to Kevin Ogletree came on a broken play. The second touchdown to Ogletree came as he snuck out of the pocket. His clinching scoring throw to Miles Austin came on an audible at the line of scrimmage.

Romo’s ability to escape a pass rush as effective as the New York Giants’ is a big part as to why he has 13 touchdowns and two interceptions in his last five games against the division rival. According to ESPN Stats and Information, six of Romo’s nine touchdowns against the Giants the last two seasons have come outside the pocket.

Since the start of last season, no quarterback has more than four total touchdowns against the Giants.

With an unsettling offensive line, Romo has had to get rid of the ball more quickly and has not attempted to buy as much time because of mistakes in the games against Tampa Bay and Chicago. Facing Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, Romo knows he might need to buy more time than a kid at an arcade.

“I think you’re always doing exactly what you want, what the defense is giving you and the amount of time you have as a quarterback dictates a lot,” Romo said. “If you have to get through reads quicker or if you have the time you can push it into certain spots and wait on certain routes and things like that, that’s part of playing the position, evaluating when you’re getting that time and when you’re not and having the comfort level to be able to make all those decisions the right way.”

The Other Side: Ohm Youngmisuk

October, 25, 2012
10/25/12
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This week The Other Side stays in-house and talks about the New York Giants with the man who covers the Giants, Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPNNewYork.

Q: How different are the Giants since that season-opening loss?

A: They're getting better. They aren't at the level of where they were when they won the Super Bowl last year but making their way toward that. The pass rush is improving. Justin Tuck just got his first sack of the season. Jason Pierre-Paul is heating up and Osi Umenyiora is also beginning to get to the quarterback. The running game and offensive line is in a better place than where it was in the season opener. Eli Manning had an off day against Washington but he and his receivers are more in sync than they were against Dallas. And the secondary still has work to do but is not as shaky as it was on opening night.

Q: Looks like Martellus Bennett is playing better after some injuries, is that fair to say?

A: Actually, the Washington game was his first big game statistically since Week 3. The Giants like his blocking and ability to catch but he and Manning haven't always been on the same page. When the Giants look to get the tight end involved, Bennett can definitely be a weapon in the passing game.

Q: Chris Canty is back. How much can his return improve the defensive line?

A: I think they are still going to try to ease him back in but he makes a difference. He can help draw some of the double teams away from (Pierre-Paul), Osi and Tuck. He is a monster inside from a size perspective to deal with. And the Giants need him to help stop the run. They have had problems in that area.

Q: Why do you think the Giants play so well in Arlington?

A: I think they love the feeling of it being a big game every time they are in Dallas. There is definitely hype and a big-game feel every time they go to Dallas and they like when Jerry Jones challenges them. They get up for this game more than say the Redskins. And the Giants want to redeem themselves for a poor showing in the season opener. They have revenge on their minds.

Q: Can anybody stop the Giants receivers?

A: That's always been a big reason why the Giants do so well in Dallas. But Jerry made some nice moves in the offseason to upgrade the secondary and it showed in the season opener. Nicks is still making his way back physically and isn't quite himself. Cruz has been a monster. The Cowboys need to take Cruz out of the mix and probably make Nicks, Domenik Hixon and Martellus beat them. And even then, it is still hard to shut down Cruz or stop Manning from finding other receivers.
IRVING, Texas -- Justin Tuck hasn't forgotten about Jerry Jones' preseason invitation to fans to "watch us beat the Giants' ass" at Cowboys Stadium.

Tuck, the two-time Super Bowl champion defensive end, just pretty much considers it a joke.

"I don't play Jerry," Tuck said on a conference call with the Valley Ranch media. "If he wants to put on a jersey and line up, I'll welcome that.

"But I don't think Jerry is going to be doing any kicking of my posterior."

The Cowboys have yet to do any kicking of the Giants' posterior's in Jerry's $1.2 billion football palace. The Giants have yet to lose at Cowboys Stadium, where they are 3-0.

"I hope it continues," Tuck said, "but I don't have any magical secret of success."
When you talk about protecting Tony Romo, there are three defensive ends the Cowboys must worry about from the New York Giants: Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck.

In Wednesday's regular-season opener, the Giants will face a different set of offensive linemen than last season. Doug Free and Tyron Smith have flipped sides at tackle. Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau are the new guards to bookend center Phil Costa. Of course, Livings and Bernadeau can slide over and help Free and Smith if the ends try to rush between the guard and tackle. With the availability of tight end Jason Witten in doubt, John Phillips, James Hanna and quite possibly newly signed tight end Colin Cochart will have to be sound in their blocking techniques.

Let's not forget the backfield. Fullback Lawrence Vickers was signed in the offseason because he's a sound blocker, and Felix Jones or DeMarco Murray must give Romo time to get the ball down field on third downs.

Here are Free's thoughts on defending the Giants' pass rush off the edge.

"It's going to be real difficult," he said. "They have a lot of great players and the amount of players they have, they got a lot of defensive ends. Maybe not as many in the interior, but they use those guys on third down. It's going to be a huge challenge for us. We're going to have to work together, a lot of communication. Some different looks than a regular four-down (linemen) looks and we're going to have go out there and play real hard."

Have the injuries to several offensive linemen hurt the continuity of the line?

"I think we're doing pretty good. You never know what you got until you get out there, but everybody has been getting out there and working real hard and doing our jobs and getting ready to play."

A stat you probably would like to know about: Justin Tuck hasn't sacked a Cowboys quarterback since 2008, a span of five games.

NFC East Top 20: No. 1 Eli Manning

September, 4, 2012
9/04/12
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In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post. And if you want to read any of the other posts that have run since we started this series, you can find them all here, in this link.

No. 1 -- Eli Manning, Giants QB

Manning
This wasn't easy, and the fact that it wasn't easy to pick a two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback as the best player in the division says a ton about the rest of the players in the division. It was a very tough, close call between Manning and Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware for this spot, and I gave more than a passing thought to Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who finished third.

But in the end, Manning deserves the spot. He's earned it by performing with incredible consistency at a high level and in the biggest of spots. He ranks behind only Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Hasselbeck in passing yards among active quarterbacks, and each of those players has at least a three-year head start on him. He's fifth (behind those same four guys) in touchdown passes among active quarterbacks. Only Peyton Manning, Brady, Brees and Ben Roethlisberger among active quarterbacks have engineered more game-winning drives, and only Peyton Manning and Brady have more comeback victories.

So Eli is a top-level quarterback in terms of production (and in spite of a stubborn, lingering reputation to the contrary), but what truly sets him apart as a great player is the way he's performed during the two Super Bowl title runs the Giants have made with him under center. He has a 61.5 career completion percentage, a 17-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his 11 career playoff games and has led the team from behind to beat Bill Belichick, Brady and the New England Patriots in two separate Super Bowls. He's the unquestioned leader of his team, the calming influence which Giants players know they can count on in tough times, a key to his team's uncanny ability to handle adversity and a proven champion without whose individual performance those Super Bowl titles would not have been possible. The best quarterback in the NFC East is the most clutch quarterback in the NFL right now and is the division's best player.

The rest of the rankings:

2. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys
3. LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles RB
4. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles DE
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 2 DeMarcus Ware

September, 3, 2012
9/03/12
11:40
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In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 2 -- DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys LB

Ware
A six-time Pro Bowler who's led the league in sacks twice, Ware is universally regarded as one of the very best defensive players in the NFL. There are plenty of people who call him the best. He is fifth among active players in sacks and 29th in league history already at the age of 30. His lowest sack total of the past six years is the 11 he posted in 2009. He led the league with 20 the year before that and 15 the year after, and his 19.5 in 2011 would have led the league in almost any other year. He enters each season a threat to break the all-time single-season sacks record. He's as good at hunting down quarterbacks as any player in the league.

Sacks are his game, but they're not his whole game. Ware is smart and fast and athletic enough to make a decision on the fly to change course and run down a running back. He can play either side of the field and get into the backfield just as quickly. He is constantly double-teamed, which is a testament to his own remarkable ability as well as the fact that the Cowboys have yet to establish a consistent pass-rushing threat other than him. But he's handled that responsibility every year and hasn't allowed it to affect his production. He's a classy professional who sets a strong example for younger Cowboy players who revere him.

Ware is a superstar in his prime and shows no signs of slowing down. He is one of the headline players who help this star-studded division retain its reputation as one of the toughest in which to play year after year.

Rankings so far:

3. LeSean McCoy, Eagles
4. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

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