Thursday, September 5, 2013
Double Coverage: Giants at Cowboys
By Todd Archer and Dan Graziano
For the third time since 2007, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants will meet in a regular-season opener. The Giants have never lost at AT&T Stadium (4-0) but the Cowboys are 6-0 all time against the Giants in season openers, including last year's game at MetLife Stadium. ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer bring you their Double Coverage preview:
Archer: The Cowboys are looking to get off this 8-8 train they have been on the past two years. I'm curious as to where the Giants are entering 2013, two years after winning a Super Bowl.
Graziano: Well, Todd, Cowboys fans may not want to hear it, but the Giants are trying to get off this 9-7 train. Because the team got raging hot at the end of the 2011 season and won the Super Bowl, people forget that the Giants finished that regular season 9-7, the same record as the 2012 season. The difference is, 9-7 wasn't good enough last season to win the NFC East and get into the playoffs. So the Giants want to stop leaving this thing to the whims of fate. When they beat teams like the Packers and 49ers, as they did last season, that makes them feel as if they can beat anyone. And because they feel that way, they believe they should be better than 9-7 every year. So their goal, they would tell you, is to play more consistently week-in and week-out so that they get up into that 11-win, 12-win range that pretty much guarantees you a playoff spot without having to sweat out the final weeks of December hoping other teams lose.
Can they do it? I'm not so sure. The pass rush really tailed off last year. They had 33 sacks after posting 48 in 2011. The Giants' defense is based on the ability of its front four to pressure quarterbacks, and when it's not doing that, it's a pretty ordinary team. So they're hoping Justin Tuck has a bounce-back year and Jason Pierre-Paul recovers soon from back surgery. I don't think Pierre-Paul is going to be ready to play Sunday night, but he could. Which reminds me: What's the state of that Cowboys' front four as the start of the season looms?
Archer: The Cowboys are seeing if they can get Randy White and Ed "Too Tall" Jones out of retirement to help out, which tells you about the state of the defensive line. It’s not good right now, and it looks like even if Anthony Spencer can play, he will be severely limited by his July 25 knee surgery. The earliest we’ll see Jay Ratliff is October. So there’s DeMarcus Ware, who looks great in this move to defensive end, and Jason Hatcher, a favorite of yours, I know. Other than that, you’re talking about Nick Hayden, who wasn’t in football last season, and George Selvie, JPP’s running mate at South Florida.
The backups look even shakier with Landon Cohen, Kyle Wilber, Ben Bass, Edgar Jones (picked up Aug. 31 in a trade with Kansas City) and Caesar Rayford (picked up in a trade with Indianapolis on Tuesday). Not exactly the Purple People Eaters there, huh? But they must believe defensive line coach Rod Marinelli is a genius. They didn’t go after a lineman in the draft and they haven’t gone after anybody of note in free agency. I’ve referred to Marinelli as a pass-rush whisperer. If he can make this group work, then that 0-16 mark in Detroit could be erased. So if the Cowboys can’t get to Eli Manning, then what can we expect from the Giants' receivers, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz?
Graziano: If Manning has time to find his receivers, he is of course dangerous. But the questions with those receivers is health. Nicks was banged up all last year with leg injuries and has been taking it very slowly all offseason, as he's determined to try his best to stay healthy throughout the final year of his contract. Based on the way he's looked in preseason, he's either not fully healthy or he's keeping something in reserve because he didn't want to overtax himself and risk injury in meaningless games. I have a hunch it's the latter, and that he'll be great -- at least until his next leg injury. Cruz is another matter. He bruised his heel 2 1/2 weeks ago in a preseason game against the Colts and didn't return to practice until Monday. He's feeling good, though he remains concerned about keeping the swelling down in that heel as the week goes along. We'll know after a couple of practice days whether he'll play, but at this point I expect that he will. The question is whether he'll have that explosive speed, if he's not sure he can make those hard cuts on a still-sore heel.
Receivers make for an interesting topic in this game. When people ask me which team in the NFC East has the best wide receiver corps, I never know what to say. These days, though, if Miles Austin is healthy, I'm inclined to say the Cowboys, because I'm a big fan of Dez Bryant. How's he been looking these days?
Archer: Who is this Bryant guy? Never heard of him. Oh, wait, yeah, now I remember. He’s been pretty good this summer. Actually, better than that. Actually, really, really good. He has picked up where he left off last year when he was, to me, the second-best receiver in the NFL, behind Calvin Johnson, in the second half of the season. Bryant’s confidence has never been higher. Tony Romo's confidence in Bryant has never been higher.
That’s not to say there won’t be issues, but Bryant looks as if he’s ready for a monster season. I’m curious as to how the Giants will defend him. For all of his physical abilities, he still needs to work on beating press coverage. Can the Giants be physical with him? Maybe that’s how they go. But the key, in a way, will be Austin. He’s healthy, and I say that without the “for now” added to it. If the Giants want to take away Bryant, then that’s leaving Austin alone because you know they have to pay attention to Jason Witten, too. The Cowboys would appear to have it set up pretty well in that regard, but ... the offensive line. It’s a mess, and the addition of Brian Waters is probably too late for this week.
What’s the state of the Giants’ line?
Graziano: The Giants' line is not in great shape. They lost starting right tackle David Diehl and starting center David Baas to injury two weeks ago and have had to do a lot of reshuffling. This year's first-round pick, Justin Pugh, is now the starting right tackle. Left guard Kevin Boothe moved inside to play center, and James Brewer, a fourth-round pick from 2011, is starting at left guard. Brewer had never played left guard in a game until last week's preseason game in New England. He was drafted as a tackle and worked some at right guard in the spring. It's an issue worth watching, because they lost a lot of blocking help when they cut running back Ahmad Bradshaw and let Martellus Bennett leave as a free agent, and they're also without fullback Henry Hynoski, who has a knee injury.
Manning, to me, looked uncomfortable at times in the preseason with his protection. He's fine shuffling receivers in and out all of the time. He can make that work. But if he doesn't trust the folks in front of him to keep him from getting hit, it's another matter. Even the backups in Dallas should be able to find a way through that line early, and if they can, they could potentially get in Eli's head and find him in a generous mood. I heard they were working on forcing turnovers out there this year, which is nice, the way they're embracing such new, cutting-edge concepts. Are you seeing a difference in the way the defense goes after the ball?
Archer: Absolutely. It started at the rookie minicamp when defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and Marinelli had the players pick up every loose ball, even after an incomplete pass. They wanted to establish a mindset. It’s worked. The Cowboys showed they could take the ball away. I remain a little skeptical because the core of these defenders has been around for some time, and only DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee have shown they have a nose for the ball. Maybe throw in Brandon Carr, too. But until the whole unit does it, I can’t believe these guys will all of a sudden turn into the Bears from last season. They need to have more than last season's 16 takeaways. More possessions equal more points. The offense rarely has been handed short fields to work with after turnovers, or even returns in the kicking game. Too often, the Cowboys have had to drive 80 yards, and we know that’s a hard thing to do in this league. Defenses basically wait for the offense to have an unforced error and punt the ball. But the preseason was a good sign that they can take the ball from the defense.
The question is whether Romo & Co. can stop turning it over to the opponents.
I’m interested in the Giants' running backs. Brandon Jacobs has been gone for a season. Now Bradshaw is gone. So this is David Wilson’s club now?
Graziano: They are expecting big things from Wilson, yes. The initial plan was for him to get the early-down work and Andre Brown (eight touchdowns in 10 games last season) to get the goal-line work and the passing-downs work because they trusted him more in pass protection. That's what they'll miss most with Bradshaw -- he's as good a blitz-pickup back as there is in the league. Anyway, Brown broke his leg in the final preseason game last week in New England, and he's going to go on short-term IR. So Wilson likely gets those goal-line touches back, and they'll hope he's mastered the protection schemes enough to handle third downs as well. They have Da'Rel Scott and rookie Michael Cox to spell him, and they worked out Beanie Wells and some other vets this week, but as of now it does look as though the run game is in Wilson's hands.
He's a heck of a runner, Todd. Can break a big one at any time, and was really effective between the tackles last year, too. Explosive, high-end speed and runs with more power than people realize. He's got to show he's not a liability in pass protection, and if he does show that, he has a chance to be special. His biggest problem right now may be the absence of Hynoski, the great blocking fullback who's still out with a knee injury. The Giants are a passing offense built around Eli, but they wouldn't mind a more representative run game than they've had in recent years.