First game of the season, Dallas Cowboys against the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
This game is "must-watch" for a hundred different reasons. Most of all, it will showcase a ton of amazing athletes on two ridiculously talented teams that have no love lost for one another.
So, how do these two match up at key positions, and how will the first game of the season play out?
Victor Cruz vs. Brandon Carr
More than any other pairing, this matchup is probably going to get the most media publicity leading up to kickoff.
While it's debatable whether or not Cruz is the Giants' best player (that honor should probably go to Eli Manning or Jason Pierre-Paul), he's almost certainly their most famous and most marketable. Between his salsa dancing, his big-play ability and his book deals, he's become a media darling and will attract a lot of attention in 2012.
He's certainly got the attention of Brandon Carr.
The newest member of the Cowboys secondary said that he didn't plan on seeing any salsa dancing in Week 1 and that he would use all of his big frame to stop Cruz. The Giants receiver didn't bite onto the bulletin-board material, but that doesn't mean this matchup won't take center stage on Wednesday night.
Expect Cruz to win handily.
While Carr is a big improvement over anyone the Cowboys trotted out last season, the idea that he is a cover corner is a myth. Last season, quarterbacks passing to Carr's area of the field did so with a 90.6 QB Rating, good for 72nd in the NFL. Among the quarterbacks that Carr made look like Pro Bowlers: Curtis Painter and Matt Moore.
So how will Cruz and Manning cut down Carr?
In his B/R 1000 series, Matt Miller said this about Carr:
Carr can be heavy-footed at times, but he's quick to break on the ball and has smooth hips in coverage...Fast enough to stick with second-tier receivers, Carr needs safety help when challenging the speedier variety.
Cruz is the perfect receiver to take advantage of Carr's deficiencies.
Here, Cruz can be seen doing one of the things he does best: streaking down the seam. Lined up in the slot, Cruz is impossible to press and even harder to keep up with. Once set up in off-coverage, a cornerback is at the mercy of Cruz's wide array of double moves and smooth route running.
In this route, Cruz sets up the defender with a well-run, multi-angled route. He pushes every angle away from where he wants to end up, eventually coming back toward the ball with a tremendous cushion.
Now, Carr has better click-and-close ability than Sterling Moore, but Cruz does this same thing to lots of cornerbacks, and there's little reason to think that he should have any trouble against Carr.
Jason Pierre-Paul vs. Tyron Smith
Another unfavorable matchup for Dallas—this time on the other side of the ball.
Smith is switching to left tackle in 2012, and (much like Carr) while Smith will be better than Doug Free, he is still going to suffer some growing pains. Growing pains plus Jason Pierre-Paul can mean serious pain for Romo.
In the above shot, Robert Quinn was able to run right around Smith for a clear path to Romo. At first, Smith did a good job mirroring Quinn and sitting into a good pass-protecting stance. When Quinn turned on the jets, however, Smith could not keep up.
Smith has all the physical tools to succeed and clearly has the coaching, but he's still thinking before acting. If Quinn was able to take advantage, Pierre-Paul could have a field day. Until left tackle becomes second nature for Smith, Romo will continue to run for his life against elite pass-rushers like JPP.
Here's another shot in which Quinn had beaten Smith. However, this shot showcases Smith's athleticism as he gets back to cut Quinn off at the pass. It's not how coaches would've drawn up this protection, but in a pinch, it's better than a quarterback lying flat on his back.
This is why Smith immediately is a better option than the more polished Free and why he'll have a chance to equalize some of the better rushers in the league, even when he's making technical mistakes.
But in Week 1 against Pierre-Paul?
Expect Romo to be pressured early and often in this game from all angles, but especially from one of the NFL's best defensive ends matched up with a young player who's still learning the position.
Tony Romo vs. Perry Fewell
This is one matchup that could swing the momentum toward a Cowboys win in Week 1.
If Romo can stay upright against the Giants defensive line, he's recently done a good job carving apart Perry Fewell's defense. In fact, in 2011, Romo had two of his better games in losses against the Giants.
Even though Romo gets more grief than his teammates, he played well in those two losses that, by all rights, would have been wins had the rest of his teammates played up to his standards. With a refocused Dez Bryant and (hopefully) better protection, Romo could be even better against the Giants in 2012.
Fewell has been largely overmatched as defensive coordinator of the Giants. Although the defense stole the spotlight in the Super Bowl, they were horrendous throughout much of the 2011 season. Which level of effort will show up in Week 1?
Fewell's biggest advantage this year will be a full offseason to prepare his players. Last season, he came over from Buffalo, where he utilized a variation of the Tampa 2 scheme. Switching to a new dominant scheme is not easy, and Fewell did so last year in extraordinary circumstances.
Overall, the Giants should be able to win most of the matchups this evening, at least on paper. As the defending Super Bowl champions, it's difficult not to like them in this game. They're talented, they're dynamic and (most importantly) they're healthy. Expect Dallas to put up a valiant effort, but anything less than its best and it's likely to fall short.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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