I’ve been covering the Dallas Cowboys so much this year that it feels like an entire season has come and gone, yet the team hasn’t even suited up for a real game yet. The Cowboys’ opening night matchup is a huge one—a repeat of last year’s Week 1 game against the division rival Giants—but this one is in Jerry’s house.
Dallas has yet to beat the G-Men in the ‘Boys’ new stadium. That’s probably just a fluke, since the Cowboys have taken down the Giants in the Meadowlands, but New York has still owned Dallas in the Cowboys' own home. For that to change, the Cowboys need to bring their best game. Here’s how they can do that.
DO work Jason Witten underneath.
I’ve gone on record as arguing that Witten’s play is declining (and has been for a few years), but it was difficult to spot last season since he had so many targets. Even though I’m bearish on Witten, I think he can play a huge role in this contest.
The reason is Cover 2 man-under—a defense the Giants love to play against Dallas. Actually, the Giants have played it on as many as 57.1 percent of their snaps in a single game. So what’s Cover 2 man-under? Take a look.
As the name suggests, the defense utilizes a Cover 2 shell with two deep safeties but man coverage instead of zone coverage underneath. It’s really effective at defending outside receivers, particularly deep. When Dez Bryant runs downfield, he’ll effectively be double-teamed.
Well, one of the best ways to beat Cover 2 man-under is with the tight end. If the Giants are going to focus on Dez Bryant, which is extremely likely, Witten should be able to take advantage of man coverage over the middle of the field. Look for Witten to rack up a ton of receptions on out and hitch routes; 64.7 percent of his 2012 routes were one of those two.
DON’T break out the screens just yet.
The Giants are going to try to get to Tony Romo without blitzing. If they’re capable of doing that, Dallas will be in trouble. Traditional running back screens aren’t too effective when the defense doesn’t send many rushers. I tracked Jason Garrett as calling only eight running back screens in all of 2012, but Bill Callahan looks like he’s installed a lot more into the offense. That’s a good thing, but they might need to wait until Week 2.
DO pick on Corey Webster.
In Week 1 of the 2012 season, Cowboys receivers torched Webster for five receptions, 127 yards and a touchdown, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Webster went on to allow 10.3 YPA on the season—an awful number for a cornerback—on well over 100 targets.
If Webster is ever lined up on Bryant, the Cowboys should take advantage of that mismatch. I have a feeling that the Giants will shadow Bryant with Prince Amukamara, but that might be an even better situation for Dallas. Bryant can be effective on any cornerback, and the switch would allow Miles Austin to become a big part of the game plan as well. Either way, look for Dallas to target Webster even more than the six passes it threw at him a year ago.
DON’T run at Jason Pierre-Paul.
Hey guys, guess what? Pierre-Paul is really good. Even though JPP is coming off of an injury, it looks like he’s good to go on Sunday night. He’s probably the Giants’ best player. The Cowboys should do everything they can to avoid him, especially in the running game.
Last year, Pro Football Focus graded Pierre-Paul as the best run-defending defensive end in the NFL. The problem is that you can never guess where he’ll line up; he spent an even amount of time on both the left and right sides of the defense. That means you’ll probably see Dallas motion and check more often than normal this week to 1) get extra blockers on Pierre-Paul and 2) run away from him.
DO run more play-action passes.
The two teams that ran the fewest play-action passes in the league last year will be matched up in this game. Eli Manning showed play action on just 14.4 percent of his dropbacks—second lowest in the league—and Romo checked in all the way down at 10.0 percent (subscription required).
Tony Romo had a 109.1 passer rating on play-action passes in 2012, but the Cowboys ran it on a league-low 10 percent of passes.— Jonathan Bales (@BalesFootball) September 5, 2013
Oddly, both quarterbacks are highly efficient in play action, so the teams should be calling it more often. The Cowboys, in particular, need to take a page out of the playbook of the Broncos, Colts and Dolphins—three teams who dominated on play action without much of a running game.
DON’T blitz Eli Manning unless necessary.
Last year, Manning’s passer rating was actually 18.9 points higher (subscription required) when he was blitzed than when defenses sent four or fewer rushers. That doesn’t mean he’s better in the face of pressure, though. Rather, Manning gets the ball out quickly when he senses extra rushers, and he’s really effective at it. Monte Kiffin’s defense needs to get pressure on Manning, but blitzing every other play will get Dallas burned.
DON’T show your defensive intentions too early.
“Red 19, Red 19, set hut. Bingo. Omaha, Omaha, set hut.” Sound familiar? Both the Cowboys and Giants often use an “Omaha” call—a snap-count indicator you can hear on TV. I explained the Giants’ use of “Omaha” last year:
"Omaha” isn’t any sort of audible, but rather a snap count indicator. Like an indicator used by third-base coaches in baseball, Manning’s “Omaha” indicator alerts the offense that the snap count is now “live.” When Manning calls “Omaha” in the huddle, it tells the offensive players that anything he says before “Omaha” is meaningless. Thus, the “Red 19, Red 19, set hut” that Manning yells meant nothing to the Giants. “Omaha” basically means the initial snap count will be a fake one.
So why use it? Because by running through a fake snap count, Manning can get the defense to show their intentions. They don’t know the initial cadence is a “dummy” one (because the Giants don’t use an “Omaha” call on every play), and thus they often show what they’re planning to do.
The Cowboys figure to play a lot of Cover 2 on Sunday night, as they should, but they should line up with a two-deep shell regardless of their intentions. Then, the Giants can’t get a competitive advantage with their “Omaha” calls. It’s not inherently beneficial to blitz from a deep position, obviously, but it will confuse Manning and the Giants' offensive line, creating a positive net effect.
DO focus on stopping David Wilson, but with seven defenders in the box.
Andre Brown is a talented running back, but his injury might be a blessing in disguise for the Giants because now they’re “forced” to feed the ball to Wilson—a player which all of the signs suggest will break out. I’ve studied running back production quite a bit over the past year, and the three best predictors of success are age, straight-line speed and rookie efficiency.
Well hello there, David Wilson! With undeniable speed and an average of 5.0 YPC in his age-21 rookie season, Wilson is prepared for a monster sophomore campaign. Now set to garner a big workload, Wilson’s a favorite in fantasy football circles.
The reason is that Dallas should be in Cover 2 (or 2 man-under) for the majority of the night, and that’s an easy look on which to run. Kiffin might be tempted to bring a safety into the box if the Giants find initial running success, but I’d continue to sit back and just force the Giants to run. Rushing the ball is a generally sub-optimal strategy anyway, so if light personnel and pass-defending looks get the Giants to keep the ball on the ground, go for it.