The Dallas Cowboys' Week 12 meeting with the New York Giants couldn't get much more important for either team. The Cowboys, who suddenly find themselves out of first place after the Philadelphia Eagles' Week 11 victory, can't afford to lose a division game in a tight NFC East.
The Giants, winners of four straight after an 0-6 start, probably need to finish 4-2 to even have a shot at making the playoffs. If they go down to Dallas, it would be awfully difficult for the G-Men to win the division since the Cowboys would hold the tiebreaker over them.
With so much on the line for both squads, let's run through the DOs and DON'Ts for Dallas in Week 12.
DON'T bite up on run action.
The Giants are one of the league's worst rushing teams, ranked 30th with only 3.2 YPC. Only 36.6 percent of the Giants' runs have increased their probability of scoring, according to Advanced NFL Stats, which is the fourth-worst number in the NFL. Even the Cowboys have a 40.7 percent run success rate.
In addition to the Giants not being able to run the ball, the Cowboys also need to consider the success of play-action passes around the NFL. Take a look at the difference in YPA and touchdown rate across the league on play-action versus straight dropbacks.
The Cowboys rank last in the NFL in play-action rate, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), showing it on just 10.3 percent of dropbacks. The Giants don't do it much either, but the downside of jumping up on play-action and allowing a downfield pass is much greater than sitting back and letting running back Andre Brown run for six yards.
It's simple risk/reward. Even though NFL teams still teach defenders to play the run and react to the pass, that's not the strategy the Cowboys should implement this week (or ever, really). Don't let quarterback Eli Manning gash you on play-action, and react to the run if he hands it off.
DO blitz Eli Manning often.
Manning has really struggled against the blitz (four or more rushers) in 2013. Below, I used numbers from PFF to chart the percentage of his peak YPA, touchdown-to-interception ratio and passer rating on passes versus the blitz and those against four or fewer rushers.
You can see Manning has been at his best in every category when defenses haven't blitzed. He's actually compiled 85.3 percent or less of his non-blitz production in every single category.
Plus, the Cowboys should play more of a high-variance defensive strategy anyway. They're 5-5 and need to get hot to do anything in the regular season and playoffs, so it's time to take some chances. Plus, if they want to play more man coverage as Jerry Jones suggested to DallasCowboys.com, that will be a necessity on most blitzes.
DO attack the Giants' offensive tackles.
The Giants haven't given Manning much time to throw the football this year, and it starts on the outside. Left tackle William Beatty and rookie right tackle Justin Pugh have been awful. Take a look at their pressure rates compared to offensive tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free in Dallas.
Neither Smith nor Free, who have allowed the same amount of pressure, have been sensational by any means. Yet both Beatty and Pugh have allowed a good deal more pressure than the Cowboys' tackles.
DON'T overlook the Giants' pass rush.
The Giants rank last in the NFL with only 14 sacks. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has two sacks and fellow pass-rusher Justin Tuck has just 1.5 sacks. But that doesn't mean that those players and the Giants defense as a whole can't get to the passer.
Sacks are notoriously fluky. Despite their low sack total, the Giants are actually getting to the quarterback. They have 117 pressures on the year, which would normally put them around 25 sacks or so. The fact that they have 11 less than that suggests they've been incredibly unlucky, but that their future sack rate will increase.
My guess is that it starts this week against the 'Boys.
DO attack cornerback Prince Amukamara.
A lot of opposing quarterbacks have avoided throwing to Amukamara, but I wouldn't recommend that the Cowboys do the same, for two reasons. First, Amukamara will likely be covering wide receiver Dez Bryant a whole lot, so yeah.
Second, all of the Giants cornerbacks are playing well. Take a look at the yards they've allowed per route.
That sure looks like cornerback Terrell Thomas has struggled, but his number is inflated (and Amukamara's deflated) because of how much quarterbacks have tested him. On a per-throw basis, Thomas has been efficient in allowing only 7.1 YPA. Compare that to 6.8 for Amukamara and 6.4 for cornerback Trumaine McBride.
Romo doesn't need to go out of his way to target Amukamara, but he shouldn't look to avoid him, either, especially if the cornerback is lined up over Bryant.
DO target wide receiver Dez Bryant, regardless of the coverage.
The Cowboys absolutely must find a way to get Bryant going in this game. When he's not an option, their offense is suddenly well below average.
Yesterday, I suggested some ways that the Cowboys can get Bryant the ball:
Use more bunch formations
The Cowboys usually leave Bryant alone outside, which is fine if you're going to take advantage of what that offers. But since Romo doesn't seem too eager to throw to Bryant's back shoulder, and the coaches don't appear too ready to tell Romo to do it, the team could at least benefit from moving Bryant inside.
As mentioned, that can open up new routes, make it more difficult to double him since defenders can't use the sideline to their advantage and allow for Bryant to get off of press coverage more easily.
Another way for Bryant to beat the press is to put him in motion. Using Bryant in pre-snap motion, which is something Dallas doesn't do often, might not only help Romo diagnose the coverage, but it could also make it more difficult for cornerbacks to get in position to jam Bryant.
Use more crossing routes
Finally, the Cowboys absolutely must stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. We always make a big deal about Dallas not attacking downfield, and that's a very legitimate concern, but they ironically don't really stretch the field horizontally, either. They run a whole lot of curls, hitches, quick outs and so on.
Against the Saints, you saw quarterback Drew Brees have all sorts of success on deep crossing routes. They're difficult for cornerbacks to defend in man coverage if they get behind the receiver right off of the snap, but they can also be zone-coverage killers when receivers sit down in open areas.
Utilizing more crossing routes will help the entire Dallas offense, but Bryant could be the main beneficiary.
Whatever the Cowboys do, "taking what the defense gives them" isn't an option because no defensive coordinator in his right mind is going to "give" opportunities to Bryant. The Cowboys need to aggressively make those plays happen, giving their playmaker a chance to play up to his potential.