New York Giants: 5 Players to Watch vs. Dallas
"This is survival of the fittest...This is do or die...This is the winner takes it all...So take it all."
—Hook from "Survival" (clean version), by Eminem
The winner will survive in its quest to compete for the NFC East division crown; the loser meanwhile stands to suffer a potentially fatal blow to their aspirations of earning a postseason berth.
A loss by the Giants would probably end any chance for the Giants (4-6) to position themselves for a run at the top of the division after starting the season with a six-game losing streak.
When asked about the upcoming game against the Cowboys in the locker room immediately after defeating the Green Bay Packers, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said, “There’s going to be a lot of blood spilled out there.”
On Tuesday, during his weekly radio spot on WFAN, safety Antrel Rolle, who believes that the game against the Cowboys "is going to determine the outcome of the season" for the Giants, backed up Pierre-Paul’s prediction.
"If JPP says there will be blood, then there will be blood," Rolle said.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, who are coming off a bye week, have been rather subdued after having their heads handed to them two weeks ago by the New Orleans Saints. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware, whom the Cowboys hope to have in the lineup on Sunday, has not been amused by the Giants’ brash talk about blood baths.
"You know, they have something to say every time we play them,” Ware told Todd Archer of ESPN on Thursday. "They try to put the gas on the fire every time."
Given the unpredictable nature of the NFC East, this weekend’s game might very well be the closest each team comes to a playoff-type of atmosphere.
Let’s look at five Giants whose performances will be key in helping ensure that New York ends up as the last man standing.
Linebacker Jacquian Williams
Jacquian Williams, the Giants' third-year linebacker is, as fellow linebacker Jon Beason said this week, "A quiet dude."
Since being quietly promoted to the starting lineup at weak-side linebacker three weeks ago, Williams' play has been anything but quiet.
Williams, who as a rookie showed flashes of being an above-average cover guy, has recorded 12 tackles (nine solo), one quarterback hurry and five tackles for a loss, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
He’s also rarely left the field, playing in 160 of the Giants 179 defensive snaps over that three-game period. In that time, Williams has allowed just seven passes to be completed for 76 yards and no touchdowns. He’s also broken up two passes in coverage.
This week, Williams will likely have the task of leading the charge to contain Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who has been a major thorn in the Giants’ side.
In their first meeting this year, back in Week 1, Witten caught eight of nine passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns as the Giants defense had trouble all game long securing the middle of the field. Witten, who has 109 catches for 1,170 yards and eight touchdowns in 21 career games against the Giants (per Pro Football Reference), has seen the number of passes thrown his way dip just a bit this season.
Per Pro Football Focus, Witten was thrown to 89 times in 10 games last season. This year, he’s only been targeted 71 times.
Despite the reduction in snaps, Witten is still very much a force which the Giants will have to control on Sunday. Doing so starts with taking away the middle of the field, where, per PFF, 28 of Witten’s 47 receptions and 361 of his 532 receiving yards have come this season.
Williams, who has been spotted being coached up by Beason, certainly has the skill set to match up against Witten.
"He’s a tremendous athlete and he’s definitely dominating down the field," said Williams of Witten.
"If it’s my role to be on him, I’m still going to have the same confidence I had when I faced him in my rookie year. Now I have more experience, I’m stronger, smarter and more comfortable in the system. But at the end of the day, it’s how we come together as a defense and how we execute."
Receiver Hakeem Nicks
It’s been a weird season for Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks in this his contract year.
After skipping the spring OTAs because he wanted to allow himself the maximum amount of time to heal from a knee injury that held him back in 2012, Nicks has, at times, appeared to be not on the same page with quarterback Eli Manning.
Nicks' last touchdown reception was 12 regular-season games ago. He currently has 42 receptions (out of 73 targets) for 620 yards, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That means he has caught just 57.5 percent of the passes thrown his way, and he has six dropped passes.
Last week against the Packers, he was spotted on the sideline after taking himself out of the game when the Giants were driving inside of the Packers' red zone.
Manning’s pass to receiver Louis Murphy, in for Nicks on a critical play, ended up as an interception when Murphy ran the wrong route.
"Nah, I just came out, "Nicks told the Star-Ledger’s Dave Hutchinson. "It was just one of those situations where I let 'Murph' go ahead and take that."
Yet after that play, Nicks could be seen on the sideline clearly upset about something, so much so that teammate Brandon Jacobs tried to calm him down.
"We were just talking about football. I think we were talking about the opportunity; my opportunities come far between so I like taking advantage of every opportunity. I was just getting on myself a little bit,” Nicks told Hutchinson.
On Wednesday before the upcoming Dallas game, Nicks was a surprise addition to the team’s injury report with a groin issue.
The injury was then later clarified by head coach Tom Coughlin to be an abdominal issue, with Coughlin adding, "Whatever that means."
Nicks, whose agent, Peter Schaffer, advised him to have his abdominal issue checked out, returned to Thursday’s practice on a limited basis and told reporters that he was not planning to miss Sunday’s big game against Dallas.
"No, I don’t think it’s going to be anything like that to bother me," Nicks said. "I've been playing all season, on and off, it was never nothing serious, just a situation being the situation I’m in I just had to make sure I’m good."
Nicks has avoided stating his desire to return to the Giants beyond this season, leaving the door wide open for a possible departure.
Whatever it is that's going on, it’s become a distraction for him and the offense.
If Nicks is able in Week 12 to duplicate the production he had in the season opener (five catches for 114 yards), it will go a long way toward tamping down questions about his desire, his intentions and maybe even his future.
He should have the opportunity to make a splash, as the Cowboys will likely scheme to double up against Victor Cruz, which would leave Nicks up against single coverage.
If he's able to do that, then his contract season may turn around.
Punter Steve Weatherford
Two weeks ago against the Oakland Raiders, punter Steve Weatherford had his worst outing of the season, thanks to winds that were reported to have reached as high as 25 miles per hour during the game.
Because Weatherford overanalyzed the conditions, he finished that game with his lowest gross average (30.3) and net average (30.5) of the 2013 season.
In Week 12, Weatherford and the Giants can potentially look forward to another round of windy conditions as they try to limit Cowboys punt returner Dwayne Harris, who is averaging 15.1 yards per return.
"I’m just going to go out there and stick with my technique and not make too many adjustments," Weatherford said of his plan to handle the forecasted winds.
Head coach Tom Coughlin noted that it’s difficult for the kicking specialists to prepare for the windy conditions that are typical at MetLife Stadium.
The key, then, to ensuring that the kicking game goes smoothly is to make sure that the kickers are adhering to their technique and that the coverage guys are executing their assignments.
“There’s nothing that we can do except go back and look at that game and talk about it and how his rhythm may have got off, what was the problem, which we've done,” Coughlin said about his team's punting.
“We did right after that (Oakland) game and he was very serious about preparing the next week and did well. Hopefully that will be the case here, too, if it is windy.”
As for Harris, Weatherford acknowledged that the Dallas return specialist is very good at what he does.
“I've punted to him plenty,” Weatherford said. “He’s definitely very talented, a great special teams player, and one of their captains.
“If we go out there and punt like we’re capable of punting and cover like we’re capable of covering, that shouldn’t be an issue.”
Still, what about the wind, which, as Giants fans know, can do crazy things to the ball?
“You want to hit something (your teammates) can cover,” Weatherford said.
“When it’s real windy like that, you don’t try to get too cute and try to hit balls out of bounds. I think that’s maybe something the last time we played I was trying to do too much instead of just trying to hit a clean ball.”
Cornerback Trumaine McBride
Two weeks ago, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell declared that cornerback Trumaine McBride, a training camp sleeper who made the final 53-man roster, is no longer a fill-in for the oft-injured Corey Webster.
“It’s his job to lose,” Fewell said.
That’s fine for McBride, who has certainly played well as a starter.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), McBride has only been targeted 36 times this season, with 17 of those passes going for completions (47.2 percent). He’s allowed 231 yards but has yet to give up a touchdown. He’s also broken up three passes.
This week against the Cowboys, the 5’9” McBride and Prince Amukamara will face Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, receivers who stand 6’2”.
Giants fans will remember that against the Chicago Bears, Terrell Thomas was given the start in McBride’s place because of the size mismatch. While Bryant and Austin aren’t quite as tall as Brandon Marshall (6’4”) and Alshon Jeffrey (6’3”), that doesn’t make the Dallas duo any less difficult to defend.
It also should be noted that McBride was listed on the Giants' injury report this week with a groin, missing Wednesday’s practice, though he’s listed on the final injury report as "probable" for Sunday’s game after being limited in practice on Thursday and Friday.
It would not be surprising if McBride is tested a lot more in this game than he’s been in the past. The good news is that when McBride has been challenged, he hasn’t backed down.
If the Giants can get a pass rush against quarterback Tony Romo, that will go a long way toward helping out the back end of the defense.
Left Tackle Will Beatty
It’s been a weird season for left tackle Will Beatty, who is in the first year of a five-year contract extension signed in the offseason.
According to Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) weekly grades, Beatty had some of his worst games in the first four weeks of the season, including a season-low -4.4.
In those first four games, Beatty allowed four sacks, four quarterback hits and 16 hurries.
A big reason for Beatty’s early season struggles was his technique, which he admitted he was altering in order to build on the solid showing he had in 2012.
"I’m still the same guy, but I was trying to change the technique, trying to do better, trying to do things that took me away from what I did well,” he told said earlier this month.
"So I’m thinking back then, ‘OK, now I’m here so I’m going to do something different.'"
Once Beatty straightened out his technique, his grades started to improve, though for Beatty's effort against the Eagles in Week 8, Pro Football Focus gave him another negative grade (-1.2). What isn’t reflected, though, in Beatty’s grades is that of the two starting offensive tackles—the other being rookie Justin Pugh—it’s Beatty who has been given a lot of chip-blocking help.
This week, expect to see more of this strategy, as Beatty will likely lineup across from DeMarcus Ware (thigh), who is listed as "probable." In the first meeting between the two clubs back in Week 1, Ware managed two hits and four hurries against the Manning, as Beatty seemingly had very few answers against the All-Pro pass-rusher.
In two games against the Giants last season, Ware was also disruptive, recording 3.0 sacks, five hurries and eight stops.
With Dallas defensive tackle Jason Hatcher likely to draw a lot of double-teams, either a back or a tight end will need to help Beatty keep Ware out of Manning’s face.