Cowboys vs Giants Preview – What to Watch For on Defense

The Dallas Cowboys will begin the 2016 season at home against the New York Giants on September 11. Every NFL franchise has at least a few “question marks” surrounding their team going into week 1, but the Cowboys squad, due to suspensions, injuries, and the draft, seems riddled with more questions than answers. For details on what to watch for on offense, please click here.

There are so many questions about the defense that it is bewildering to try to pick a starting point. The depth chart on the Cowboys official website still lists Demarcus Lawrence as the starting LDE.

The Defensive Line

1. This sounds elementary, but who will play where on the defensive line? What will the snap counts be on the defensive line?

Is it possible to discern what the driving force is behind the defensive line rotation? Are the starters merely getting time off to keep fresh, or are certain players being brought in for certain situations (obvious passing downs or short yardage plays)?

Can the Cowboys defense create any sort of pressure with a four man rush? If not, will they blitz to try create more pressure?

Defensive Ends

2. With two starters being suspended, the Cowboys only have three players who can be considered true defensive-ends (Benson Mayowa, Jack Crawford, and Charles Tapper). With the rookie Tapper still recovering from a back-injury, David Irving becomes the 3rd DE.

Irving played sparingly at DT in 12 games last season. He switched from DE to DT way back when he was a junior at Iowa State. He is listed as 6 feet and 7 inches,  275 pounds. I am not convinced he can be successful as a DE in the NFL, so it will be interesting to see how and when Irving is used.

How will DC Rod Marinelli deploys these three ends? Who will relieve these guys when necessary? Will Marinelli use LB Kyle Wilber from the edge in passing situations? Will one of the DT’s kick outside in some situations?

Can the Cowboys defense create any sort of pressure with a four man rush? If not, will they blitz more to try create more pressure? (This question is worth repeating.)

Defensive Tackles

3. How will the Cowboys use Cedric Thornton? The Cowboys gave Thornton a four-year deal worth $18 million after playing against him twice a year for four years in Philly. Thornton played DT in college, then played DE in the Eagles 3-4 defense, although NFL.com still lists him as a DT. The Cowboys official website has listed Thornton as both a DT and a DL. He was signed with the intention playing the 1-technique at DT while Tyrone Crawford played the 3.

With Tyrone Crawford and Terrell McClain available to play DT, how many snaps will Thornton play at DT? Will they use him as a DE? The Cowboys were fairly aggressive going after Thornton in free agency, so you would anticipate them wanting to get him significant playing time.

Will any of the DE’s been so ineffective that they play Thornton as a DE with Crawford and McClain in the middle?

4. When and if the Cowboys get back to full-strength from these suspensions, the DT group is going to be a strength for the defense. For now, Crawford and Thornton are accompanied by a solid veteran in Terrell McClain and rookie Maliek Collins.

How many snaps will Collins get to play?

Can the DT’s draw enough attention in the middle that it is easy for the LB’s to shut down any attempt to run between the tackles?

Can the Cowboys DT’s work in tandem to do more than just swallow blockers ? Can they put pressure on Manning from the middle?

Linebackers

5. If the Cowboys are thin on the DL (only 8 players on the 53, compared to 10 last year), then they are also thin at LB, at least for the short-run while Andrew Gachkar (surgery in August on broken thumb) and Mark Nzeocha (strained Achilles) fully recover.

Will Gachkar be ready to play?

The depth chart on the official website states that Sean Lee will start at the weak-side, Anthony Hitchens will play in the middle, and Kyle Wilber will line up on the strong-side. That leaves the 10-year vet who didn’t attend anyone’s training camp, Justin Durant, as the primary backup for all three LB’s.

How many snaps will Justin Durant play? Will his age and/or missing camp be obvious?

Will Damien Wilson play at all, or will he be relegated to special teams?

When the Cowboys blitz a LB, will it be Sean Lee from the weakside, or will they mix it up and bring guys from different locations?

When the defense lines up with 3 CB’s, which two LB’s will remain on the field? It would make sense for Kyle Wilber to come off the field so Lean and Hitchens can play in the nickel – this would allow them to use Wilber as a DE in passing situations.

Will Durant play in nickel situations?

Will Sean Lee continue to demonstrate why I started calling him “Superman” in December, 2010, after the Colts game?

Defensive Backs (Corner)

6. If the Cowboys went “light” on the DL, then they went “heavy” on DB’s. Of the ten DB’s on the roster, five of them are CB’s. Three of the CB’s – Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick. and Brandon Carr – are Cowboys veterans. These three guys have all been on the Cowboys roster for at least 4 years, but with all the injuries to the group, it certainly doesn’t seem like it will be their 5th season playing together as a unit.

It is assumed that Claiborne and Carr will man the outside in the base defense, with Scandrick coming in to play the slot in nickel situations. Will this hold true?

Will Scandrick always stay with the slot receiver, or will they make adjustments based on the matchups?

Will Scandrick return to his pre-injury form, i.e. worthy of Pro Bowl consideration?

Will Scandrick get a sack blitzing from the slot or merely a QB pressure?

Will Claiborne, now in the final year of his contract and finally healthy for an entire off-season, take advantage of this last opportunity to look like a Top 10 draft choice?

The Cowboys also have Dax Swanson (bouncing around practice squads since 2013) and rookie Anthony Brown (6th Round, Purdue). Swanson appears to be on the roster for his special teams play, so he is not expected to play much defense. Will Anthony Brown see any playing time at all?

If one of the three starters has to come off, will the coaching staff be comfortable playing Thomas at CB or in the slot, or will they have Byron Jones slide from FS to CB?

How will Marinelli utilize the DB’s? Every offseason we hear that the strength of these CB’s is playing man coverage, but that hasn’t always been true during games. How often will the DB’s play zone? We will see the DB’s play man-coverage aggressively, i.e. jamming receivers at the line? Victor Cruz (6 foot, 204 pounds) is the biggest WR on the Giants squad, so playing them tight and physically is not out of the question.

Will they double Odell Beckham all the time?

Defensive Backs (Safety)

7. The Cowboys also kept 5 safeties. The brought back several veterans (JJ Wilcox, Jeff Heath, and Barry Church). Second year phenom Byron Jones has claimed the starting FS spot.

Have the Cowboys finally found a ballhawk capable of playing centerfield?

I’m very curious about how often Marinelli will have his starting SS (Church) crowding the line of scrimmage.

Are the coaches confident enough in Byron’s range to leave him as a single-deep safety?

Will Jones be used in single coverage against the TE’s?

Will Barry Church finish the game with no missed tackles?

Many of the experts did not expect Wilcox to make the roster, but the Cowboys like his attitude and he isn’t much of a drop off from Church if he is allowed to play SS and stay near the line of scrimmage. In some ways, keeping Wilcox makes a ton of sense: he could play SS or FS if either of the starters gets hurt, and versatility is good. Would you want to see Jeff Heath (career special teams guy) or Kavon Frazier (6th round rookie out of Central Michigan) come off the bench to replace Jones or Church? I am not convinced the Cowboys cut a player that would be a better backup than Wilcox. Also, having Wilcox allows them to slide Byron Jones to CB in the event that one of the three starters goes down.

Will Wilcox get to play much? If he does, look for him to lay some big hits to make his presence known.

Miscellaneous 

8. if the Giants are able to move the ball effectively through the air, is it because of poor coverage, or is the front seven giving Eli Manning far too much time in the pocket, or is it some combination of both?

9. This probably should have been question #1: can the Cowboys front seven stop the Giants rushing attack? If they can’t do that, and they need to bring Barry Church in to help with the run, it will make it much easier for the vaunted Giants wideouts to get single-coverage matchups and it will make the defense more susceptible to play action.

As a general rule, if you can’t stop the run with 8 men in the box, the opponent will not need to pass much and you will lose. The Giants don’t have a dominant offensive line or a marquee RB, so if the Cowboys defense struggles to stop the Giants rushing attack, it will be a sign of bad things to come.

10. If nothing else, will we continue to see the traditional characteristics of a Rod Marinelli defense? Will they play with intensity, show hustle even in the fourth quarter, and tackle hard looking for turnovers?

If the offense can establish a lead, Marinelli will likely take a “bend but don’t break” approach that tries to punish the offense while waiting for a chance at a turnover.

11. Will Keith Smith and/or Rod Smith make enough of an impact on special teams that we see why they made the final 53?

Conclusion

When I stated in my previous post that the Dallas Cowboys success is inextricably linked to Dak Prescott, that included the defense. The chances of the Cowboys defense being successful this season will increase exponentially if the offense can score points and provide them with a lead to protect. The defense does not need to be great, or even top 10, for the Cowboys to win football games if the offense can play to their potential. What they can not afford to do against the Giants is give up quick scores and/or fall behind. They need to force Eli to sustain long drives and be opportunistic with turnovers: if Eli has to throw 25+ times, he will throw at least a few passes that can be intercepted.

What will you be watching for on defense?

CowboysNation welcomes your immediate comments and feedback. We especially look forward to your observations after the game.

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Cowboys vs Seahawks – Side Notes

Tony Romo

Thursday night game! Ready for some action. I work a 40 hour a week job because the owners of CowboysNation.com and I have something in common with Joey Bosa and the Chargers. Steve wouldn’t buckle to my salary demands, so getting ready for the game was a chore.

Had to stop after work for some Scotch, I would tell you what brand but they would have to cut a check. (I Kid) To my horror the NFL Network couldn’t show the game until the previous televised contest was completely off air. That game happened to be the Dolphins vs. Falcons which i’m sure no one watched. I’ve had a bad couple of weeks with a broken (you’ll hear this more than once) iPhone 6 and I was ready to jump off the top of the Luxor Casino after I had to listen to David Carr talk about Tony Romo’s injury that I couldn’t see happen due to (insert curse word) television rights.

I have said in past articles that i’m not an athlete and although I dream about it that I could never do what these players fighting for a spot on a 53-man roster do on a day to day basis but David Carr talking about quarterbacking had me thinking evil thoughts. But I digress. The point is I missed the first two quarters of the game. Perhaps I should have recorded a full, later broadcast of the game? But after seeing the replay of Romo’s alleged injury 7,142 times from multiple sources I had seen enough.

Writers have questioned if Garrett did the right thing by playing him and to that I respond with a big fat YES! Garrett’s message has been consistent since he has become the Head Coach of the team in 2010 that “competition breeds excellence.” That’s why you see the team leading in unrestricted free-agents making the team. Romo had to play in this game not because it’s the scripted third preseason of the game but because he hasn’t seen live action since the beginning of 2015.

This article may seem like a rant and because I don’t have my cellphone (I told you that you might hear this more than once) and it’s been hard for me to digest news of the game. I’m sure there are multiple Romo memes on everyone’s timelines. Most of my FB friends have probably posted them on my page but most of their teams have never won a Super Bowl. The reality is the team understands Romo’s back is a ticking time bomb. I’m not sure if it was Romo’s first snap of the series or the last but there is no way to guarantee this won’t happen again. Romo stated it was good to see his back could take an awkward hit like that but the fan base is a little nervous.

Is he injured or not? Is the team hiding possible bad news. Who knows! The reality is the team has a September 11th date with the New York Giants and I would bet a shot of Hennessy VSOP that number 9 will be running out of the tunnel. The offense is ready to go and although we will have to endure Demarcus Lawrence’s four game suspension, I believe this defense will be in the Top 12.

However watching the third and fourth quarter of this game made me realize this defense may not be as deep as they think they are. The unit gave up 148 yards on 27 carries and the majority of that was on the first and second string defense. With the first set of cuts coming it’s not hard to see that some players who may not deserve a roster spot will get one. It’s a numbers game dictated by suspensions.

This is where true stars are born. In football, we have been taught the first three rounds of the draft should be starters. Yet the Cowboys have always seemed to go against the grain and pick players too high. It’s imperative Maliek Collins makes an impact in the first four games as the primary backup to Tyrone Crawford. Garrett has traditionally sided with experience over youth when making roster decisions. Looking at this teams secondary depth it’s hard to see where Wilcox makes this roster unless Garrett gives him a reprieve.

The organization is ready for the season and if you’re a gambling man you would know there are only 3-4 roster positions truly open. One more game against the Houston Texans on September 1st and roster spots are the prize. Andy Jones? Where have you been? Has Mark Nzeocha shown enough upside that he’s earned a roster spot on this team? You have to question what this roster will look like given the needs of the defensive line. The team might have to take a risk and go short on the offensive side in order to compensate for the defense.

The beauty of this dilemma is that this coaching staff never veered from their message. So lets see if they stay true.

By the way, my iPhone is still broken.

So Mote It Be!