An in-depth preview of the first game of the 2016 NFL season for the Dallas Cowboys against their NFC East rivals, the News York Giants.
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Aug 19, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) throws a pass in the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Rejoice, Dallas Cowboys fans! After nine grueling months of waiting for a clean slate following a disheartening 4-12 2015 season, the undefeated (and winless) 2016 Dallas Cowboys are but a day away from their first regular season game against a division foe, the New York Giants.
The preseason has presented many highs and lows for this team; including several star players being exactly who we knew they are, some surprise players being more than we could have ever envisioned, and arguably the most important player to this football team suffering a broken back in the third preseason game.
Undoubtedly, the entire team and coaching staff feel much more confident going into the regular season with Dak Prescott, rookie fourth round draft pick or not, at quarterback than they felt going into week three last season following quarterback Tony Romo‘s first broken collarbone suffered in week two against the Eagles.
There are many new faces on the Cowboys as well as the Giants this season, making it a different matchup than the season opener from last season that went down to the wire.
I will highlight the key matchups for both teams in this game preview and finish with my gut feelings for this pivotal NFC East showdown.
Aug 25, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) carries the ball against the Seattle Seahawks during a NFL football game at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks defeated the Cowboys 27-17. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Cowboys rush offense vs Giants rush defense:
The Dallas Cowboys offense will pose a major challenge to the New York Giants when it comes to running the football. Dallas has three All-Pro offensive linemen up front as well as a savvy veteran at right tackle along with an emerging second-year player at left guard.
The Cowboys have been a premier rushing attack in the NFL for the past two seasons, and have added top level talent to their running back stable for this year.
The Giants signed Damon Harrison as a free agent this offseason, taking him from their in-town rival New York Jets. Harrison played nose tackle in the Jets defensive scheme and for a 350 pound man, he is very quick and smooth moving.
Frederick is a top-tier center in the NFL and plays extremely well in space. He uses his smarts and his quickness of the snap to dominate the opposition. One place where Frederick has struggled in his career is when facing a mammoth defensive tackle like Harrison.
If Frederick has issues with the power of Harrison, it could lead to a very long day for the Cowboys rush offense. If Frederick can get the job done, expect Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris to run rampant on the Giants defense.
Dec 21, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys receivers Cole Beasley (11) Dez Bryant (88) and Terrance Williams (83) pose for a phot in the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Cowboys pass offense vs Giants pass defense
If the Cowboys want to win tomorrow, they will need to be a balanced offensive attack that is capable of passing the ball anywhere on the field.
That is quite the tall order for rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, but the worst thing that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan can do is water down the game plan to reduce risk in the passing game.
We saw what happened when Linehan didn’t trust quarterbacks last season and his conservative playcalling did the Cowboys no favors offensively. Linehan needs to show confidence in Prescott and let him make rookie mistakes while still showing capability of leading an explosive offense down the field.
The Giants had the worst pass defense in the NFL last season, but they added several pieces to the defensive line and the defensive backfield to try and remedy that weakness.
The Giants signed defensive end Olivier Vernon, previously mentioned defensive tackle Damon Harrison, and cornerback Janoris Jenkins to contracts that total a combined 190 million dollars.
Vernon is an undersized yet explosive pass rusher that is a true technician when it comes to setting up offensive linemen so he can disrupt run plays and wreak havoc on quarterbacks.
Harrison is a space eating defensive tackle that previously played the nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme but he has the quickness to pose a serious threat in the run game in a 4-3 scheme as well.
Jenkins is an explosive athlete that is a major gambler as a corner, he is a risk-reward player that often tries to jump routes which leads to big turnovers but can also make him susceptible to being beaten on a double move.
Nov 15, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Dallas Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith (77) works out prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Wide receiver Dez Bryant vs Cornerback Janoris Jenkins
This will not be the first time that Bryant and Jenkins have faced one another in their careers. The last time they matched up, in September of 2014, both players scored a touchdown. Dez finished with six catches for 89 yards and a 68 yard touchdown. Jenkins finished with five tackles and a 25 yard interception return for a touchdown.
Jenkins will win plenty of battles throughout the day, but as long as Dez can be sure to capitalize on opportunities when they come he should be in for a big game.
Left tackle Tyron Smith vs Defensive end Olivier Vernon
Cowboys All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith rarely gets the short end of the stick when matching up with a pass rusher. He has freakishly long arms and the athleticism to recover from any position that a defensive end puts him in.
But when Olivier Vernon lined up opposite of him last season with the Miami Dolphins, Tyron was beaten more often than not and according to Pro Football Focus- it was the worst pass blocking performance of his entire career.
Vernon recorded one sack, three hits, two hurries, and made two stops at the line of scrimmage on run plays.
An elite offensive lineman like Smith will not intend on going into this game with the expectation of being embarrassed a second time. He will need to be prepared for the explosiveness and counter moves that Vernon possesses if he wants to protect Dak Prescott’s blind side and allow Dak to make throws down the field.
Sep 13, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Sean Lee (50) in game action against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium. Dallas won 27-26. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Cowboys rush defense vs Giants rush offense
On paper, the matchup of the Giants rush offense against the Cowboys rush defense is slightly favorable to the Cowboys. The Giants rarely rely on their running game offensively- last season they ran the ball on just 38 percent of their offensive snaps.
The Giants offensive line is far from a juggernaut and will likely struggle to get a push against the Cowboys front seven. The added pieces at defensive tackle including free agent signing Cedric Thornton and rookie draft pick Maliek Collins should help bolster the interior of the defense when it comes to stuffing the run.
Giants starting running back Rashad Jennings is a respected veteran that ran for 863 yards last season while averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Those numbers are far from astonishing, especially considering he only had three rushing touchdowns.
But Jennings is capable of making defenders miss which means that Dallas will need to be mechanically sound while wrapping him up.
Running Back Rashad Jennings vs Linebacker Sean Lee
If the Giants want to be successful in the running game, Rashad Jennings is going to have to make Sean Lee miss tackles more often than not.
That is quite the tall order. The Giants do not have the type of offensive line that is capable of providing clean and wide open holes to run through, and Lee is relentless in his pursuit of ball carriers.
While it is unlikely that the Giants depend on their run game very often, this should be a matchup that plays in favor of the Cowboys and Sean Lee.
Aug 19, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys free safety Byron Jones (31) defends against Miami Dolphins tight end Jordan Cameron (84) in the end zone during the first quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Cowboys pass defense vs Giants pass offense
This is, again- on paper, quite possibly the biggest mismatch of the entire game; the Giants pass offense is expected to have a heavy advantage over the Cowboys pass defense.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning is coming off the best statistical season of his entire career and will be looking to build on that with added targets at his disposal.
With weapons like superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., rookie wide receiver Sterling Shepard, and a long forgotten weapon that is returning from injury in wide receiver Victor Cruz– Eli should be able to utilize his three step drop in a quick passing game that further limits the risk of being pressured by a weak Cowboys pass rushing group.
The good news for the Cowboys, is that they are looking much improved at defensive back this season compared to last.
The Cowboys are welcoming back corner Orlando Scandrick who suffered a torn ACL in training camp in 2015. He didn’t allow a single touchdown in 2014 and is a huge difference maker in the slot.
Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne is also in the best shape of his career and is playing on a one year contract to try and prove that his injuries were the only reason that he has been labeled a bust to this point in his career.
Second year player Byron Jones is also a major upgrade at free safety, particularly as a deep center-fielder in the passing game. Jones was moved all over the place on defense last season due to injuries and is finally settled in at the position that best fits his athletic traits.
The Cowboys defensive backs are going to need to stay relentless play in and play out if they want to keep this game competitive.
The quick passing offense that Giants head coach Ben McAdoo is known for makes it very difficult to get pass rush pressure on Eli Manning.
However, the Giants will take their shots throughout the game and the Cowboys pass rushers need to be ready to try and take advantage of any opportunity that comes along when Eli finally drops back deep into the pocket in an attempt to make a splash play downfield.
Nov 23, 2014; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham (13) catches the ball against Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick (32) during the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim O
Wide Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. vs Cornerback Orlando Scandrick
In only 27 NFL games, Odell Beckham Jr. has accumulated 187 catches, 2755 yards, and 25 touchdowns.
Beckham is at a Hall of Fame pace at this point in his career.
He is lethal as a route runner, using explosive speed and smooth lateral agility to get in and out of breaks long before a defensive back can react.
His hands have been recognized as some of the best that the NFL has ever seen.
Orlando Scandrick is going to have his hands full when lining up opposite of OBJ. Luckily for the Cowboys, Scandrick prefers being the underdog.
He came into the league with a chip on his shoulder and the chip has remained there throughout his career.
Scandrick is highly intelligent as a cornerback and is welcoming this challenge.
If the Cowboys want to come out on top of this game, limiting OBJ should be priority number one for the defense.
For that to happen, Scandrick is going to have to be at his absolute best.
Oct 19, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant (88) celebrates after a reception in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
My Gut Feelings
After scouring through the previews of both offensive and defensive matchups, it is only right to leave you with gut feelings on how the season opener goes down.
Dez Bryant will return to superstar form. He will be ready to showcase his ridiculous talent and whenever Dak Prescott throws the ball up, Dez is going to be hungry to make a play to help this team win. I expect 6 catches for 85 yards and a touchdown.
Both quarterbacks will throw interceptions. Eli Manning has been known to take unnecessary risks at times, and the Cowboys defense that finished dead last in turnovers last season will be ready for the chance to pick him off. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott is likely to make a rookie mistake or two in this game- hopefully they will be quality learning experiences for the young signal caller.
Over 750 yards of combined offense. I expect the Giants to throw for 300 plus yards and I expect the Cowboys to run for nearly 200 yards in this game. Most of the remaining 250 yards needed to get to 750 will come by way of Dak Prescott throwing the ball to Dallas receivers.
Ezekiel Elliott will receive the game ball in his NFL debut. The Dallas Cowboys are going to lean heavily on their running game, I predict between 18 and 25 carries for Elliott and 10 to 15 for Alfred Morris. Elliott is going to look every bit the part of a dynamic workhorse back while churning out at least 100 yards from scrimmage and two scores.
Final score- Cowboys 34, Giants 28. This is going to be a barn burner that would have been ideal for a primetime game. Dak Prescott further enhances his hype while still taking a backseat to fellow rookie teammate Ezekiel Elliott who leads the Cowboys to an opening day victory.