It happened Sunday night after 9 p.m. With roughly 13 minutes to go in the second half, the Giants were able to accomplish something they had been unable to do in the first 32 minutes of the contest. They crossed the 50-yard line on a six-yard end-around by Sterling Shepard before Jaylon Smith raced around Ereck Flowers to drag him down.
The Giants, finally, broke into Cowboys territory. Twelve plays later they pulled a field goal out of that effort, which would be the only time all evening they got points for their work.
Three points. The New York Giants managed three points against the worrisome Cowboys defense, allowing us to quickly wonder what the story of the game was -- is the Cowboys' defense is better than we think, or are the Giants are in for a really long year? Well, we should never get too caught up on Week 1, but I think the Cowboys have a chance to turn some heads if they keep playing like they did Sunday.
They were flying to the ball and displaying some schematic ideas that suggest they want to play aggressively conservative. Be cautious in your deployment, then rally like heck to the ball when it is distributed.
Let's start with all the times the Cowboys limited opponents to three points in a game in 2016: zero.
In fact, to find the last time the Cowboys gave up three or fewer points in a contest, we would have to go all the way back to their first meeting with Chip Kelly's Eagles in Philadelphia in 2013 -- 58 regular season games ago. It should be noted that they surrendered 623 yards to Detroit in the following game, so we should not assume this is the 1985 Bears, but Sunday was a good start.
It wasn't just the points either. The Giants had 233 total yards. The only times the Cowboys have allowed yardage that meager would be their trip to Cleveland last year (222) and Miami in 2015 (210). This is the NFL and the opponents pay their guys, too. You don't limit teams to 233 very often -- especially teams that are picked ahead of you by some in season predictions. The Giants are a much different team with Odell Beckham Jr. on the field, but Sunday was a very ominous sign for them in 2017.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
The big key above will be third downs. The Giants went 0 for 5 in the first half, and that is why they were demoralized and behind in every category at the half. They had 49 yards of offense and had run only 19 plays in the entire half. They were down 16-0 and it easily could have been 24-0 (or worse). The Giants were worthless and the Cowboys looked like one of the main reasons for that.
ELI MANNING THROW CHART
Eli Manning said after the game that the Cowboys did something different in playing so many softer zones on third down. His throw chart indicates he was checking the ball down and not because that was the design of the offense, but rather, without a running game and nothing but third-and-longs, the Cowboys were properly allowing him to hit passes in the flat and then rally to make tackles short of the sticks. Manning, meanwhile, felt he had to get the ball out because the Giants have again been unable to address their biggest offensive weakness -- their tackles are not very strong pass protectors. All of that (no running game, no special wide receiver and an O-line that doesn't give a quarterback confidence) allows for a noose-tightening defensive game plan that requires very little cooperation on Rod Marinelli's part.
Every week we chart splash plays for the Cowboys' defense. We want to know who is ending plays and making a difference, so we do it right here -- chapter and verse. Now, splash plays are nice, but you prefer to just stay off the field all day. That is why, despite a pretty dominating effort, they have just 10 splash plays (usually average about 17). The Giants went three-and-out too many times to allow for many big spots for the defense.
But as you can see, this was another signature game for DeMarcus Lawrence. He has had quite a few, and I submit that he remains one of the Cowboys' most underrated players (that is about to change, as his contract expires after this season. He is about to become a very rich man -- here, or somewhere else). He has destroyed games before and made a huge impression at Pittsburgh last year and in 2015 against the Jets, Saints, and at Tampa Bay, where he dominated all of those games. He led the team in splash plays in 2015. He is just extraordinary and generated 3.5 splashes Sunday.
Here is the first third down for the Giants offense. Lawrence needs Manning to struggle to find an option, and once he does, Lawrence does the rest as he goes to get a sack on the first real opportunity of 2017.
But that wasn't it.
This is the early leader for most enjoyable GIF to watch on a loop for 10 minutes. This is Lawrence destroying Bobby Hart and Orleans Darkwa on the same play. What a dominating player he can be. This is just incredible strength and effort.
First snap of the second half, and Lawrence is at it again. This time he meets Stephen Paea at the quarterback by tossing John Jerry around and working his way to Manning, who again can't find anyone open. This is an excellent start with Lawrence.
And one more thing on video, if you like GIFs to put on a nice loop. Here is Sean Lee's tackle for loss when the tight end/fullback, Rhett Ellison, was supposed to get him. I don't know how he squeezed through there.
There will be some weeks when this is all we look at. But two 20-yard plays is nothing, and both of these plays were of minimal impact. Also, the Cowboys blitzed on three occasions, which is low even by their standards, but they had a real plan for the Giants and blitzing wasn't it.
The other thing I wanted to do today is try to sort out the personnel usage for Week 1. Orlando Scandrick left the game a bit early, but let's see what we have:
Here are the snap counts. As you can see, Jeff Heath, Byron Jones, Nolan Carroll and Lee played all the snaps in every package. Scandrick would have been there, too, but the wrist took him out. Otherwise, there is a rotation that we are trying to sort out.
Anthony Brown and Maliek Collins played in virtually every situation and perhaps only left for a breather.
Jaylon Smith was in on first and second downs. Chidobe Awuzie was pushed in full-time when Scandrick left.
On third downs they played a lot of "Small Dime," which started with four corners and two safeties with just Lee on the field. I assume this is because the Giants have no running back and a tight end who is really a receiver. When Scandrick got hurt, they put Kavon Frazier back deep and moved Heath up to the front line of the secondary, which had Carroll-Awuzie-Lee-Scandrick-Brown before it switched to Carroll-Awuzie-Lee-Heath-Brown with Jones-Frazier behind it. And again, they always are putting seven in the secondary to make targets pretty small for a quarterback who is looking around to try to make something happen. It seems like a very sound strategy. This is what it looks like on third down:
The coverages switch, but the seven in the secondary against 2-4 targets is the overall philosophy.
Playing with the lead really helps, too. Your playbook becomes so much bigger.
Here is the Charles Tapper sack. Again, look at what Manning was looking at here. Not much for a quarterback to do, but if he holds on to it, he gets slammed.
Need pass protection against seven-man secondaries. This is what Marinelli loved at Tampa Bay and Chicago at times. There is almost nowhere to go with the ball.
And then when the quarterback tries to thread the needle, you can get your hands on the ball and try to pick it off. Like Brown does here in the fourth quarter.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
Time will tell how strong this Dallas defense is, but this unit -- with David Irving and Damontre Moore suspended -- looked ready for the Giants. Plenty of challenges ahead, but to play so well on third downs to get off the field and collect three sacks are great things. Attrition will tell a story, as will the ability for the rookies to make an impact, but I think you have to give the defense a very impressive grade for Sunday.
Now they can deal with the altitude and noise in Denver this upcoming Sunday.