Monday, September 11, 2017

The Morning After: Cowboys 19-Giants 3 (1-0)

Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (90) celebrates his sack of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning near the goal line in the first quarter at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, September 10, 2017. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)
Tom Fox/Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (90) celebrates his sack of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning near the goal line in the first quarter at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, September 10, 2017. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)
The NFL kept its tradition of making sure the highly rated Dallas Cowboys would open on Sunday Night Football against the highly rated New York Giants in a game that would start off the prime time NBC schedule with a huge number.  The matchup is such a guarantee of pleased TV executives that we cannot even fake our surprise when it is in the late slot on Sunday of Week 1 every year.  It is now a given that these two teams will open the season and we simply wait for which stadium will host the show.

This year, like the last few, the opener was down in Dallas, which was a nice advantage for a Cowboys team that has had a rough go of things in New York the last few years.  And this year, unlike 2016, the Cowboys were able to methodically and impressively beat down the New York Giants on both sides of the ball in a rather simple 19-3 victory.
Not everything went smoothly.  Don't be silly.  This is the Cowboys playing a team that seems designed with its acquisitions in the last few years to beat their rivals to the far south.  The Giants saw what Dallas was building on its offensive line and definitely determined to try to salvage the twilight years of Eli Manning's career by putting together a defense that would stand a chance against the bully football the Cowboys were starting to play.  And there is no question that they have done a very nice job of that. 
In paying Olivier Vernon $85 million, they needed a defensive end to bookend with Jason Pierre Paul, who they just paid another $62 million to provide some level of pass rush against the tackles that they would face.  We don't doubt that Vernon's showing against Tyron Smith in Miami aided their belief that he would be what they could really use.
In paying Janoris Jenkins $62.5 million, they targeted a cornerback who could matchup with Dez Bryant without giving considerable help over the top.  They knew that the key to dealing with Dallas is making sure you don't have to double Dez at all times.  Easier said than done, but you would have to say that he has delivered on their hopes, creating a very difficult matchup with the Cowboys.
In paying Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie $35 million, they wanted to make sure that they would be strong on the other flank and not just funnel passes in the opposite direction.  In drafting Landon Collins, they tried to halt Jason Witten and similar tight ends from being a terror down the seams.
And, in paying Damon Harrison, $46.5 million, they wanted to find someone who could sabotage the Cowboys' wide zone plays right at the center point of the line.  The best way to stop a wide zone is to knock it off its path before it ever gets going by beating All-Pro center Travis Frederick to his spot right off the snap.   If Snacks could sever the A-gap to the play-side, then many of those plays would be doomed as they begin. 
As you look at it from the perspective of the 3 games in the "21-4" era, you would have to say that each one of those costly acquisitions has done exactly what they hoped.  They have held the Cowboys to 45 points in 3 meetings and have not allowed 20 points a single time against a team that has been held under 20 only 2 other times in the 14 regular season games during this 2016-17 span.  That is really impressive work and demonstrates that the Giants did not spend their $300 million poorly.  They wanted a ready-made dominant defense, and I would concede that it appears they have done a fine job in assembling one that has a real chance to slow the young and homegrown Dallas Cowboys offense down. 
The trouble is that their resources and efforts to slow down the Cowboys come at a cost.  And that cost is that their offense has a number of issues that seem to be rather obvious as Manning's career ticks away.  The offensive line cannot handle the pass rushers it faces.  The running game hardly exists.  The team depends on Odell Beckham Jr. at a very high rate to save its bacon with one or two magical touches, and until now they have barely employed a threatening tight end since Jeremy Shockey roamed the earth.  They have not scored 20 points themselves in seven consecutive games going back to last November.
So, yes the Giants were involved in another street fight on Sunday night in Dallas where they were able to cause the Cowboys a fair amount of frustration as their offense that usually dictates a game as they wish was forced to navigate speed bumps and negative plays.  Yes, the Giants made Dak Prescott look a little off and made Ezekiel Elliott get to 100 yards with no real big-yardage runs to speak of.  And yes, they accounted for themselves as a defense that really gives Dallas issues.  But, they also scored a grand total of 3 points on 10 offensive drives.  And that isn't going to win anything.
The Cowboys defense needed to do what it has done the last three meetings with New York, themselves.  They have allowed 33 points in these 3 meetings and have allowed less than 270 yards per outing - which is beyond fantastic defense.  During those 3 meetings with Manning and his offense, they have sacked him 8 times, caused 5 takeaways, and allowed that meager running attack less than 3.5 yards per carry.  
They were buzzing around defensively last night like they must.  They have no massive contracts given to defensive players they did not draft themselves.  In fact, you could argue the Cowboys' building philosophy is exactly the opposite of their opponents on Sunday night.  They are largely homegrown and young, with the Giants employing many high-leverage veteran imports.  They spend most all of their resources - money and 1st round picks - on offense.  And defense needs to try to keep up with effort and scheme.  
That isn't to say the Cowboys don't have some very fine players on defense.  Sean Lee was a real dominant force in the middle of the field.  And now, he was joined by Jaylon Smith who continues to appear part of the plan as his health allows.  His explosiveness showed itself in his first NFL game last night and it is difficult for everyone to contain their excitement of what that might mean.  But, the best defensive player for me was DeMarcus Lawrence who was possessed in the 1st half just destroying anything in his path.  He will require a contract at year's end and we have seen him take over games in the past.  We have also seen him sabotage his own efforts with a suspension, but if he has the year he is capable of, he might make the Cowboys think hard about using their franchise tag next spring.  Sunday night was an excellent step in that direction.
And we certainly should continue to keep an eye on this young secondary.  Especially with word that Orlando Scandrick fractured his hand last night.  But, there were no real big plays down the field in Game 1, so the debuts of Jeff Heath as a starter, Nolan Carroll as cornerback cover, and rookie Chidobe Awuzie (with 38 snaps) seemed to go pretty well at first glance.
But, let's go back to where this team has planted its resources.  The offense was the source of all their championship hopes and what we think will likely dictate the ability of the 2017 Cowboys to sink or swim.  
Lots of talk about Dak Prescott's performance and the fact that he appeared to have some rust that affected his normal accuracy and rhythm.  What I continue to enjoy about his games as a young QB is that even when a bit off his game, he still is able to deliver the ball in places where if he is going to miss, it is going to be an incompletion.  In other words, even if he isn't putting the ball where he wants to put it, he knows his "misses" need to hit the ground.  His decision making usually has no bad days.  He is an incredibly smart QB for a young player.  That gives him a chance to be special for a long, long time.
Otherwise, full marks to the complementary targets like Cole Beasley, Brice Butler, and Terrance Williams who all made plays and were definitely pieces that the Giants can't cover in the same way.  It is a classic case of picking your poison, so once Scott Linehan needs a play on 3rd down, he realizes that there will always be attractive options somewhere.  Often, more than one.  This is a very lethal offense and the debuts of Chaz Green and La'el Collins both went very well considering the foes they were dealing with.
I know there was some consternation about the issues and unfinished drives last night.  The Cowboys had the ball nine times.  Each drive started in Dallas territory.  Each drive moved the chains.  Each drive gained at least 30 yards.  And each drive ended in New York territory.  They rolled up just short of 400 yards.  I know they have to finish drives and get in the end zone more, but that was a solid night.  
They definitely need to be careful about getting away from Zeke.  The scenario where Butler set them up at the 3 and they passed all 3 downs was a flashback to the Green Bay game where they never forced the Packers to stop what they can't stop.  They want to have a spectacular Dez Bryant touchdown to cap off their drives with fireworks, but sometime you really need to remember to feed Zeke.
Overall, if you weren't pleased with thumping the Giants by 16 in Week 1, you have ridiculous standards.  Not everything went well, but that is the type of win to get this rolling properly.  The Giants put up a nice fight early and then the Cowboys won comfortably late.  There will be plenty of tests ahead, but it was never going to be easy against a foe designed to deal with you.  I think a feeling of satisfaction is a reasonable way to handle the Week 1 win.  
On to Denver.

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