Of the 13 possible opponents the Cowboys could have faced in Week 1, the New York Giants represent the worst matchup. The Cowboys’ primary weaknesses are their offensive line and historically, covering the slot receiver. The Giants boast perhaps the most dominating pass rush in the entire NFL and one of the top young slot receivers in the league in Victor Cruz. If the ‘Boys are going to win this game, they’ll need to learn from the mistakes they made against New York in 2011.
Last year, I wrote an article detailing how the Cowboys should attack the Giants’ pass defense in the final week of the season. The premise was beating a coverage called “Cover 2 Man-Under”—a defense the Giants played on an amazing 57.1 percent of their snaps in the teams’ first matchup. The coverage is characterized by two safeties deep and man coverage everywhere else on the field.
I have no doubts that you’ll see plenty of Cover 2 Man-Under from the Giants tonight. The defense is built to limit the impact of the outside receivers, forcing offenses to run the ball or throw it underneath. The G-Men can get away with playing so conservatively in the back end because they’re capable of generating so much pressure with their front four. Reaching the quarterback without sending extra rushers is invaluable to a defense, so the Cowboys will need to find a way to force the Giants out of the look.
Here are three ways they can do it. . .
Run the ball efficiently.
I’m not a huge proponent of running the ball in abundance, even to start games. The notion that teams “wear down” defenses with the run is silly. In reality, teams win games by finding success through the air, then milking the clock with the run once they already own a lead. Actually, the Cowboys winning percentage when they run the ball on greater than 57 percent of plays through the first three quarters is .636, compared to .419 when they don’t throw it so often.
In tonight’s contest, however, I think getting DeMarco Murray started early is a good way to 1) give the offensive line confidence, and 2) change the Giants’ defensive mindset. If the ‘Boys can continually gash New York for six, seven, and eight-yard gains on the ground, they’ll force the Giants out of Cover 2 Man-Under, opening things up downfield.
Utilize bunch formations.
Cover 2 Man-Under is such a safe coverage because, if a receiver runs deep, he’s basically double-teamed—the underneath defender runs with him and a safety stays over the top. By running bunch formations (three receivers lined up tightly on one side of the field), the Cowboys can exploit the Giants in two ways.
First, they can cross up the cornerbacks, who will be in man coverage. Unless the Giants check into a zone when the ‘Boys line up in a bunch look, their defenders will be susceptible to “legal” picks. Secondly, crossing routes from bunch formations are made easy, and they can negate the impact of the deep safeties. If the Cowboys extend the field horizontally instead of vertically, they’ll basically be playing against “zero” coverage—straight man-to-man.
Find Miles Austin.
While Dez Bryant will be the No. 1 option in Dallas this season, Austin could have a big game tonight. One of the weaknesses of any form of Cover 2 is the middle of the field. If you recall, Austin lined up in the slot on 44 percent of plays in 2011, with 63 percent of his targets coming when he was aligned inside. With Jason Witten out, Austin will be the Cowboys’ go-to receiver over the middle of the field. If you see Austin beating the Giants underneath, don’t be surprised to witness Bryant secure a big play after a shift in coverage.