Monday January 2nd, 2012

Victor Cruz has consistently made game-breaking plays for the Giants in 2011, his second year. (EPA)

In Break It Down, I will go back and analyze the Xs and Os of a play or performance from the NFL week that stood out above the rest.

The alternate title for this post: "What in the world was Dallas' defense doing Sunday night?"

Victor Cruz headed into Week 17 with 76 receptions and more than 1,300 yards. And yet, the Cowboys didn't appear to do anything special to try to slow him down. Part of the problem for Dallas -- and every other team that's faced New York -- is that Cruz, Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks stretch a secondary thin, making it hard to focus on one specific guy.

But no matter what Dallas tried Sunday, Cruz worked his way open. Eli Manning kept looking for him, too, and the duo carried the Giants to the division-clinching win.

Let's take a look at how Cruz got it done ...

The second-year receiver broke a scoreless tie in the first quarter, when he turned a short out pattern on 3rd-and-1 into a 74-yard touchdown. The Cowboys stacked up close to the line, in anticipation of a possible run in the short-yardage situation.

That left Cruz one-on-one in the slot against Terence Newman, who had an absolutely miserable Sunday night.

Working out of the shotgun, Manning took the snap and rolled left. His line did the same, sliding with its QB. Cruz was the No. 1 option on this play, without a doubt.

Manning locked in on Cruz, who just ran a simple three-yard out pattern designed to get the first down and keep New York's drive alive. Except Dallas helped Cruz turn it in to way more.

Newman let Cruz get outside without much of an issue -- and you could understand that if Newman didn't have safety help deep. In theory, though, he did, with Gerald Sensabaugh playing back.

That's where things really went wrong for Dallas. Both Newman and Sensabaugh found themselves out of position -- it's hard to decipher where exactly Sensabaugh was headed, since no tight end released off the left side of New York's line.

You can get another look in the picture below at the Dallas issue: Sensabaugh was creeping up, while Newman was getting beat.

That combo, plus a block from Hakeem Nicks, gave Cruz the entire field to work with after he made his catch.

On New York's next possession, Newman stood on the sideline and Dallas tried to cover Cruz with Alan Ball ... which resulted in this:

Suffice it to say, you can't do that. Ball was flagged for a 14-yard pass interference penalty on this 2nd-and-6 play, giving the Giants a first down at the Cowboys' 16. Four plays later, it was 3rd-and-4 from the 10 -- and Manning again gave Cruz a look.

Dallas managed to get some pressure in the Giants' backfield, forcing Manning to roll right. He went through a long progression of options before coming down to Cruz, who somehow found himself uncovered in the middle of a Dallas zone.

The underneath Cowboys defenders slid wide, while the deep guys, well, stayed deep. So Cruz, the Giants' leading receiver, just sat down at the 5 and made an easy grab.

Dallas' inability to cover Cruz reached such a high level that even when the 'Boys managed to get in Manning's face, he just whipped the ball in Cruz's direction. The desperation strategy worked twice, both times for big gains.

The first came early in the third quarter, as DeMarcus Ware bore down on Manning. The Giants' QB turned to his left, where Cruz was lined up, and saw Ware coming at him, so he fired one up off his back foot.

The picture below is what Manning was looking at when he let it go -- Cruz bracketed by two defenders as he breaks for the sideline.

Manning let fly anyway, giving his talented receiver a chance to make a play. Cruz did just that too, breaking back toward the underthrown ball, going over top of Orlando Scandrick and hauling the pass in for 24 yards.

Scandrick was victimized on a similar play in the fourth quarter, just moments after Dallas had pulled within seven. Facing a 3rd-and-7 from his own 28, Manning again found himself dealing with a furious pass rush.

He spun away from a sack and looked deep, a la his Super Bowl XLII hookup with David Tyree. Just as he did earlier in the game, Manning eyed Cruz deep.

Dallas' deep safety shaded to his left (Manning's right), which gave Cruz a step on Scandrick deep.

Even though Manning underthrew that pass as well, there was no one to help Scandrick on the ball. Cruz, as he showed multiple times Sunday night, was in too much of a groove to try to cover one-on-one there. With his team's playoff hopes in jeopardy, he delivered another big play.

At the start of the season, Cruz was maybe the Giants' fourth or fifth best receiving option. Sixteen games later, he's developed into a star -- a bona fide No. 1 option, who can find openings and come up with catches, no matter the defense thrown his direction. The Cowboys learned that lesson the hard way Sunday night, as Cruz, with some help from Manning, helped New York capture an NFC East crown.

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