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New York Giants Competitive Edge Week 5: Defense/Special Teams vs. Dallas Cowboys Offense/Special Teams

Do the Giants defense and special teams stack up well against the Cowboys? Olivier Dumont breaks it down to find out.

Though it might have fallen to the wayside considering the career day quarterback Daniel Jones had, the Giants defense and special teams’ positive efforts against the Saints last Sunday played instrumental roles in their victory.

Defensively, it wasn’t the best day for the Giants. But when it counted, this group stepped up when the Giants needed it the most. 

After the Saints took a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter, this Giants defense was able to silence the Saints’ next three consecutive drives, forcing two punts and keeping the Saints offense at bay on their final drive in the game's dying minutes.

On special teams, kicker Graham Gano botched a crucial three-point opportunity early in the game while punter Riley Dixon looked far from ideal with his punting.

Then again, Gano did drill a huge game-tying 48-yard field goal with 30 seconds to spare in the second, and returner C.J. Board ended up producing a huge 26-yard punt return in the fourth that allowed the Giants offense to score a big touchdown the very next play.

Up against the Dallas Cowboys this week, the Giants will need more from their defense and special teams units to come away with another big win on Sunday.

Though they have what it takes to achieve that goal, this feat remains to be quite daunting for the Giants, particularly with the Cowboys riding the momentum of a three-game winning streak.

Cowboys Pass Offense

  • Quarterback (Dak Prescott)
  • Running Backs (Ezekiel Elliot, Tony Pollard)
  • Tight Ends (Dalton Shultz, Blake Jarwin)
  • Wide Receivers (Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown)
  • Offensive Line (LT Tyron Smith, RT Terence Steele, RG Zach Martin, OC Tyler Biadasz, LG Connor Williams, Connor McGovern)

This Cowboys passing offense is one of the best in the league and has been front and center of the success the Cowboys offense has achieved as a whole.

Prescott has been dominant since returning from a severe ankle fracture suffered last season. Ranking 2nd in the league in completion percentage (75.2 percent), third in passing touchdowns (10), and fourth in passer rating (116.9), Prescott has been on fire this season.

That said, the invaluable foundation that has allowed Prescott to thrive this season has been none other than this Cowboys offensive line, which just so happens to be one of the best in the league at protecting their quarterback.

Currently fifth in pass-blocking efficiency (89.3), the Dallas offensive line has been exceptional, most recently not allowing a single sack last week against a Panthers defense ranked second in the league in sacks (14).

Anchoring this offensive line is the special partnership of Zach Martin and Tyron Smith. Although there are plenty of elite guards across the NFL, Martin is simply one of a kind and has maintained a level of unwavering consistency rarely seen for this position.

In seven seasons, the four-time All-Pro right guard has averaged a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 98.5 and has only conceded a total of nine sacks during that time. This year, Martin is preserving a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 99.4 in three games, following two back-to-back performances against the Eagles and the Panthers where he didn’t allow a single pressure.

At the left tackle position, the Cowboys have Smith, one powerful offensive lineman that looms large at 6’5” and 320 pounds. Remember when the Cowboys had the plowing-over-strength of Hall of Famer Larry Allen on the left-hand side of their offensive line? Smith just so happens to be a replica in his own right.

The seven-time Pro Bowl tackle continues to stake his claim as one of the best blindside tackles in the NFL year in and year out, posting an impressive 98.3 pass-blocking efficiency rating over his first four games of the season.

The Cowboys also have one elite receiver tandem in Cooper and Lamb. When it comes to route running, strong hands, and sideline balance, this duo is one of the best in the league and has been at the forefront of the receiving success this offense has achieved so far.

With a combined 522 yards and four touchdowns, these two playmakers possess the entire arsenal of skills that can cause various problems on Sunday.

Giants Pass Defense

Pass Coverage

  • Cornerbacks (James Bradberry, Adoree’ Jackson, Darnay Holmes, Rodarius Williams)
  • Safeties (Jabril Peppers, Logan Ryan, Julian Love, Xavier McKinney)

The 2021 season hasn’t been pretty so far for this group of Giants defensive backs. Not only are the Giants 31st in the league in opponent completion percentage (75.0), but they’re also 26th in opponent passer rating (106.2). They have struggled to find a way to be more effective in disrupting the pass and limiting receiving gains.

The linebackers have played a role in this concern, but the brunt of the responsibility has fallen mainly on the shoulders of this group of defensive backs, and they haven’t improved much as the season’s progressed.

Though the Giants pass coverage hasn’t managed to get much better as a group, they still have plenty of playmakers that can alter the outcome of a game.

Despite a slow start against Denver in Week 1, cornerback James Bradberry has gotten better in coverage, going from a reception percentage allowed of 75 in Week 2, to a 71.4 in Week 3, to a season-high 66.7 last Sunday against the Saints.

Bradberry also logged in his first game of the year where he did not allow a single touchdown pass, a reassuring sign considering he leads the team in that category (3).

After Jackson came off a strong debut against Denver, he’s found it difficult to maintain that tight, shutdown presence ever since, posting an 83.3 reception percentage on six targets against the Saints (his worst yet).

Seeing he’s second on the team in targets (24) doesn’t make things any better, so Jackson will look to change that against what could be his most formidable opponent yet this season.

That said, these two corners are not solely to blame for the pass defense's struggles. Even from the Giants fearsome safety duo in Jabrill Peppers and Logan Ryan, the lockdown efficiency just hasn’t been there in coverage this year.

Peppers, who won't play this weekend due to a hamstring injury, is currently posting his worst reception percentage (82.4) in his career. Ryan’s reception percentage of 70 is treading close to his career-worst rate (74 percent).

What also really doesn’t help this pass coverage is the lack of interceptions. In four games so far, the Giants have two interceptions, both of which came from Bradberry.

Pass Rush

  • Defensive Line (Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Austin Johnson, Danny Shelton)
  • Edge (Lorenzo Carter, Azeez Ojulari, Oshane Ximines)
  • Linebackers (Tae Crowder)

Though the pass coverage has undoubtedly been under the microscope for their shortcomings, the Giants pass rush hasn’t been much better, and that came into play against the Saints last Sunday.

Failing to record a single sack or quarterback hit on Jameis Winston, the Giants pass rush has found it difficult to collapse the pocket and force opposing quarterbacks to make hastier decisions. As a result, this pass rush is tied with the Saints for second-to-last in the league in sacks (6).

Similar to their pass coverage, this group has playmakers that can prove to be quite dangerous. Up front, both Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence have become a nasty one-two punch, combining for 23 pressures in four games.

Although sacks haven’t been easy to come by for these two (only one between the two of them), they bring a battering ram-type-presence from the interior that has been a pivotal factor in the success this pass rush has been able to generate.

Off the edge, the Giants have Lorenzo Carter, Oshane Ximines, and Azeez Ojulari, a trio that has yet to hit its stride in creating the pressure the Giants need from the outside but have shown spurts of it throughout the season.

This trio has combined for 20 pressures, including three sacks (all by Ojulari). Still, the upside of this group, while legitimate, has yet to come to fruition over these first four games.

Competitive Edge: Cowboys

Last week, this Giants pass defense was up against a Saints pass offense that was 31st in yards per game and 25th in completion percentage. Still, Jameis Winston managed to throw for a season-high 226 yards and upheld a completion percentage of 73.9 on the day.

This same Giants pass defense will face a team with a quarterback that’s second in completion percentage and is currently averaging 255 passing yards per game. Prescott (just like Jones last week) did have himself 400+ passing yards to kick off the season against the Buccaneers in Week 1 and has already ten passing touchdowns to his name.

Toss in the fact that this Cowboys pass offense has two All-Pro offensive linemen (Martin and Smith) and two bright talents in Steele and Williams (the latter holding 99 percent pass-blocking efficiency rating), and this Giants pass defense is easily up against its most formidable opponent so far this season.

Lastly, the Cowboys have been very good at using the versatility both their running backs offer out of the backfield. While Elliot provides better pass blocking and carries astute downfield vision on screenplays, Pollard brings better athleticism and speed with his receiving skills. He's corralled all eight of his targets for 65 yards this season.

Until this Giants pass defense proves it can be more consistent with slowing down opposing quarterbacks and coming away with more turnovers, it will be complicated for them to win these kinds of battles.

In short, this Cowboys pass offense carries a significant competitive edge entering Sunday’s game.

Cowboys Run Offense

  • Quarterback (Dak Prescott)
  • Running Backs (Ezekiel Elliot, Tony Pollard)
  • Tight Ends (Dalton Shultz, Blake Jarwin, Jeremy Sprinkle)
  • Offensive Line (LT Tyron Smith, RT Terence Steele, RG Zach Martin, OC Tyler Biadasz, LG Connor Williams, Connor McGovern)

If you’ve noticed that Prescott hasn’t thrown for anything near 300 yards since his monstrous 400+ yard passing game in Week 1, it’s because of the increasing strength and fortitude of the Cowboys' running game.


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Currently second in the league in rushing yards per game (165.8) and yards per carry (5.3), both Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard are two of the hottest running backs in the league right now.

Following a Week 3 showdown against the Eagles where Elliot ran for 95 yards and two touchdowns on 17 attempts, he followed that up by rushing for a whopping 143 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries against the Panthers, with a 7.2 yards-per-carry average in the process.

Surprisingly, Elliot has undoubtedly not accounted for all of the success Dallas has achieved on the ground. One word that comes to mind when thinking of his running mate Pollard is explosiveness.

Pollard has a very sharp eye when it comes to making the right reads, and when he finds the hole, he shoots through it like a cannonball. Outside of Raheem Mostert and JaMycal Hasty of the 49ers (both who’ve played two games or less), Pollard leads all running backs in the NFL in yards-per-carry (6.8).

Full credit for the Cowboys rushing game's success also must be shared with the formidable presence of the Dallas run blockers. This group can do it all, and at the forefront of this run-blocking group is the four-time first-team All-Pro guard Zach Martin and two-time first-team All-Pro tackle Tyron Smith.

Martin and Smith are two of the best in the business and have a robust supporting case around them in Steele and Williams. Add that to two really good blocking tight ends in Dalton Schultz and Jeremy Sprinkle, and this Cowboys rush attack is just about as lethal as they come.

Giants Run Defense

  • Defensive Line (Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Austin Johnson, Danny Shelton)
  • Edge (Lorenzo Carter, Azeez Ojulari, Oshane Ximines)
  • Linebackers (Tae Crowder, Reggie Ragland)
  • Safeties (Jabril Peppers, Logan Ryan, Julian Love, Xavier McKinney)

Outside of the fact that this group of Giants run stoppers has been slightly better than its pass coverage counterparts, it hasn't been by much, as its game against the Saints showed.

On 26 attempts, Saints running back Alvin Kamara ran for 120 yards and averaged 4.6 yards-per-carry. At times against New Orleans, they looked overwhelmed and outmatched, at one point allowing quarterback Taysom Hill to barrel his way through for a big touchdown run on a wildcat play on which he broke at least four tackles in the process.

That said, this Giants group has some really strong talent up front that can make a big difference. Leading the pack is Williams, whose quickness and strength helps him to make big plays every week.

On a fourth-down outside run play late in the first quarter, Williams laid out for a big tackle against Kamara, who found himself just shy of a first down. Though he’s not posting the flashiest of numbers, Williams has been an influencing force up front and is tied in second for the most stops on the team (9).

Behind the defensive front is the duo of Tae Crowder and Reggie Ragland, who have 19 stops and 48 total tackles in just four games between them.

Consistency has been an issue for this group throughout the season. But if they can find a way to beat Elliot to the line of scrimmage, they could have a chance at slowing down this Cowboys rush attack.

Competitive Edge: Cowboys

Considering how hot this group of Cowboys running backs is right now, how elite this offensive line is at run blocking, and how mobile Prescott is outside of the pocket, the Cowboys' run offense carries a significant competitive edge on the ground against this Giants' run defense.

The Giants have yet to prove that they can be the top 10 run defense they were a season ago. Until they do, matchups like these are simply just not going to be in their favor, especially when the Cowboys' offensive line is as good as it is.

Despite the Giants' run-stopping game being this defense’s forte, the Cowboys' run attack just poses far too many concerns as a whole and will look to replicate the success Kamara and Hill were able to achieve last Sunday.

Giants Special Teams: Kicking & Return Game

  • Kicker (Graham Gano) 
  • Kickoff Returner (C.J. Board)
  • Punt Returner (Jabril Peppers)

Graham Gano's streak of 37 consecutive field goals made is over, but he's looking to get a new one going. What was shocking about Gano’s miss against the Saints last week was that it was only from 35 yards out, an area in which he's usually Mr. Automatic.

Credit Gano for bouncing back and coming up with two big field goals later that game. One was from 23 yards out to bring the Giants within four points in the third quarter, while the other was 48-yards out to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.  

As for their return game, the Giants have not been all that bad. Though he didn’t have the most productive outing with the kick return duties against the Saints last week, C.J. Board has been very reliable nonetheless. He mustered up a 26-yard punt return last Sunday on his only attempt on the season.  

With Peppers out this week due to a hamstring strain, Board figures to be the punt returner.

Cowboys Special Teams: Punting & Return Coverage

  • Punter (Bryan Anger)

When it comes to punting, the Cowboys have a good one at their disposal. Bryan Anger is coming off of two straight games of placing two punts inside the 20-yard line and is currently mustering an impressive average of 48.6 yards per punt.

Anger and his return coverage unit rank fourth in the league in average yards-per-punt-return allowed (4.2), illustrating that firsthand against the Eagles in Week 3 when they held Jalen Reagor to minus-2 yards on three attempts.

But as good as this special teams unit is against punt returners, they’re nearly just as good against kick returners as well. Aside from a poor showing against Tampa Bay in Week 1, where they allowed a total of 92 yards on three attempts, this Cowboys kick return coverage has been lights out.

Kearse leads the group in special teams tackles with two, but C.J. Goodwin and Noah Brown have been nearly just as good, posting one tackle apiece. The Cowboys have also allowed opponents an average of 21.3 kickoff return yards in four games.

Competitive Edge: Giants

Even with the shutdown ability, this Cowboys special teams group has displayed the edge in this close battle goes to the Giants, primarily due to the consistency of Gano. 

Was the miss concerning? Of course. But considering how big his 48-yard field goal was later in the fourth quarter, there’s just something about Gano’s ability to focus and drive home pinpoint kicks when they matter most.  

Though the return game has been by no means great, Board, who will play despite a clavicle issue, seems to be coming into his own as the season progresses. 

Following a really big punt return in the fourth quarter against the Saints that set up a huge Giants touchdown the very next play to cut the lead down to three, expect him to look to generate the same impact against the Cowboys on Sunday.

Cowboys Special Teams: Kicking & Return Game

  • Kicker (Greg Zuerlein)
  • Kickoff Returner (Tony Pollard)
  • Punt Returner (CeeDee Lamb)

The Cowboys' special teams attack unit has been solid but has fallen short of expectations this year. Though Zuerlein did miss two field goals this season (both against Tampa Bay in Week 1), he’s been perfect ever since. 

However, Zuerlein has missed two extra points on the year, and that’s a bit of a concern considering those should be automatic.

Pollard brings plenty of speed but has only managed a 21.3 average on four kickoff returns this season, his longest only going for 24 yards. 

CeeDee Lamb has looked good with a stout ten yards per punt attempt average.  

Giants Special Teams: Punting & Return Coverage

  • Punter (Riley Dixon)

When it comes to punting, Dixon has struggled the last three weeks. Not only has his average hang time taken a slide (reaching its lowest point against the Saints (4.21 seconds), but so has his ability to boot punts down the field.

This Giants return coverage team hasn’t been very sharp against punt returners so far. The punt coverage unit ranks tenth in the league in yards allowed per punt return attempt (9.5).

That said, one bright spot for this unit has been Keion Crossen. Crossen has been the most significant impact player for this return coverage group, with a coverage tackle in nearly every game.

Competitive Edge: Cowboys

Though the Cowboys have had their fair share of struggles with their special teams return game, they bring a lot of upside that can pose a threat at all times. 

Last season as a rookie, Lamb took a kick return 47-yards to the house. He brings an incredible sense of awareness with his return game. 

If the Giants aren’t careful, he can certainly pick up significant gains and put this already dangerous Cowboys offense in key positions for them to score.

Dixon’s struggle remains a concern. His performance against the Saints was his worst yet, and unless that changes on Sunday, this punt return coverage unit might be in store for a long day. 

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