In recent years, the Dallas Cowboys’ defense has contained the New York Giants. However, the NFC East rival reinvested in their offensive line and drafted an athletic marvel in Saquon Barkley at running back. A dynamic and healthy Odell Beckham Jr. has also returned with a newly-signed extension.
Here’s a look at what Dallas’s “hot boyz” and the rest of the unit should expect from Pat Shurmur’s gameplan:
After watching film of the Giants’ week one loss to Jacksonville, I observed a tendency in Shurmur’s play-calling. I then compared this behavior to a random Vikings game in 2017 to confirm my findings.
Throughout multiple points in the contest, Shurmur deployed the same concept either on consecutive plays or within a few plays of each other. There were at least five instances of this on Sunday, often at the beginning of a drive or when the initial play-call produced a good gain.
At the start of New York’s two-minute offense near the end of the half, Shurmur dialed up a stick-dig-post concept.
This play netted them 12 yards and converted a 2nd-and-11 into a 1st down. On the next play, coming out of the two minute warning, they ran the same concept as before with only a slight alteration in formation. However, the Jaguars’ Lerentee McCray destroyed the second play by sacking Manning, beating right tackle Ereck Flowers (this will be important later).
After traveling from their own 36 yard line to the Jacksonville 19 over four plays, they called the stick-dig-post a third time.
When New York received the ball to start the second half, Shurmur went back to this tendency. On the opening play of the drive, he called a toss to the left for the former Penn State runner.
Barkley burst forward for a nice eight-yard gain. With the run as successful as it was, they tossed the ball to Barkley again, this time to the right side.
Unfortunately for Barkley, the Giants missed a number of blocks, and he was stopped for no gain.
The rest of the game, Shurmur would either consciously or unconsciously revert to this tendency three more times. The first was on a rub concept to Evan Engram. On 3rd-and-16, Engram ran a shallow cross underneath vertical routes from receivers on the other side of the formation. He was unable to convert the down but was targeted on the same concept on 3rd-and-7 a few plays later.
After the five-minute mark in the third quarter, New York ran three consecutive slant-flat concepts to the right side. The first two were part of a run-pass-option. The third was a straight-up pass play.
On the last play of the third quarter and second play at the top of the fourth quarter, Shurmur dialed up two running back screens to the second-overall draft pick. Barkley converted a 3rd-and-5 with a swing screen for 18 yards. Two plays later, he ran a play-action slip screen on 1st-and-20 but dropped the pass.
Whenever the Giants have a decent to good-sized gain, watch for them to run the same play, if not immediately after, then a few plays later. Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard should already be aware of this tendency. Expect Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith to sniff out some of these concepts Sunday night.
Exploiting the Cowboys’ Cover 3 Zone
Speaking of the team’s starting linebackers, New York has a favored passing concept that’s designed to take advantage of their base Cover 3. The Giants ran this play five times last weekend. But before detailing that play, let’s first look at how Dallas and a lot of other teams deploy their Cover 3 zone.
Every defense has coverage rules for their defenders. These rules tell them how to react to certain routes and alignments. For the Cowboys, one of theirs is to have Lee travel with deep crossing routes out of a trips formation (three receivers to one side).
Teams run these routes to take advantage of the Cover 3’s structure, so defensive coordinators add rules so their units can adapt.
Watch for Coach Shurmur to utilize a variation of the drive concept to exploit this rule.
The drive concept consists of a shallow cross combined with a dig or square in. The vertical release of the dig helps to clear space for the shallow cross over the middle of the field. Or the shallow cross will pull defenders away from the dig right as the receiver makes his cut.
The Panthers scooped up eight yards versus the Cowboys using this concept outside the red zone.
Shallow Crossover Concept
Against the Jaguars, New York often relied upon a variation of this play on long down-and-distances. Their goal was to catch the defense in a soft zone and create an opportunity for yards after the catch.
The difference between this two-man route concept and the traditional drive is the over route, which immediately attacks the heart of the defense and travels further upfield. However, the more important change from the Panthers’ play to this one is the go and wheel routes. Those routes are designed to influence the flat and deep third defenders.
Because the corner is occupied by the go route, the flat defender knows that there’s no one else to take the back if he runs vertically. A common coverage rule to account for this requires the flat defender to travel up the sideline with the wheel route, essentially turning it into a man coverage assignment. By doing this, a large swath of space is cleared for the shallow cross.
This concept puts the linebacker, circled in red above, into a bind.
Although Sterling Shepard dropped the ball, the big-play potential was evident. This play can also be run against man coverage, such as Man-Free (Cover 1).
New York was facing a 3rd-and-20 and didn’t convert, but don’t be fooled by the down-and-distance. Should the defense play aggressive man coverage, which is part of Kris Richard’s philosophy, expect Coach Shurmur to call on this play at some point Sunday night.
Another play designed to catch the defense off-guard is the middle screen. The likelihood of the Giants running this is much less than the Shallow Crossover, but it’s still an interesting concept.
Dallas doesn’t see this type of play often. There’s a boom or bust potential to this concept should Shurmur decide to use it.
The Cowboys’ defense faces a difficult task at home, as New York boasts plenty of fast and skilled weapons. Some of Dallas’s most valuable assets heading into the matchup are the athleticism of their linebackers and play speed of defensive captain Sean Lee. Expect him to have a bounce-back performance. If he doesn’t, or if the Giants’ skill players are too much of a match, then Sunday could be a long night for Cowboys fans.
Individual matchups between DeMarcus Lawrence and the inconsistent Ereck Flowers, as well as Randy Gregory and Taco Charlton against Nate Solder, will be key. Rookie guard Will Hernandez is a powerful man but is still learning and had gaffs in his technique last week. Defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford will be critical, as well.
This is probably a coincidence, but Solder, Hernandez, and Flowers were each beaten on inside moves by the Jaguars. Flowers was beaten twice.
If Dallas is to win, their defensive line must dominate. But even if they do dominate, will it be enough?
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.