Game-planning, disguise and exploiting matchups are what regular-season NFL football is all about -- and, well, there's none of that in the preseason games. Glorious training camp practices and stellar preseason passing performances against vanilla coverages are the busted compasses that get you lost. What you can learn is where the individual strengths of teams lie and how a coaching staff might use those apparent strengths when the games get real.
When things kick off this Sunday night in Dallas as the Cowboys welcome their NFC East division rival New York Giants, you can at least hang a 10-gallon hat on a few areas of intrigue that will swing the game.
Let's take a look at the keys to the game.
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GIANTS MUST STOP THE DALLAS RUN GAME WITHOUT USING 8 IN THE BOX
Singing the well-deserved praises of the Dallas offensive line has become a recent Cowboys convo prerequisite. It goes without saying that this offense relies heavily on winning up front with a group they've invested heavily on both in draft equity and cash. Left tackle Tyron Smith, left guard Ronald Leary, center Travis Frederick, right guard Zack Martin and right tackle Doug Free need to create movement at the point of attack in the run game to create space for all the other offensive stars to excel.
The idea coming out of Dallas this offseason is that they can find similar production now with the two-headed approach of Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle that they did with just DeMarco Murray a year ago. Lance Dunbar will still have his change-of-pace package plays, and the newly acquired Christine Michael appears destined to serve the role of insurance if the team was too optimistic on McFadden or Randle.
Carries distribution aside, the 'Boys should look to establish some sort of positive run game production early to entice the Giants out of two-deep safety looks. Conversely, the Giants should try to control those first-quarter runs without committing an eighth defender to the box, thus avoiding a single-high safety look in coverage (see below).
The magic number for the Giants defense in the run game should be three yards or less. Keeping Dallas to fewer than three against two-high safety looks are wins for the Giants that should give Victor Cruz reason to dance -- even on the sideline. Four yard runs against two-high safety looks are losses that should prompt a Giants coverage change to the look below (see below).
NO BIG PLAYS TO DEZ BRYANT
Every effective game-plan has contingencies built into it, so preparing for the idea that the Giants won't be able to slow the Cowboys running game without that eighth defender in the box is just good business. No shame there -- welcome to a club with lots of members. The key is when you're forced into a contingency, don't make a compounding mistake.
Sure, Dez Bryant is a huge, talented wide receiver. But he's most effective as a downfield chunk threat. He's a guy who has shown frustration with dink-and-dunk work in the past, and will become impatient when he's not getting his downfield targets. There are a number of ways to approach a super-talent like Bryant, but in doing so you have to prioritize the areas on the field that you can't allow completions. For the Giants, the assumption here has to be deep and to the outside.
Without diving into the weeds of the entire coverage, and using the same single-high safety slide from above, we can illustrate a couple ways to get Bryant the extra Giant defensive attention he requires. The important part is ensuring that the part of the field the Giants take away is never relinquished by their corners. If it is ... see ya never, Dez will be off to the races.
One alternative is to "buzz" a linebacker to dissuade any underneath routes to Dez, allowing the cornerback to overplay deep routes to the outside (see below).
Another alternative is "slicing" Bryant with the down safety defender -- again allowing the cornerback to overplay the deep and outside routes, squeezing any post routes back to the middle of the field safety (see below).
Both of these concepts have weaknesses; good run fakes matted to a legitimate run threat makes linebackers slow to buzz short and outside routes, while slicing safeties won't get to low and outside routes very often either.
But low and outside on comeback elements is better than catch-and-run inside breaking routes and deep, outside routes where the help can't help. Football is often like that. You can't have everything -- just make sure what you're conceding is a lesser evil until things tighten in the space-restricted red zone.
If the Giants can play smart and disciplined in the contingency coverage areas of the field against Bryant, they can have a great chance. The problem with this idea is it takes great communication between safeties, linebackers and corners to pull off. The back-end of the Giants secondary has been one of the more unsettled units in football, as evidenced by the flirting with Seattle about Kam Chancellor as he holds out. Sometimes the idea on paper is sound, but personnel limitations tell the final story.
GIANTS OFFENSE MUST SPREAD THE WEALTH
When the Cowboys lost cornerback Orlando Scandrick for the season, the decision to draft Byron Jones in the first round looked all the more timely. Sure, the Cowboys will have veterans on the outside in Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, but going at direct replacements isn't always the play. Let me explain.
As of now, it's unclear if the Cowboys feel confident that Carr can stay with Odell Beckham Jr. alone, or whether the Giants second-year stud requires double coverage. If Victor Cruz can play, doubling Beckham every down would be unrealistic, but it's looking more and more like Cruz won't be available with an injured calf.
When a team loses a key cornerback, the smart play is to test the depth of its secondary -- not necessarily the guy that directly replaces Scandrick, but the last guy who slides onto the field in three- or-four-wide receiver sets now that wouldn't have before.
New pass-catching running back Shane Vereen is one of those "wealth" roster pieces whose presence in a huddle alone can have teams treating him more like a wide receiver. This is important because the depth of the Cowboy secondary is already challenged with injury. How it fares going even deeper into the coverage cupboard to account for a running back that's as slippery to cover as any wide receiver extended from the formation adds a layer to Cowboy decision-making. Jones vs. Vereen would be entertaining, if nothing else.
If you're a Giants fan, you want to see touches spread throughout the pass catching group. If Beckham is doubled, this can't be just the Rueben Randle Show, or Sunday will be a long night for the Giants.
Vereen has to be a serious part of the equation and then possibly Larry Donnell at tight end, as well. If Eli Manning doesn't have lots of legitimate places to go with the ball on Sunday, things get easier for the Cowboys D. And things will never get easy for the Giants D.
Keeping the stress on the Cowboys defense is the best chance the Giants have to go into Big D and steal one, though that's no small task.