Two hated rivals that have a storied history will clash once again on one of the NFL’s biggest stages, the regular-season opener. There will be trash talking, banging helmets, and fireworks. Loud noises…lots of loud noises.
Despite the Giants winning five of the last six games between the two division foes, the matchup is more heated than ever, especially after the Giants lit up a porous Cowboys secondary last season. This season should be be different after Dallas added cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. But even with their sheer talent, will they be able to matchup with the versatile Giants receivers?
Athletically, they should, but there are many other factors, such as scheme. Dallas’ defensive guru Rob Ryan is unlike most NFL schemers because he didn’t hesitate to employ his version of a blitzkrieg in the unlikeliest circumstances. Whether it was first down or fourth down, Ryan did it all last season and ended up hurting the team down the stretch, which is why he pulled back on some of his crazy concepts this offseason.
The preseason featured a lot of single-high safety looks from the Cowboys secondary, much of which amounted to Cover 3 post-snap. Cover 3 has its roots in zone coverage and features four underneath defenders as well as three deep ones that make sure no one gets deep. The defenders can be a mix of any, such as two safeties and a corner deep or one safety and two corners, and it’s typically played behind a zone blitz. This was a vanilla look from Ryan, however, and it can be expected that he’s going to play more man coverage in the back end so he could blitz as his 46 defensive roots suggest he likes to do.
Moreover, Ryan also utilized several forms of man coverage in the preseason games, most notably Cover 1 and Cover 2-Man. Each coverage has a different amount of safeties deep, with the former having one as the name suggests while the latter has two. With Cover 1, the cornerbacks are essentially left on an island as they trail their assignment. It’s a similar case with Cover 2-Man, but the difference lies in the help, with the 2-deep safeties helping with coverage over the top.
As expected, Carr played very well in man coverage because he’s had so much experience with it in Kansas City. Carr is long, physical, and he can run with most receivers in the league. That’s also the case with first-round pick Morris Claiborne, who’s smaller than Carr but has the fluidity and foot speed to keep up with receivers. He showcased that skill in the red zone during Week 3 of the preseason against the St. Louis Rams when he batted a pass away after initially losing leverage.
The rookie out of LSU lined up with an inside shade. That would usually suggest man coverage on the Rams wide receiver, who was a part of the Rams 3×2 personnel grouping at the top of the formation before the snap.
After the ball was snapped, the receiver broke to the inside and forced Claiborne to flip his hips and trail him in man coverage.
This is usually a difficult situation for cornerbacks because it’s a short area of the field, which means the quarterback gets it out quicker and the smallest miscue can lead to a touchdown for the opposition. However, Claiborne handled this exceptionally as he regained his footing, ran after the receiver, and broke up the pass without interfering by keeping his outside arm off the pass catcher.
Although Claiborne is a rookie, he clearly has the physical skills to match up with receivers, which is why he might have some success against the Giants talented wideouts. New York’s receivers are a handful, especially with their versatility, specifically Victor Cruz’s.
Cruz can line up inside or outside of the formation and do damage as witnessed last season. Where he’s perhaps most dangerous is when he’s side by side with teammate Hakeem Nicks and they’re running an inside-out concept. They ran it masterfully against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl and throughout the preseason.
On this play, Manning can throw it to either Cruz, who can run a vertical stem and stop or keep running to the outside, or he can turn to what’s expected to be an open Nicks in the middle of the field. Eventually, Cruz keeps running to the outside once he’s faced with tight man coverage while Nicks runs a Dig route that breaks across the field and clears out the outside for Cruz to make the catch.
The Giants’ concept isn’t the sole reason this play is important, however. It’s also powered by the aforementioned alignment of the two receivers and how the Cowboys will deal with it. Will they play what coaches call “corners over” and just move Claiborne or Carr to the slot in this situation? Or will they keep both on the outside and walk down a safety or a nickel corner as they did in the preseason?
It’s a big question that will could be answered with an emphatic response from the Giants, because if a safety walks down or a nickel corner is put in the slot, it could spell trouble for the Cowboys because Cruz is a very savvy route runner and he can make the same big plays that he did last season against Dallas. However, if Carr or Claiborne are slid inside, they have the length and physicality to potentially pose problems for Cruz while also being able to keep one of them out on Nicks.
Ideally, Claiborne would stay on the outside because he’s a rookie corner and has primarily played outside in the preseason and in college. But so has Carr, which makes it a difficult decision for Rob Ryan, who in the preseason generally walked down a safety if his defense wasn’t in a sub-package. As seen in the previous games, this could be a significant factor and one to keep an eye on as Ryan’s decision may make it easier for the Giants to accumulate chunk plays and watch Cruz’s end zone salsa dancing.