By Nick Shook
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2016 has been the year of the Cowboys, save for opening weekend, when Dallas fell to division rival New York. They received a shot at redemption on a frigid Sunday night in Week 14, but in surprising, almost stunning fashion, again came up empty-handed.
It begins — and really, ends — with disciplined defense. As other units across the league turn to exotic blitz schemes and innovative usage of personnel, New York keeps it simple and traditional because it works.
Dallas brought one of the NFL’s most potent offenses to the contest, leaning on a run-first approach powered by the dynamo known as Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys didn’t differ against the Giants, handing the ball to Elliott 24 times as the rookie churned up 107 yards. But very few of those totes turned into big gains, as the Giants played disciplined, controlled defense against a Dallas running game that is dependent on zone and power schemes. When the Cowboys‘ linemen flowed upfield, the Giants stuck to fundamental play, fighting through the point of greatest resistance to clog up running lanes. As the game progressed, New York only got better at defending the zone, which peaked late in the fourth with Damon “Snacks” Harrison’s tackle for loss.
While largely containing Elliott and the Dallas ground game, New York found success by trusting its personnel. Instead of resorting to myriad fronts, the Giants did what it did best, sticking to its base defense with disciplined play from all 11 members. Running a majority of Cover 1 man and Cover 3, New York blanketed Dallas receivers all afternoon, rarely allowing them to get open while throwing a sprinkling of blitzes at Dak Prescott to pressure him into quick decisions.
New York blitzed on 14 pass plays (35 percent of Dallas’ pass plays). In this situation, Prescott completed 7 of 14 passes for 50 yards, an interception and a paltry passer rating of 28.9.
Surprisingly, New York recorded all three of its sacks of Prescott on four-man rushes. The Cowboys‘ vaunted offensive line twice failed to stop the base rush, with one sack resulting in a fumble, and another coming as a result of tight coverage downfield. The third came from defensive end Romeo Okwara, who beat right tackle Joe Looney on around the edge (Okwara’s top speed of 11.35 mph bested Looney by more than 3 mph) to take down Prescott and put Dallas in a third-and-long scenario, where they struggled for the second straight week. In these situations, the New York secondary shined.
They were far and few between prior to Week 14, but Dallas found it often needed its rookie quarterback to go deep while knowing he’d be facing heat. As the numbers proved above, sometimes that heat came from only four defenders. But on the road, in the cold and against a unit that doesn’t make many mistakes, Prescott had a tougher challenge than usual. Facing third-and-15 and the feel of a massive wave of defenders about to crash down on him, Prescott let it fly into Cover 3 defense, where Leon Hall easily picked off the pass intended for Dez Bryant to prematurely end another Dallas drive.
New York essentially shut down Dez Bryant in Week 1 by sending Jenkins to shadow him on either side of the field, except for when he lined up in the slot. The same strategy was used in Week 14 and again was wildly productive.
Of the 37 passing plays in which Jenkins participated, he was targeted seven times and allowed just two receptions for 17 yards. Of those 37 plays, 25 came against Bryant, resulting in six targets, one reception and 10 yards allowed, and one interception that came as a result of press coverage, disguised pressure and a slick field.
The other star of the Giants‘ secondary was Landon Collins, the strong safety who had the privilege of spending much of the contest battling against inside targets while Hall roamed the deep secondary as a single-high safety. This meant Collins often had to be the one to meet Jason Witten, or targets emerging from the backfield, and he used his closing speed and effective tackling to stuff any advance in open space. This quick takedown of Witten to end the third quarter took what would have set up a third-and-short at worst and created a third-and-5, which ended in an incompletion and punt early in the fourth.
New York’s defensive gameplan was three-pronged, and shouldn’t sound too unique: contain the run, pressure the quarterback and play tight pass coverage. The first and second parts led to longer down and distance scenarios, where the third part thrived. The formula to beat Dallas isn’t complicated — it just requires excellent and consistent execution. The Giants find their defense peaking at just the right time and leaving the model for the Cowboys‘ remaining opponents to attempt to replicate.
Other notes from Week 14 in Next Gen Stats:
1. Odell Beckham Jr. dusted the Cowboys‘ defense, catching a slant and outrunning the entire 11 men on the field for a 61-yard touchdown. Beckham reached a top speed of 21.85 mph, beating Brandon Carr, who actually was running faster than Beckham at one point but failed to catch him, in a sprint across the field to the end zone.
2. With Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu inactive due to injury, Taylor Gabriel saw a huge uptick in looks from Matt Ryan. The Falcons wideout owned 40.1 percent of Ryan’s intended air yards share, an increase of more than 30 percent on his season average of 10 percent entering Week 14.
3. Kirk Cousins and the Redskins have found success on offense due to the deep ball. Cousins connected with DeSean Jackson on an 80-yard touchdown in the third quarter, and since Week 8, leads the league with seven deep ball touchdowns (20-plus yards) and 716 passing yards on such attempts, nearly double the total of the second-best quarterback, Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota (385 yards).
4. Pittsburgh saw a memorable afternoon from Le’Veon Bell, who rushed for 238 yards and three scores in a win over Buffalo. Much of that success on the ground is due to a shift in offensive personnel. The Steelers have increased their usage of six-plus offensive linemen since Week 11, jumping from usage on only 2.1 percent of plays to 27.9 percent, coinciding with Bell’s four-game streak of 100-plus rushing yards.
5. New week, new fantastic passing and route charts. One even includes a play where a player doubled back across the field after the catch. Click here to find out!
6. DeMarco Murray continues his stellar season in Tennessee. Even when defenses stack the box with eight defenders in an attempt to counter the Titans‘ exotic smashmouth offense, Murray is averaging 4.5 yards per attempt, with nine touchdowns in such scenarios. Murray leads the league in carries against such a front, with 115 totes, accounting for 50.2 percent of his attempts.
7. Houston harassed Andrew Luck all afternoon Sunday, and it showed in Next Gen Stats. The Texans averaged just 2.3 yards of pass rusher separation from the quarterback, good for third best in the league in Week 14. Indianapolis has struggled to protect Luck for much of the season, recording the worst average separation in the category. Whitney Mercilus ranked third with an average of 3.3 yards of separation, while inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney finished seventh with an average of 3.6 yards.
8. J.J. Nelson took an end around for a touchdown for the Cardinals, blazing past Miami defenders on what Chris Wesseling expected to be the fastest carry of the year. Nelson didn’t quite break that mark, hitting 21.23 mph (seventh fastest in 2016), but was the fastest receiver on a rushing touchdown this season. Nelson traveled 84.7 yards on the score, the third longest distance by a receiver on a rushing touchdown in 2016.
9. Philip Rivers has dealt with pressure for much of the season, and in Week 14, he was at the top of the category. Rivers threw 21 passes while under pressure, finishing with a 37.7 passer rating against Carolina and ending up on the ground as a result of a sack five times.