5 Players/Matchups to Watch in Sunday Night’s Giants-Cowboys Game
Although the court hearings relating to Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension have dominated the headlines leading into Sunday Night Football’s Giants-Cowboys regular season opener, there are plenty of other key players and matchups to watch in this NFC East division battle.
Giants’ superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr’s status is up-in-the-air for Sunday’s game because of an ankle injury, so he’s not on this list. But there are plenty of other weapons that Giants QB Eli Manning can target, so we’ll start with a newcomer.
Evan Pinkus via AP
Giants TE Evan Engram (#88)
The Giants have an explosive aerial attack, and now they’ve added a new dimension to the passing game by drafting dynamic rookie tight end drafting Engram in the first round. Engram has the size of a tight end but runs faster than many wide receivers. He ran a speedy 4.42 at the NFL Combine. That combination of size & speed makes him a match-up nightmare. He’ll have to learn how to block, something he didn’t have to do much at Ole Miss. But when he’s featured in the passing game, a likely matchup is safety Byron Jones #31, arguably one of the best athletes on the Cowboys’ roster.
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick #32 could draw coverage, when he moves into the slot, or even rookie cornerback Chidobe Awuzie #33 who also plays inside in the dime package.
The Giants also added perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall #15 in free agency. Only two current players in the NFL have more career catches then Marshall’s 941 (Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals, and Jason Witten). If Odell Beckham Jr doesn’t play because of the ankle injury, certainly it hurts the Giants’ offense. But they still have Marshall and Engram as new weapons to go along with Sterling Shepard #87. The revamped Cowboys’ secondary gets a stern test in Sunday’s opener.
Aaron M. Sprecher via AP
Cowboys OTs La’el Collins/Tyron Smith vs Giants DEs Jason Pierre-Paul/Olivier Vernon
The Cowboys’ pass protection will be tested by two very good pass-rushing defensive ends for the Giants: Jason Pierre-Paul #90 and Olivier Vernon #54. La’el Collins #71 is a three-year veteran for the Cowboys, but this is his first season to play right tackle in the NFL. Welcome to your new position, La’el. Now meet Mr. Pierre-Paul, who registered 7 sacks in 12 games last season. Pierre-Paul usually plays left defensive end, and Vernon plays the right side which means Tyron Smith #77 will mostly go against Vernon who led the Giants’ in sacks last year with 8 1/2.
Collins is not the only new starter on the Cowboys’ offensive line. Chaz Green #79 has been battling Jonathan Cooper #64 for first-team snaps, and it looks like Green will get the start on Sunday night.
But here’s the bottom line: there’s a 40% turnover among the starters in the Cowboys’ offensive line this year with Collins taking over at right tackle for Doug Free (retired) and Green at left guard for Ron Leary (free agency, Broncos). Will the offensive line, arguably the best in the NFL, pick up where it left off in last season’s 13-win campaign? Sunday night, against a formidable Giants’ defense, gives us our first glimpse.
Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith (#54)
He won’t play the entire game, but Smith’s comeback story continues to inspire Cowboys Nation. Look for Smith to share snaps at middle linebacker with veteran Justin Durant #52.
Ron Jenkins via AP
Smith/Durant will man-the-middle in place of Anthony Hitchens who is sidelined another 5+ weeks with a knee injury. Smith, of course, is making his NFL regular season debut after suffering a career-threatening knee injury in his final college game at Notre Dame. Smith missed last season as he diligently rehabbed. Now all that hard work pays off and the entire country will get to see him in prime time on Sunday Night Football.
Roger Steinman via AP
Cowboys WR Dez Bryant (#88) vs Giants CB Janoris Jenkins (#20)
This will be a fun matchup. In last season’s opener against the Giants, Dez was limited to 1 catch for 8 yards. In the rematch in December, Dez had 1 catch for 10 yards. Jenkins had a lot to do with that. He’s the high-priced free agent the Giants’ added a year ago, and their investment (5 yrs, $62 million) paid off. Jenkins went to the Pro Bowl in his first season with the Giants. He’s a terrific cornerback. Meanwhile, Dez is healthy and had one of his best training camp/offseason in years. Last year, Dez wasn’t Dez due to nagging injuries. This coming Sunday night, he’s primed and ready. Keep an eye on #88 versus #20. Dez also had a full offseason and training camp to work with Dak Prescott, so those two are now on the same page. Let’s see if they write a new chapter in Cowboys-Giants lore this weekend. I expect Dak to target Dez downfield much more frequently this entire season, starting Sunday night.
Paul Spinelli via AP
Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott (#21)
Zeke has not been made available to the media for the past two months, so we don’t have any comments from him. But his teammates and coaches say that he remains focused on football, and that off-the-field court appearances related to his six-game suspension have not affected his preparation for the Giants. We’ll find out Sunday. In his two games against the Giants last year, he averaged only 3.6 yards-per-carry. That 1 ½ yards less than his season average. And the Giants have an excellent run defense: they ranked #3 versus the rush in 2016, allowing only 88.6 yards-per-game (the Cowboys defense was ranked #1 allowing 83.5).
The Giants are also very stingy when it comes to scoring…they allowed the fewest TDs in the league last year (only 25, with only 10 rushing TDs). It’s going to be tough sledding for whoever is running the ball, including Zeke who played only 12 snaps in preseason. Collins is settling in at right tackle as the new starter, but he’s never had to block Khalil Mack, the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Nobody has more sacks over the past two seasons than Mack. He’s a beast, a terrific pass rusher.
Giants S Landon Collins (#21)
Okay, I’m going to cheat a little bit on our “5 to Watch” list and add another player…that’s because Collins is terrific. He’s a playmaker in the defensive backfield.
Julio Cortez via AP
He’s not only a good tackler (team-leading 125 tackles last season), he also can ‘play the ball’. He had 5 interceptions last year. He can blitz (4 sacks). He does everything. And he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder because he didn’t win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors (the award went to the Raiders’ Khalil Mack). If you like football, be sure to lock-in on Collins for some plays on Sunday night. The first-team All Pro is one of the best players in the league, period.
*Note: Giants-Cowboys kickoff is Sunday night at 7:30pm at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.