At this time last year, Eli Manning was somewhat of joke among football fans and even the majority of analysts. Manning was coming off a season in which he threw 25 interceptions but still had the confidence to say he was one of the very best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Twelve months later, nobody is laughing at Manning as his reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants welcome the Dallas Cowboys to New York. The Cowboys and Giants will kick off the 2012 NFL regular season tonight, and while both teams will believe they can ultimately win out in the NFC East, there are more questions than answers entering the season.
Questions in Dallas are commonplace. All-Pro tight end Jason Witten is unlikely to play in the opener because of a lacerated spleen. Talented defensive tackle Jay Ratliff is definitely out because of an ankle injury, while cornerback Mike Jenkins’ status for the game remains unclear.
Jenkins’ value to the Cowboys is much less than it was last year after an off-season that brought in Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr. Carr was signed to a big deal in the off-season from the Kansas City Chiefs and Jerry Jones traded up in the first round of the draft to take Claiborne.
Claiborne and Carr will be asked to handle receivers in single coverage a lot in Rob Ryan’s defensive scheme. While Claiborne is somewhat an uncertainty, although he was a superstar at LSU, Carr has proven in the past that he excels in press man coverage. Tonight Carr will either have to track Victor Cruz or Hakeem Nicks. If both receivers were fully healthy, then Nicks would be the primary option to stop, however Nicks missed a large portion of the preseason through injury and is unlikely to be 100 percent. This could see Carr switch onto Cruz with Claiborne taking Nicks.
Even though Nicks is not 100 percent, it would still make more sense for Carr to cover him because he is the bigger of the two corners.
If the Cowboys’ cornerbacks can contain the Giants’ receivers, the front seven shouldn’t have any issues getting to the quarterback. After a season in which the Giants’ line really struggled, very little has changed upfront. William Beatty returns at left tackle, but won’t start for the opener. Instead nine-year veteran Sean Locklear will start at left tackle.
Locklear has no chance of holding up against DeMarcus Ware on his own, so the Giants are likely to move blocking tight end, and former Cowboys player, Martellus Bennett to Ware’s side on both passing and running plays. That may allow the Giants to hold Ware at bay initially, but it also gives Manning less options outside.
The Giants will likely want to establish the run in order to help their offensive line. However, the Giants ranked 32nd in rushing last year, and while first round pick David Wilson should be a clear upgrade over Brandon Jacobs in the backfield, that doesn’t figure to change this year. Football is a game that is won and lost in the trenches, despite the modern game being a quarterback driven league. Fortunately for the Giants, the Cowboys have nearly as many issues on their offensive line.
Second-year running back DeMarco Murray looks set to be a superstar running back, but he is coming off an injury shortened rookie season and playing behind a questionable offensive line. The Cowboys did move talented tackle Tyron Smith to Tony Romo’s blindside, but the interior of their line has been a mess all preseason. The Cowboys brought in Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings to reinvent the interior of their line, but both players, along with center Phil Costa, have missed large portions of the off-season.
Congruency is important on the offensive line and the Cowboys haven’t established that they have it yet. Learning on the fly is not going to fly when you face the New York Giants. The Giants may be missing defensive tackle Chris Canty, but Jason Pierre-Paul’s versatility to move inside, coupled with continued development of Linval Joseph, means the front won’t miss a beat. Football is all about matchups and the Giants’ dominance in the trenches could swing this tie.
If the Cowboys can keep the Giants’ line away from Romo, Romo has the talent outside to take advantage of a depleted Giants’ secondary. Cornerback Terrell Thomas, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, has been placed on IR after re-injuring his knee in training camp. Thomas’ expected eventual replacement, Prince Amukamara, will also miss the game with an ankle injury. Even without Jason Witten at tight end, the Giants will struggle to stick with the Cowboys’ talent on the outside.
For all of Dez Bryant’s off-the-field issues, his talent on the field remains overwhelming. Corey Webster is an excellent cornerback who should be able to somewhat contain him, but Webster can’t cover both he and Miles Austin who will take advantage of Michael Coe on the other side of the field.
Despite having two elite talents on the field at quarterback, the likelihood is that the quality of offensive lines on both sides of the ball will make this game a low scoring one. History favours the Giants, but the Cowboys have a much improved roster with more talent than hype for the first time in a long time.
Two hundred and thirteen days since they won the Super Bowl, the New York Giants welcome back football for the 2012 Regular season. The Cowboys are just trying to spoil the party.
Final Injury Report:
Dallas Cowboys Injury Report
Probable – RB DeMarco Murray (wrist), WR Miles Austin (hamstring), WR Dez Bryant (knee), LB DeMarcus Ware (hamstring), LB Dan Connor (hip), C Phil Costa (back), RB Phillip Tanner (hand).
Questionable – DB Mike Jenkins (shoulder), WR Andre Holmes (knee), LB Kyle Wilber (thumb)
Doubtful – TE Jason Witten (spleen); S Danny McCray (stinger – shoulder),
Out – DT Jay Ratliff (ankle); S Matt Johnson (hamstring)
New York Giants Injury Report
Probable – Ahmad Bradshaw (hand)
Questionable – WR Hakeem Nicks (foot), LB Mathias Kiwanuka (groin), LB Michael Boley (hamstring), T Will Beatty (back), CB Jayron Hosley (toe), RB Da’Rel Scott (knee), LB Adrian Tracy (hamstring)
Doubtful – none
Out – CB Prince Amukamara (ankle), DT Marvin Austin (back), T James Brewer (back)
Cian Fahey writes for Irishcentral and the Guardian. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf