NFC East Roundup: A Giant Threat On Offense

How did each of the NFC East teams fare in the opening week of the regular season?

Victor Cruz. (USA TODAY Sports)

Victor Cruz. (USA TODAY Sports)

With the first week of games complete, let’s take a look at how the rest of the NFC East did.

We’ll start with the Giants, who edged out the Cowboys, 20-19, in their season opener in Dallas. A healthy Victor Cruz scored his first touchdown in more than 700 days, while fellow wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie Sterling Shepard showed plenty of bright spots in the first game of the season.

Steve Serby of the New York Post writes that Eli Manning once again has weapons around him that can hopefully lead his team to an NFC East crown.

Yes, the Giants scored only 20 points in their harrowing one-point victory over the Cowboys, but remember that Manning’s time of possession was a mere 23:17. It’s part of the reason Beckham (4-73) was targeted only eight times.

Manning has established 28 points per game, as a realistic goal, with Ben McAdoo settling in on 27.

The last time Manning had weapons of mass destruction close to this was in 2012, when Cruz (86-1,092-10 TDs), Hakeem Nicks (53-692-3 TDs) and TE Martellus Bennett (55-626-5 TDs) were his targets. But Nicks was diminished by right-foot and left-knee injuries that robbed him of his explosiveness. Manning (26 TDs, 15 INTs) threw for 3,948 yards that season. It was in 2011 when Manning threw for a career-high 4,933 yards, as Cruz (82-1536-9 TDs) burst upon the scene with Nicks (76-1,192-7 TDs), Mario Manningham (39-523-4 TDs) and TE Jake Ballard (38-604-4 TDs) and the Giants won their fourth Super Bowl.

Without Cruz, with an underachieving Rueben Randle opposite Beckham, Manning (35 TDs, 14 INTs) nevertheless threw for 4,432 yards in 2015.

This is his third season in McAdoo’s system, and there are signs the best is yet to come.

On the other side of the ball, the defense didn’t force a turnover or sack Dak Prescott at all in the game, but with their new acquisitions from the offseason, they showed up when they needed to, especially when stopping one of the league’s top rookies, as Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News explains.

But they did win their most important battle against the Cowboys’ offensive line, considered perhaps the NFL’s best unit, holding [Ezekiel] Elliott to 51 yards on 20 carries (2.6 average).

“They had some tough interior guys,” Elliott said. “They were big on the inside. They won a lot at the point of attack.”

Former Jet Damon “Snacks” Harrison (five years, $46.25 million, $24 million guaranteed) and fellow tackle Johnathan Hankins plugged the middle. And [Olivier] Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul collapsed well to the inside and were disruptive of Prescott as the game wore on, with middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard ($760,000 from Miami) and weak side LB Jonathan Casillas (six tackles, tied for team lead) showing strong.

The defense allowed just one Cowboys touchdown, an eight-yard Elliott scamper, and only after an Eli Manning interception gave Dallas the ball to start at New York’s 35-yard line. Backup defensive end Kerry Wynn seemingly got too far upfield as Elliott broke loose.

In the passing game, though, corner Janoris Jenkins (five years, $62.5 million, $29 million guaranteed from St. Louis), who goes by the nickname “Jackrabbit,” limited star Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant to just one catch for eight yards. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played a huge role containing Bryant, too, denying a first-half touchdown in man coverage with an acrobatic breakup in the back of the end zone.

The Giants host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon at MetLife Stadium.

Moving on to the Cowboys, who didn’t have a good day overall, outside of their rookie quarterback. Dez Bryant recorded one catch for eight yards, while rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott was held to just 51 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown.

Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star Telegram reports that Elliott was disappointed by his “average” debut behind one of the best offensive lines in the league.

Asked to assess his debut, Elliott said: “I think I was average, you know. Average. That’s not why I was brought here to be average, so we’ve got a lot of work to get done. A lot to work on. But, you know, it’s the NFL. You can’t win every game, so I’ve just got to get back to work and get better next week.”

Elliott’s best runs came early in the third quarter with a pair of 8-yard runs on the same drive, including an 8-yard TD run. Elliott went up the middle and dove into the end zone for the score, and was immediately congratulated by the offensive line.

“Just my read, came inside, saw the bounces and got in the end zone,” Elliott said of his TD.

Elliott also had one catch for one yard, and held his own in pass protection.

Still, it wasn’t the debut most had expected from the favorite to win the league’s offensive rookie of the year honors.

“I was hoping to have a better day for sure,” Elliott said. “The type of guy I am, the type of competitor I am, I’m a little bit disappointed. But you’ve got to start somewhere. All we can do is get better from here.”

On the last play of the game, with the Cowboys driving, wide receiver Terrance Williams failed to get out of bounds to keep the Dallas drive alive and ran out the clock in the process. Williams was aware of the time on the clock during that final play, according to Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News.

“I don’t know, I was just doing my best to just put the team in position to kick a field goal, but obviously I should’ve just followed the rules and got out of bounds,” said Williams, a fourth-year player out of Baylor and W.T. White. “That was the whole purpose of me cutting it in, to go right back to the sideline to pick up more yardage. I was thinking at the break in the huddle it was already third and 13, in my mind I was trying to make the first guy miss, and then just dive out of bounds, but it didn’t go as planned. I should just have followed the rules and gone out of bounds.”

Williams said he was aware of how much time remained when the play began – it was 12 seconds and actually third and 10 from Dallas’ 46. He caught the pass from Prescott at about the Giants’ 48, took several steps and then dived near the 40, met by New York defenders Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Landon Collins.

“I was clearly aware of the time,” Williams said. “It was something that I was just thinking of. It was just a bang-bang moment. Now that I have the chance to sit back and think on it I should’ve just went out of bounds.”

Williams added: “It’s still a poor decision for me. …Just looking back, I’ll never do it again.”

Dallas hopes to avenge last week’s loss on Sunday as they travel to take on Washington at 1 p.m.

And speaking of Washington, they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers last night on Monday Night Football, 38-16. Antonio Brown scored two touchdowns and racked up over 100 receiving yards when he was being covered by Bashaud Breeland. But he was shut out on two targets when he was being covered by Josh Norman.

Rich Tandler of CSN Mid-Atlantic pens that Norman defended the game plan for covering Brown.

But the game plan called for Norman to stay on the left side of the defense with Bashaud Breeland on the right side. It seemed like most of Brown’s big plays, including a 29-yard touchdown reception on fourth and one, came against Breeland.

“He’s a good corner and he got best by a great player today and some great passes that I don’t know what corner could defend.” head coach Jay Gruden said of Breeland.

For his part, Norman was not about to question the game plan.

“No, man. Like I said, our faith is trusting coach [defensive coordinator Joe] Barry, [secondary] coach Perry Fewell,” said Norman when asked about shadowing Brown. “That’s why the guys brought me here. Faith in me to do my job and not question one thing in the game plan.”

While it may be easy to take shots at the defense, considering that the Steelers put up 38 points, a couple of things should be pointed out here. For one thing, defenses rarely have their cornerbacks change sides to put a particular player on a particular receiver. As Barry explained, doing that confuses the assignments of all of the other defensive backs in the game and can often create more problems than it solves.

Washington found out quickly that their expectations may not be a reality, opines Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post.

Simply, you watched a good team with Super Bowl aspirations and clear understanding of itself pummel a developing squad still tinkering and perhaps wandering into a dangerous identity problem. The difference between the two teams was as dramatic as the situational stats show. The Steelers converted 9 of 14 third-down chances and both of their fourth-down attempts, including a ridiculous 29-yard touchdown pass from [Ben] Roethlisberger to Brown on fourth and one in the second quarter. Brown caught the pass between free safety DeAngelo Hall and cornerback Bashaud Breeland, one of many difficult moments for Breeland against him.

The loss isn’t as troubling as the way in which Washington lost, the fact that the team’s most curious offseason decisions manifested as glaring weaknesses in this game. General Manager Scot McCloughan strayed from making moves to add talent to the defensive line and give the run game a significant boost, opting instead to upgrade other areas. Washington made cornerback Josh Norman the highest-paid player at his position, and while he played fine against Pittsburgh, the defense still allowed 435 yards. It drafted wide receiver Josh Doctson, who plays a position of strength on this roster, in the first round. Then it took linebacker-safety Su’a Cravens in the second round and cornerback Kendall Fuller in the third. It’s premature to say the strategy was wrong, but as Washington began this 16-game trek, it played like a soft football team.

Just a year ago, Washington was obsessed with getting better up front. McCloughan brought in stopgap defensive veterans to ensure the team was more physical. He drafted guard Brandon Scherff fifth overall and dismissed critics who thought that was too high, partly because he knew the team needed a major injection of toughness. Gruden and the entire franchise preached the need to establish a physical style upfront.

Now it seems as if Washington is morphing into something else. Something softer. Yes, the team made the playoffs last season on the back of a potent passing game. But it’s foolish to think that style is sustainable, especially because the team didn’t beat a winning opponent with it.

Washington will try to avoid going 0-2 on Sunday as they host the Cowboys.