EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When Steve Spagnuolo started working on the New York Giants’ defensive game plan for the season opener against the Cowboys roughly three weeks ago, his expectation was that Dallas would have running back Ezekiel Elliott.
While Elliott was facing a six-game suspension over a domestic violence case, planning to face the NFL’s leading rusher was the obvious thing to do and it didn’t require much more work.
Stopping the run is stopping the run in the NFL. The line that wins the battle up front determines whether the run will be successful.
If Spagnuolo had to plan to face a different quarterback or a new wide receiver, the game plan might have required more work.
“We’re just worried about what we’re doing here and that’s a good offense we’re going to face,” Spagnuolo said. “So, that’s how we’re going to treat it.”
The Giants won both regular-season games against the Cowboys last season and gave up only one touchdown in each game.
Elliott ran for 51 yards and a touchdown in the Giants’ 20-19 win in the season opener and he had 107 yards rushing in New York’s 10-7 win in December.
“There are some really good backs, but he obviously proved last year that he makes an offense go,” Spagnuolo said of Elliott. “I know they have a really good offensive line, but he’s able to do all the things you want a great back to do.
“He has great vision. He can run inside. He bounces it outside. He turns the corner and it’s scary and he runs with power. I mean, he’s not an easy back to take down. He’s become a good pass receiver, too, so we have to worry about that.”
The Giants’ defense carried the team to an 11-5 record last season and their first playoff berth since the 2011 season.
Most of the unit is back. Either rookie Dalvin Tomlinson or Jay Bromley will replace Johnathan Hankins at tackle, while second-year linebacker B.J. Goodson is starting in the middle this season.
Tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison, who played a major part in shoring the run defense last season, thinks the defense, which is led by safety Landon Collins and ends Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul, will be even better this season.
“Just the way they work,” Harrison said of the unit. “When nobody’s watching, when the camera’s not here, when the coach is not watching. I was here with Jay Bromley. I’ve seen Robert Thomas working, I’ve seen Landon working. And that right there, that’s all you need to know about a guy — how hard he works when the cameras aren’t there.”
Weakside linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who captained the defense last season, doesn’t care what people are saying about his unit. He knows Sunday night will be a fight.
“I mean, we beat them twice,” Casillas said of the Cowboys. “I don’t really have to say we’re that good. I think if you just look at the record from last year and it’s like, ‘OK, we beat them twice,’ and they were a high-powered offense.”
Spagnuolo is sure the Cowboys will have some new wrinkles this season, but he also has a defense in which many of his players are entering their third seasons.
“I expect them to think as if they were in graduate school with the scheme,” he said. “I believe that they think that way — allows you to do a little bit more. It put the pressure on all of us to make sure we get it right. There’s no margin for error now. We’re getting ready to play an NFC East team and the NFC East champions.”
NOTES: LB Keenan Robinson remains in the concussion protocol. … This will be the first time the Giants have opened with a rookie kicker (Aldrick Rosas) with no prior regular-season experience since 2002, when Matt Bryant made 26 of 32 field-goal attempts and scored 108 points. … This marks the third straight year the Giants have opened on the road against the same team. The previous time was 1949-51 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.