DALLAS – Odell Beckham Jr.’s health is the biggest storyline heading into Sunday night’s showdown with the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. But whether Beckham (questionable, left ankle sprain) plays or not, the Giants’ defense is the primary reason this could be a special season for Ben McAdoo’s team.
That’s why our five key observations heading into Sunday night’s season opener center on the Giants’ most dominant unit: the big, bad, Big Blue D.
HOW GOOD CAN GOODSON BE?
Giants coaches have hyped up middle linebacker B.J. Goodson, 24, more than any other player this preseason. The second-year, fourth-round draft pick in 2016 out of Clemson had a strong camp, but it’s hard to gauge how much of the praise comes from the organization’s hopes for Goodson versus what they know to be true. On Thursday, Goodson told the Daily News he welcomes the pressure of those high expectations.
“It takes a lot of accountability to be in this position,” Goodson said. “And the guys around me help make the job easier. I’m calling the shots, but they make me comfortable doing it.”
Still, how did Goodson go from being a fringe special teams player as a rookie to suddenly being a budding star? Has that much changed since last fall other than opportunity? And if not, why wasn’t Goodson getting more snaps last year?
“No. Everything’s the same as last year,” Goodson said of his ability. “Opportunity (is the main difference), and also last year helped, learning from guys with experience on the roster.”
On the Dallas side, don’t sleep on linebacker Jaylon Smith, a 2016 second-round pick out of Notre Dame who missed all of last season due to a knee injury but could be an under-the-radar X-factor for the ‘Boys.
SPAGS’ EMPHASIS: KEEP JPP AND OV HEALTHY
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo agreed Thursday that Jason Pierre-Paul looks the best he’s seen since he returned to the Giants in 2015. But Spagnuolo qualified defensive ends JPP and Olivier Vernon: “We just have to keep them healthy. That’s the most important thing.” The 2016 defense was fierce (17.8 points per game allowed, 2nd in NFL), and the Giants as a team were light years healthier than they’d been in a long time. But Vernon played almost all of last season with a broken wrist and Pierre-Paul missed Weeks 14-17 and the playoff loss in Green Bay with a sports hernia.
The Giants need their elite pass rushers healthy. Spagnuolo therefore cited his players’ and defense’s number of snaps as a factor to monitor: Pierre-Paul and Vernon rarely came off the field last season, and a poor offense often gave the ball back to opponents quickly, while the Giants’ D also gave up a fair amount of yards (339.7, 10th in the NFL) on extended drives.
“We have to stay healthy. I think that’s really important,” Spagnuolo said. “You all made mention of it last year with the number of reps certain guys got. We have to try and not allow that to happen again this year. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. The best way to do that is make sure they don’t run 80 plays in a game. We have to keep it down a little bit.”
THE BROADWAY BULLY: THE LEADER WITHOUT THE ‘C’
Damon Harrison says he would never accept the captaincy if his teammates voted for him. He even tried to suggest a different nickname than “Snacks.” “I call myself a Broadway Bully,” Harrison said Thursday. “I bully bullies; I don’t bully other people. I’m not a leader. I’m not a captain.” He’s not fooling anyone, though: While veteran linebacker Jonathan Casillas is the deserving defensive captain for a second straight year, Harrison often speaks up and leads at key moments, too.
“Even though he might not talk much, what he does on the field makes him a leader,” Vernon told the News of Harrison. “And with Snacks, he speaks up when he has to. That’s the main thing.”
Harrison still seems to be feeling out how vocal he wants to be on social issues, though. While Harrison often is active on social media discussing controversial topics, he declined Thursday to discuss Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett’s recent experience of police brutality in Las Vegas.
“No comment, boss,” Harrison said. “I’m staying away from there. Dallas Cowboys this weekend. Let’s go. Let’s go Big Blue.”
REMEMBER: IT WASN’T JUST RABBIT
Top corner Janoris “Jackrabbit” Jenkins was primarily responsible for sending Cowboys top receiver Dez Bryant (two catches, 18 yards) down the Rabbit Hole in 2016 in the Giants’ two wins over Dallas. But it went overlooked how large a role Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played in blanking Dez in Week 1. DRC made two plays on Bryant in the end zone of last year’s opener in Arlington, Tex., forcing incompletions on two passes that both should have been touchdowns. DRC said Thursday he was covering Bryant occasionally simply because the Boys receiver had slid into the slot on those plays. I jokingly suggested Dallas was looking for a mismatch. “What?!” Rodgers-Cromartie said.
If you know DRC, his reaction was priceless.
Top depth corner Michael Hunter Jr. (West Monroe, La.), an undrafted rookie out of Indiana U. and Oklahoma State, hails from just four hours East of Dallas. So Hunter, 24, a second-year player who had a tremendous camp, was ecstatic this week that he will have close family in the stands, not to mention dozens more family and friends in town to support him. Both of Hunter’s games last season were primetime games (in Minnesota and Green Bay), so he’s used to the bright lights. He was cleared out of the concussion protocol heading into the week … Rookie quarterback Davis Webb (Prosper) and center Weston Richburg (Bushland) both hail from Texas, as does linebacker Keenan Robinson (Plano), who is out with a concussion.