The Giants have a cornerback issue, and Tony Romo knew it

Prince Amukamara. (nfl.com)
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The 2011 Giants had a weakness at the cornerback position named Aaron Ross. Quarterbacks threw in his direction in last year’s regular season to a 102.8 rating, well above the league average of 82.5.

Ross’ low point came against the same Dallas Cowboys, who defeated the Giants 24-17 last night: On a third down play in a late-season game in Dallas, on which a Cowboys first down would have clinched a Giants loss and meant elimination from the playoffs, Ross allowed receiver Miles Austin to streak down field with around five yards of separation.

It was an easy pitch-and-catch, a sure first down if not a sure touchdown. But for whatever reason--Was it the lights in Austin’s eyes? Was it Tony Romo's nerves?--the pass fell incomplete.

Everyone knows what happened in the subsequent minutes of that game, and games of that season. The 2011 Giants had plenty of problems, but when a team wins the Super Bowl, its weaknesses are papered over by insta-nostalgia.

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But 0-1 teams get treated differently. Those weaknesses invite panic. Ross is gone to free agency, but his cornerback spot opposite Corey Webster remains a problem (although Webster himself played very poorly last night, allowing multiple big completions including a 40-yard touchdown).

Welcome from the rarefied realm of champions, Giants fans, back to Earth. Back here, a team's problems aren’t subsumed as conflicts overcome in a narrative with a glorious ending. They’re living, breathing, exploitable issues that the Giants must iron out as best they can as they undertake the daunting task of defending their title.

ALL OF THIS IN TRAINING CAMP AND PRESEASON: PRESUMPTIVE starter Terrell Thomas reinjured his surgically not-quite-repaired ACL, and will miss his second straight season. The next presumptive starter, Prince Amukamara, got hurt, and his timetable for return is indefinite. Promising rookie Jayron Hosley got mildly hurt, and while he played last night, the injury slowed his progress, and he wasn’t ready for a starting job.

The proverbial Next Man Up was Michael Coe. Coe turns 29 this December, and entered last night’s game with two passes-defensed on his N.F.L. resume. Still, Tony Dungy, the NBC studio analyst who coached Coe in Indianapolis, reassured Giants fans about their fourth corner-turned starter:

“Michael is a smart guy, a son of a coach,” Dungy proclaimed soothingly. In an example of N.F.L. coverage’s often misguided obsession with “match-ups,” he added, “He’ll handle [Cowboys receiver] Miles Austin.”

Coe could have used some of that reassurance early on last night, because he played with the tentativeness of a guy whose goal is to not screw up too badly.

On consecutive third downs on the Cowboys’ second series, Coe played in soft coverage, consequently allowing completions to Kevin Ogletree on slants in front of him. One went for a deflating first down, and one went for a near-first down. It took a galvanizing stop by the Giants’ on fourth-and-inches to overcome Coe’s struggles, but the Cowboys had spotted a matchup they liked.

Perhaps they liked it too much, however: On their next series, in the second quarter, Romo, overeager to exploit the matchup, forced a pass into Ogletree despite good enough coverage by Coe and a double-team by linebacker Michael Boley. Boley intercepted it and then streaked down the sideline, giving the Giants’ offense the ball just 1 yard away from a score.

On his return, Boley was flanked by a cavalcade of blockers, including Coe. But Coe bypassed the chance to block Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith, who wound up dragging Boley down, and the ensuing failure of the Giants’ offense to score a touchdown marked the last, best chance they had to seize control of the game.

WITH NINE MINUTES LEFT IN THE SECOND quarter, Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray tried to bounce a run to the outside, but Coe kept him contained and made a nice tackle. Murray hadn’t done much to that point because of plays like this, but the Giants should have been so fortunate for the rest of the night: He finished with 131 yards on 20 carries.

On third-and-15 of that series, after one of the Cowboys’ 13 penalties last night that the Giants nonetheless failed to capitalize on, Romo eyed the Coe-Ogletree matchup again. Coe again had given a big cushion, forcing Ogletree to make the catch several yards before the first down marker. But the cushion was so big that Ogletree found himself one-on-one with Coe in the semi-open field, with Coe needing to make a difficult tackle to prevent a first down. He did, enabling the Giants to get the ball back, still up 3-0.

Like the Giants’ night to that point, Coe’s coverage wasn’t exactly good, but it was good enough.

LATE IN THE SECOND QUARTER, ON SECOND-AND-SHORT on the Cowboys’ next series, Jason Witten, he of the lacerated spleen and the horrifying but since-denied rumors of trying to sign a medical waiver to play despite doctors' orders, caught a short pass in the backfield, still behind the line of scrimmage. Coe read the play and aggressively closed on Witten for what looked like a tackle for a loss. But he allowed Witten to slip from his grasp, and what could have been a third down became a first down.

It was one of many such instances for the Giants: They were in position to make many plays to seize momentum, but they simply weren’t sharp enough.

Five plays later, after a 38-yard completion at Corey Webster’s expense, and a 5-yard slant at Coe’s expense moved them into position, the Cowboys scored a touchdown, and took a 7-3 lead into halftime.

On their next series to begin the third quarter, Romo exploited Webster for another touchdown. The Cowboys led 14-3.

CHARACTERISTICALLY, THE GIANTS' OFFENSE AWOKE FROM its stupor only when their backs were sufficiently against the wall. They answered the Cowboys’ touchdown with a touchdown of their own.

But now, with five minutes left in the third quarter, the Giants’ run defense was springing a leak--DeMarco Murray broke off a 48-yard-run thanks to poor tackling--and the Giants’ chances of stopping the Cowboys by conventional means appeared dim.

Eager to make an impact play on defense, the Giants sent Coe on a corner blitz. But he took too wide an angle and flew out of the play yards behind Romo, enabling the quarterback to step up and scramble for an easy first down. Where Coe had been overcautious early on, he was now overeager. Like the Giants, he struggled to find that happy medium in which success resides.

Three plays later, deep in Giants territory on third down, Romo went for the dagger, spotting an open Ogletree with Coe behind him in the back of the endzone. But Romo was under some duress, and his throw was a little short, and Coe’s imperfect coverage was nonetheless good enough for him to get a hand on the ball and keep his team in the game.

A Dallas field goal kept the score at a manageable 17-10. But the relief came with an ominous note: Coe’s hamstring had tightened up on that play. On the sideline, NBC cameras spotted Giants’ trainer Ronnie Barnes mouthing the word “hamstring” to Tom Coughlin.

“Awww, Jesus Christ!” Coughlin mouthed with signature disgust.

Coe was done for the night. He had not been awful, but he had not been much better than what one would expect from a fourth cornerback filling in as a starter against an excellent passing offense.

THE NEXT MAN UP, THE GIANTS' FIFTH CORNER, WAS JUSTIN Tryon. There were no encouraging words from anyone from NBC, just the acknowledgement that the Giants had become very thin at the position very quickly on a night when Romo was on top of his game.

On the Cowboys’ first possession of the fourth quarter, Romo went after Tryon. First it was Ogletree again, who happens to be a graduate of Holy Cross High School in Flushing, for 14-yard slant. (“We had trouble stopping the slant all night long, like we’ve never seen a slant before,” Coughlin said later.)

Then, in Giants territory, after yet more Cowboys penalties put them in a first-and-30, the fatal blow: A deep jump ball pitting Tryon against Miles Austin, the Giants’ fifth corner against the Cowboys’ most accomplished receiver.

Austin won, and then trotted into the endzone for the clinching score.

Reinforcements are on the way: Amukamara is aiming to come back next week, and Hosley should position himself for more playing time. It won't be a moment too soon.