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Giants at Cowboys: Plays that changed the game in 20-13 loss

Let’s examine the plays that had the biggest impact on Sunday’s loss

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys
Tavon Austin en route to a 64-yard first-quarter touchdown on Sunday.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Another week, another game where the New York Giants never really looked like they had a chance to win. The final score of the 20-13 loss to the Dallas Cowboys looks a lot friendlier than the Giants did on Sunday night. Still, we can take a look to see the plays and decisions that shaped the game through the lens of win probability and win probability added.

This week we’re also adding expected points added (EPA). If you’re new to EPA, I suggest this explainer from Brian Burke.

All WPA and EPA figures come from the perspective of the offense.

Tavon Austin’s touchdown

Win probability added (WPA): 17.2 percent | Expected points added EPA): 5.13

For the second week in a row, the Giants gave up a big pass play on their opponent’s first drive of the game. Last week it was a 31-yard pass to Keelan Cole that helped set up an eventual field goal. This week, it was a 64-yard touchdown pass to Tavon Austin. Austin blew past Janoris Jenkins, who stumbled in his back pedal, and was able to beat Curtis Riley, who took a bad angle over the top. The touchdown immediately gave the Cowboys a lead they wouldn’t give up and boosted their win probably to 70.8 percent not even two minutes into the game.

An early third down conversion

WPA: 6.2 percent | EPA: 1.89

On the Giants’ first drive of the game, they faced a third-and-4 from their own 31-yard line. Out of a trips bunch to the right side, the Giants ran a mesh variation (dueling crossing routes) with Odell Beckham from the outside position in the bunch and Evan Engram, who was inline on the left. Typically with a mesh concept, the offense wants to catch the defense in man, so the crossing routes can set a natural pick and spring one of those receivers free. However, the Cowboys sat back in zone here. Still, Beckham had enough separation in front of the zone defender and was able to work his way after the catch to a first down. This would let the Giants keep driving, but the drive ended with a fourth-and-1 punt from the 48 — a decision we’ll get to in just a bit. The Cowboys kicked a field goal on the next drive to take a 10-0 lead and the Giants had a 21 percent chance of winning the next time they touched the ball.

A pair of sneaks

WPA: 6.0 percent | EPA: 2.35
WPA: 6.1 percent | EPA: 2.14

After the Giants passed up going for it from their own 48 in the first quarter, they went for it on a fourth-and-1 from their own 35 early in the second quarter. An Eli Manning sneak converted, his first sneak attempt since 2010. A few plays later the Giants found themselves faced with another fourth and short — fourth-and-1 from their own 46. The Giants went for it again because if you’re going to go for it at your 35, you kind of have to go for it at the 46, where you should be going for it anyway. The Giants converted on another Manning sneak.

The two conversions added 12.1 percent win probably and 4.49 expected points. That’s why the Giants should have gone for it in the first quarter. Since 2016, there have been 111 4th and 1’s between the 45s. It’s been a 50-50 proposition to whether teams will punt or not (56 punts for 55 conversion attempts), but those who go for the first down often get it — 65.5 percent of those fourth-and-1 attempts were converted. The Giants had the chance to keep an early drive going, one that already saw them down a touchdown. These are the times when trying to gain the most should take precedent over not trying to lose. The Giants are also a team that just spent the second overall pick on a running back. If they were scared of not converting a fourth and short near midfield, there’s a flaw somewhere in that thought process. Maybe the two converted attempts later in the game will help with future decisions, but that is still to be determined.

Undone by sacks

Unfortunately those fourth down conversions were derailed by a sack, as were a few other Giants drives in this game. A trio of sacks in the second, third, and fourth quarters cost the Giants 9.91 expected points and 19.9 percent in win probability. Add in a sack that occurred early in the second quarter before the drive with the conversion attempts an it’s 12.23 expected points and 23.7 percent win probability. Manning was also sacked two other times.

Kavon Frazier - 7:35 remaining, second quarter

WPA: minus-4.7 percent | EPA: minus-1.67

The first sack of the big three came immediately after the second fourth down conversion. The Giants did exactly what you’d like to see in the given situation — play-action against a nine-man box. But even though Manning moved fullback Shane Smith to account for the blitzing defensive back, Kavon Frazier was still able to come nearly untouched to the quarterback.

Damien Wilson - 13:28 remaining, third quarter

WPA: minus-10.3 percent | EPA: minus-5.67

Early in the third quarter, a Damien Wilson sack of Manning was the second-biggest win probability swing of the night. The Giants had the ball at their own 40 for a 2nd and 10 when the Cowboys brought a blitz that created a free rusher. Wilson hit Manning and knocked the ball out for a fumble that was recovered by Taco Charlton. This knocked the Giants from an already unlikely 21.1 percent win probability to 10.8 percent.

This play was a blown blocking assignment from rookie left guard Will Hernandez. Hernandez was confused when the defensive tackle lined up over center Jon Halapio then moved to hit the gap against right guard Patrick Omameh. That left Halapio with a blitzing Jaylon Smith (54) who Hernandez tried to chip, which allowed Wilson to get free with Hernandez barely able to move from his stance stuck between the two defenders.

Tyrone Crawford - 15:00 remaining, fourth quarter

WPA: minus-4.93 percent | EPA: minus-2.57

A sack on the first play of the fourth quarter — third-and-9 from the Giants’ 37 — was a complete offensive line breakdown. Both Nate Solder and Ereck Flowers were beaten by inside moves on the edge, which caused initial pressure. The eventual sack, though, originated from the interior. Tyrone Crawford was a defensive tackle lined up over Omameh at right guard, but looped all the way around the left edge. Will Hernandez’s effort to get a hand on Crawford was futile and the defensive tackle was able to chase down Manning.

Barkley makes a play

WPA: 7.0 percent | EPA: 2.64

There was a chance for the Giants to get into the end zone in the middle of the third quarter. The offense was brought near the edge of the goal line by a big Saquon Barkley catch. The Giants were just outside the red zone facing a third-and-6 on the Dallas 21 with 7:07 left in the third quarter. A quick swing pass to Barkley with acceleration to blow past Jaylon Smith and a spin move to avoid Kavon Frazier, gained 18 yards and got the Giants down to the Dallas 3. Nate Solder was called for holding on the next play, which pushed the Giants back out to the 13. A 2-yard run, an incompletion, and 1-yard Manning scramble set up a field goal instead of a near certain touchdown following the Barkley catch.

Elliott finds a way

WPA: 2.5 percent | EPA: 3.14

The game was essentially iced when Ezekiel Elliott ran the ball for a 6-yard touchdown with 5:51 remaining in the game. The third-and-2 run featured a broken tackle at the first down line before Elliott was able to bounce in for the score. The manageable third down was set up by an 8-yard read option keeper from Dak Prescott as the read option continues to be a problem for the Giants defense — they face Deshaun Watson next week.

Engram in the end zone

WPA: 1.2 percent | EPA: 4.38

Week 2 was a much better week for Evan Engram. He caught all seven of his targets for 67 yards and a touchdown. He was still targeted on shallow routes often — his 3.8 aDOT is seventh-lowest among wide receivers and tight ends with at least five targets — but his 18-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter was a nice deep route from the inside slot in a 3x2 set that ended up wide open in the end zone. Engram’s score made it 20-10 with just under a minute and a half left.

Surprisingly, the Giants recovered the onside kick after the score with a chance to bring the game within one possession. Much was made about whether the Giants should have kicked the field goal early or gone for the touchdown and using the research by Brian Burke on the topic, it didn’t really matter by the time the Giants got into field goal range with around 30 seconds remaining. At that point, the win probability doesn’t shift much one way or the other and it becomes easier to score a touchdown the closer the team is to the end zone. The field goal or touchdown debate is something that has more importance earlier in the fourth quarter. By the time the Giants got the ball close enough to kick it, the odds of getting any kind of score, plus another onside kick and another score was already fairly slim.

Slim also describes the Giants’ odds for success throughout the rest of the season after an 0-2 start. Teams that start 0-2 average 5.7 wins for the season and just 10 percent of them make the playoffs.