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Cowboys 40, Giants 0: 4 things we learned

It’s not 2022 anymore

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Any NFL season opener is of intense interest because of the hopes that offseason changes bring for a better season to come. In 2022 New York Giants fans eagerly awaited the dawn of the Brian Daboll era. An unexpected victory in their opening game set the tone for the entire season.

This year the expectations are higher, but they cannot be met unless the Giants can confront their remaining demons. The schedule makers complied by bringing the hated Dallas Cowboys, winners of 11 of their past 12 meetings with the Giants, to Met Life in Week 1. Would the Giants exorcise this particular demon and signal to their fans that they were ready to take the next step? Or would this be the beginning of the “regression” predicted by many pundits for a team that overachieved in 2022?

Last season, although the Cowboys won both meetings with the Giants, the Giants put up a good fight in both games. That was not the case last night as the Giants were dominated on both sides of the ball all game in what was arguably their worst performance since the final games of the Joe Judge era. Let’s see what we learned from the Giants’ opening night debacle.

The offensive line problems continue

We’ve said on these pages - more than once - that the Giants need to solidify their offensive line play in order to take the next step as a contender. On Sunday night, the line looked as bad as it has at any time since Brian Daboll became head coach. The Giants opened the game with a nice drive that got them into scoring position. Saquon Barkley had several nice rushes including one up the middle behind rookie center John Michael Schmitz. Jones was rolling out for good gains, using Dallas’ aggressiveness against them.

Then a bad snap by Schmitz on third down forced the Giants to settle for a field goal attempt. Another bad snap led to the field goal being blocked and returned for a touchdown by Dallas, and things spiraled out of control from there.

Even on that first drive, Daniel Jones was facing pressure on most dropbacks. From there on, though, the floodgates opened. Jones routinely had no time to throw. His first completion to a wide receiver was a short gain to Darius Slayton with six minutes left in the third quarter. Evan Neal, who worked hard over the winter to improve upon his disastrous rookie season, looked just as bad in game one. He repeatedly gave up pressures, several leading to sacks, either alone or in combination with his partner in crime, right guard Mark Glowinski, who was also a sieve. Left guard Ben Bredeson was almost as bad, John Michael Schmitz did not play a clean game, and even stalwart Andrew Thomas suffered a leg injury that limited his effectiveness, including a holding penalty.

The Giants were simply unable to even try to run their offense after a while, things were that bad. We never even got a chance to see how the Daboll-Kafka offensive game plans would change with Darren Waller and a group of speedy wide receivers available to throw to.

In 2022 the Cowboys sacked Daniel Jones five times in their first meeting and three times the second time they played. Last night Jones was sacked seven times. To make matters worse, only two of those were by Dallas’ star pass rushers Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence. Osa Odighizuwa and Dorance Armstrong had two apiece, and Chauncey Gholston added one (it would have been two if not for a penalty). They are good players, but a good offensive line has to neutralize them.

The Cowboys have killed the Giants’ offensive line for years with stunts and twists, going all the way back to the Nate Solder - Will Hernandez days. They continue to flummox the Giants with stunts and twists.

The defensive line pulled one of its disappearing acts

The strength of the Giants’ defense is supposed to be its line. In 2022 there were games in which interior linemen Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams dominated opposing offenses (e.g., the Houston and Indianapolis victories). In other games, the Giants edge defenders, rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari got good pressure from the outside (e.g., Thibodeaux’s efforts in the second Dallas game and second Washington game).

In other games, though, the defensive line disappeared. Think about the two beatdowns by Philadelphia, in which the Giants put little pressure on Jalen Hurts, or the first loss to Dallas, in which backup Cooper Rush was able to operate from a clean pocket most of the time.

The defensive line is deeper this year, at least in the interior. The edge defender depth is suspect, though. Last night it staged one of its disappearing acts, getting little pressure on Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott despite his offensive line missing starter Tyler Smith. Dallas guard Zack Martin almost completely neutralized Dexter Lawrence. Wink Martindale’s defense is designed to fool opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks by disguising rushers and creating free paths to the quarterback. Dallas’ offensive line did not seem confused.

The line was stout against the run in the first half, but by the third quarter Tony Pollard was slicing through for big gains and scoring untouched around right end. At the next level of the defense, the name of newly acquired linebacker Bobby Okereke was rarely heard. The one time he was noticed, he overran Pollard as he cut back inside for a touchdown.

OL dominated by opponent DL + DL dominated by opponent OL = rout.

The kids aren’t yet alright

For the most part the Giants’ much touted rookie class played poorly. Deonte Banks had a nice breakup of a pass to Dallas tight end Jake Ferguson in the end zone when the game was still up for grabs but also had an illegal contact penalty. Jordon Riley had one nice tackle for loss on a run early in the game.

But Schmitz had two consecutive poor snaps in the rain on the opening drive when the game’s momentum turned and did not shine in pass protection. Unsurprisingly, Dallas picked on rookie cornerback Tre Hawkins III all night. He gave up several completions, and more importantly was called for a 37-yard pass interference penalty while defending Brandin Cooks early in the second quarter, when there was still some hope that the Giants might turn things around. Jalin Hyatt dropped the only pass thrown to him.

Of course the 2022 draft class didn’t provide a very good example for them. Neal as described already was awful, and Kayvon Thibodeaux was invisible. It’s not surprising when your rookies do not distinguish themselves in their first game. Of greater concern is that no one from the 2020, 2021, or 2022 draft classes played well tonight either.

On the bright side, Eric Gray did not fumble any punts. On a night when the Giants’ offense fumbled three times (really four if we include the play on which Saquon Barkley got hit on a pass reception and lost the ball, which was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Dallas), that’s an accomplishment.

Are the Giants better in 2023?

That was the question asked repeatedly of Daboll and GM Joe Schoen in the leadup to this game. Schoen consistently answered, “We’ll see.” Well, they saw. It wasn’t pretty.

Statistically, the Dallas offense didn’t dominate. Dak Prescott had only 143 yards passing with no touchdowns, and the Dallas running backs had only 122 yards rushing, much less than the 176 and 169 they had in their two meetings with the Giants last season.

Mentally, though, the Giants clearly seemed unprepared, and Brian Daboll and his staff have to look in the mirror and ask themselves why. The weather conditions were horrible, but they were the same for both teams, yet only the Giants coughed the ball up on a regular basis. The Giants seemed to be intimidated, right from the start. They didn’t attack on offense, even on the opening drive, and the defense, especially up front, was passive. Did the players interpret the conservative game plan as a signal that their coaches don’t believe they are good enough to compete with the best teams?

On paper the 2023 Giants are clearly better than last year’s team. For two games in a row, though, they have been routed by division opponents. Fortunately, this game counts as only one in the loss column, although if Roger Goodell reviewed the tape and decided to assign two losses to the Giants he’d be justified. Win next week in Arizona and they’ll be .500.