The New York Giants begin their 2023 season by facing a familiar foe, albeit one they’ve struggled against. The Dallas Cowboys beat the Giants 23-16 and 28-20 in the two 2022 matchups, the first of which was quarterbacked for Dallas by Cooper Rush. If the Giants want to establish their legitimacy in the NFC East, the first order of business is to beat the team directly ahead of them, the Cowboys.
The Cowboys are favored by three points at MetLife Stadium, which is fair considering the 2022 results between the teams. According to ESPN’s power rankings, Dallas has a 55.3% chance of winning.
What can we expect from Dallas when they have the football?
Here were the Cowboys’ offensive statistics and ranks in 2022.
- Points per game: 26.8 (4th)
- Yards per game: 354.8 (10th)
- Passing yards per game: 223.1 (13th)
- Rushing yards per game: 131.7 (9th)
- Total offense DVOA: 2.85% (15th)
- Pass offense DVOA: 12.80% (13th)
- Rush offense DVOA: 1.13% (10th)
- EPA per offensive play: 0.0120 (11th)
Most of the numbers show the Cowboys somewhere around the 10th-to-12th-most efficient offense in the NFL. They managed to score so many points in part because they had 23 drives that started in opponent territory, tied for the third-most in the NFL, and they also had three defensive touchdowns.
Dallas had some mixed signals offensively. Dak Prescott threw 15 interceptions at a 3.8% rate, the worst mark in the NFL. At the same time, he ranked fourth in passing success rate at 51.7%, per Pro Football Reference. His 5.8% touchdown rate was fifth, and his 4.8% sack rate was fifth-lowest. Looking at Prescott’s overall numbers, it seems that he had a boom-or-bust season.
Without Ezekiel Elliott, it will be interesting to see how the Cowboys’ running game shapes up. Tony Pollard ranked third among 41 running backs (min. 100 rushing attempts) with 5.2 yards per attempt, and his 3.82 yards after contact per attempt and 8.81% explosive run rate were both top. His 0.0234 EPA per rush tied for sixth, and his 1.17 rush yards over expected (RYOE) per attempt ranked second.
Still, Pollard’s 43.7% breakaway yardage rate indicates that he was also somewhat boom-or-bust. Excluding his 31 rushes of 10+ yards, his other 162 rush attempts produced just 2.48 yards per attempt, which ranked third-last among running backs. His 40.4% success rate ranked 25th among running backs.
Dallas also has rookie Deuce Vaughn, though, whom they are very excited about. He’s been compared to a poor man’s Darren Sproles at 5-foot-5, 176 pounds. Still, Vaughn’s 4.32 Relative Athletic Score is nothing to write home about. He posted 13 carries for 64 yards and two touchdowns in the preseason, a 4.9 yards per carry average with 4.00 yards after contact per attempt.
The Cowboys’ receiving duo of CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks projects to be a nightmare for opposing defenses. Lamb broke out in 2022, posting 107 receptions for 1,359 yards and nine touchdowns. Still, he also had four interceptions thrown his way and was not always on the same page with Prescott. Michael Gallup, named a potential trade candidate this offseason, has struggled with injuries in recent years and posted just 424 receiving yards in 14 games last season.
Cooks, meanwhile, has had six 1,000-yard seasons out of his nine in the NFL, and his 2022 per-game averages would have yielded 914 yards over a full season. Still, Cooks is heading into his age-30 season and coming off an injury-riddled campaign.
At tight end, after losing Dalton Schultz in free agency, the Cowboys have Jake Ferguson, Peyton Hendershot, and rookie second-rounder Luke Schoonmaker. In 2022, Ferguson had 19 receptions for 174 yards (9.2 yards per reception) and two touchdowns, generating a 129.9 targeted passer rating. Hendershot had 11 catches for 103 yards and two scores. In the preseason, Schoonmaker had five receptions on five targets for 42 yards (8.8 per reception) and one score.
The Cowboys’ offensive line has long been known to be one of the best in the NFL. With Connor McGovern at guard in 2022, their run-blocking suffered a bit, ranking 13th in the NFL with a 63.4 snap-weighted grade. Their pass-blocking ranked 10th at 70.0. With McGovern gone to Buffalo and Tyron Smith back at left tackle, the Cowboys are switching stud 2022 first-round tackle Tyler Smith to guard. Still, the pass-blocking weak link is likely right tackle Terence Steele (63.7 pass-blocking grade, 54th out of 66 qualified tackles), who just signed a five-year, $86.8 million extension with the team.
Kellen Moore is out as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator, replaced as the play-caller by head coach Mike McCarthy. There is some irony here given that McCarthy was previously booted out of Green Bay after the 2018 season largely due to his stale play-calling. That being said, he did have a lot of success with prime Aaron Rodgers, so perhaps he can get Prescott to stop turning the ball over.
McCarthy plans to keep the offense largely the same (70%, per offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer) while incorporating aspects of his staple West Coast offense. The goal is to get the receivers on the same page with the quarterback and reduce Prescott’s 31.4% pressure rate, even though it was better than average, ranking 13th out of 33 passers.
Still, McCarthy claimed after the 2022 season that he wants to run the football to give his defense rest. This philosophy is misguided, as the Cowboys gained more first downs on series where they started with a first-down pass (81.1%, 1st in the NFL) than a run (68.6%, 24th), per Warren Sharp. Nevertheless, there’s a reason to expect Dallas to go more run-heavy.
The Cowboys were already a pretty run-heavy team in 2022, running 47% of the time when the game was still in doubt (20-80% win probability), the 10th-highest mark in the NFL. It’s hard to imagine them running more, but if their defense continues to stymie opponents, perhaps they will get their wish.
As a passing game play-caller, according to a Riot Report breakdown of McCarthy as a coaching candidate, “The issue with McCarthy’s offense in terms of... core plays is that [a] homogenized depth aspect is fairly widespread, often running a series of similar routes to attack zone with one compensatory man-beating route.” Later in the article, it continues, “One of the other things that should have become clear about McCarthy’s offense at this point is how much he relies on receivers to win their individual routes.”
Staleness and predictability were two of the main reasons McCarthy was let go. If he continues doing this in Dallas, while they can still be successful due to the talent on their offense, better defenses will be able to take advantage and force Prescott into mistakes.
Here were the most commonly used personnel alignments and ranks for the Cowboys in 2022. (The first number represents the number of running backs, and the second represents the number of tight ends.)
- 11: 61.6% (19th)
- 12: 22.7% (9th)
- 13: 7.0% (7th)
- 21: 2.6% (22nd)
- 6 OL: 2.3% (14th)
The Cowboys leaned toward multiple tight end sets more than the average NFL team. That means that not only will Ferguson likely take on an increased role, but Hendershot and/or Schoonmaker could also see a decent amount of playing time.
The Cowboys passed 60.6% of the time out of 11 personnel and ran 59.8% of the time out of 12 personnel. Ironically, though, they were more successful rushing the ball out of 11 personnel than 12, with 5.1 yards per attempt and a 46.7% rush success rate out of 11 compared to 4.0 yards per attempt and a 34.6% rush success rate out of 12.
Passing target depth
Here are Prescott’s 2022 splits in throwing to the different areas of the field, as well as his favorite routes to target.
Compared to the league average, Prescott’s strongest areas of the field were the deep left (92.6 PFF grade, +19.9), intermediate middle (85.8 grade, +6.3), and short left (75.6, +9.7). He had more below-average areas, though: the short right (46.8, -15.6), intermediate left (49.7, -14.8), and short middle (61.3, -12.2) were more than 10 points below average. Overall, Prescott threw 10.7% of his passes deep (24th), 23.9% intermediate (6th), 48.7% short (5th), and 11.9% behind the line of scrimmage (31st). Overall, he lived in the short-to-intermediate area of the field but wasn’t particularly successful in those areas.
As far as route tendencies, Prescott performed well on crossers, which he threw 12% of the time. He was less successful on hitches and slants, his other two most-targeted routes. Unsurprisingly, he struggled in the short area of the field, while he found more success in the intermediate middle.
Lamb was Prescott’s primary deep threat (26 targets), followed by Noah Brown (10). With Brown no longer on the team, Cooks (21 deep targets in 2022) will likely take his place.
Time to throw and pressure
Prescott’s 2.69 average time to throw ranked 14th out of 33 qualified passers (min. 225 dropbacks). Still, 58.1% of his dropbacks lasted longer than 2.5 seconds, tied for the 11th-highest mark in the NFL. While some of his success came when he hung onto the ball, including 15 touchdowns (7th), 6.9% big-time throw rate (10th), and 8.2 yards per attempt (T-11th), he also threw 12 interceptions on longer plays, the worst mark among passers.
Prescott had the luxury of holding onto the ball longer than other passers, as his 44% pressure rate on throws that took longer than 2.5 seconds was the seventh-lowest in the NFL. Still, sitting and processing for too long seemed to beget his biggest mistakes.
How should the Giants attack?
Stay disciplined in run gaps
If McCarthy wants to run the ball more, he’s going to use the Giants as his proof of concept. After all, New York’s defense ranked last in the NFL in run defense DVOA (12.05%) and 28th in both rush yards per game (146.3) and EPA per rush (0.0753) allowed. Overall, in the two matchups against the Giants in 2022, the Cowboys ran the ball 66 times for 348 yards (5.3 YPC), three touchdowns, and 0.0824 EPA per rush.
Elliott found success in both games against the Giants, two of only six 2022 games in which he averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry. He had 4.9 in the first game and 5.8 in the second. Pollard, on the other hand, had an excellent game against the Giants in Week 3 while struggling in Week 12; he had 8.1 YPC in the first matchup and just 3.3 in the second.
In Wink Martindale’s blitz-heavy defense, it is critical for defenders to maintain gap discipline. This often means holding back from penetrating quickly through a gap and maintaining leverage, especially for non-blitzing defenders. There were countless examples on film of Giants’ defenders overpursuing, taking on a block too high and losing leverage, and not setting a hard edge.
Looking at the sheer number of times that the middle linebacker was the culprit on a big run play, it’s apparent that Bobby Okereke (79.3 PFF run defense grade in 2022) can make a substantial difference. Still, Micah McFadden’s run defense left a lot to be desired (51.4 grade), as well, and that could still be an issue for the Giants.
With Elliott gone from Dallas, many expect Pollard to post monster numbers. Still, if the Giants can maintain gap integrity, they’ll be able to limit those explosive plays and force Pollard to grind out yards—something he was not particularly good at last year.
Get someone else on CeeDee Lamb
In the two 2022 matchups, CeeDee Lamb had 14 catches on 22 targets (63.6%) for 193 yards (13.8 yards per reception), one touchdown, and one targeted interception. Thirty-two of his 60 routes (53%) came from the slot. He caught four of eight contested targets, and he had 11 receiving first downs.
In Week 3, Lamb primarily beat Adoree’ Jackson, catching 6 of 7 targets for 57 yards and four first downs. In the second matchup, with Jackson out, Darnay Holmes and Nick McCloud got the privilege and struggled. Holmes yielded 3 of 5 receptions for 58 yards, while McCloud gave up 2 of 2 for 40 yards. All five of those receptions went for first downs.
It’s not that there weren’t other Cowboys pass-catchers who roasted the Giants. Michael Gallup and both tight ends got in on the action, too. But the Cowboys’ passing offense will run through Lamb, even with Cooks now in Dallas. Stopping him needs to be the first order of business. Keeping Holmes off the field as much as possible might be a good start.
Who can keep up with Lamb? That’s the million-dollar question for the Giants. Perhaps using a taller cornerback, like Tre’ Hawkins or Deonte Banks, will work better than matching up with the slighter Jackson, at least when Lamb is not in the slot. But either way, Holmes did not cut it last year and should be a no-go against Lamb.
Confuse Prescott and/or Lamb
As mentioned earlier, Prescott and Lamb were not always on the same page in reading the defense. I linked a YouTube video by Alex Rollins above showing why some of Prescott’s interceptions happened; I’ll link it again here. Rollins shows how Prescott and Lamb read coverage differently, causing miscommunication about how a route should be run and a resulting interception.
One thing Rollins points out is that these misreads came on plays where the defense either showed an exotic look or switched into a different coverage post-snap. It appears that Lamb was the one making the mistakes in reading middle of the field open vs. middle of the field closed looks. Therefore, if the Giants take a page out of the books of these defenses, they should continue to disguise their own coverage with ambiguous looks in a way that can cause further issues between Prescott and his favorite target.
Besides forcing Prescott into mistakes, though, there’s another reason to try to confuse him: to make him hold the ball longer. The Giants managed just six pressures (19.4%) and no sacks on Rush’s 31 drop backs in the first matchup, and Rush’s average release time was a very quick 2.30 seconds. They did much better in this area in the second game, pressuring Prescott on 20 of his 31 drop backs (64.5%) despite not recording a sack. It worked to a large extent, too: Prescott averaged 6.4 yards per attempt when under pressure and 12.7 when kept clean, and both of his interceptions came under pressure.
Keeping any quarterback thinking for an extra half-second helps the entire defense in multiple ways.
The Giants made matters worse in both games with some horrific tackling. They had 20 combined missed tackles in the two matchups, and many of them were consequential. Staying square and preventing overpursuit will be critical against Lamb, Pollard, Cooks, and the other Dallas weapons.
Don’t just contest - break up
In the two matchups, the Cowboys’ pass-catchers caught 10 of 15 contested targets (66.7%). The 2022 NFL average for receivers was 46.9%. While that only accounts for about three more receptions total, it’s still not a trivial point. Here are some of the contested targets that the Giants’ cornerbacks could not break up.
For a team that was already struggling in coverage, it was critical to break up the passes when they did have tight coverage. However, the Giants had just one pass breakup on Rush’s 31 attempts in the first matchup. They fared somewhat better against Prescott with three pass breakups, but they still allowed several contested catches in that game (plus one of the credited pass breakups looked like a receiver drop to me).
While the Giants also need to stop blowing coverages against the Cowboys (particularly the tight ends), actually breaking up contested targets will be important. Deonte Banks may be able to help in this area with his 6-foot, 197-pound frame and 42-inch vertical (97th percentile). Tre’ Hawkins, while more wiry (188 pounds), can still help with his 6-foot-2 frame and 37½-inch vertical.
Instead of having the likes of Jackson (5-foot-11, 185), Cor’Dale Flott (6-foot-1, 174), and Holmes (5-foot-10, 195), the Giants have more physically imposing cornerbacks who may be able to help them improve in this area.