This week’s Monday Night Football matchup will represent several firsts: the Cowboys’ first divisional game of the year, their first road game of the year, and they’ll face a Giants team looking to start out 3-0 for the first time since 2009.
It’s no secret the Giants have fallen on hard times lately; their three division rivals have all won the NFC East at least three times each since New York’s last such distinction. But with a completely new regime in their first year in Big Blue - general manager Joe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll both came over from the Buffalo Bills - they’re undefeated through two games.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, are not. They got manhandled by the Buccaneers and lost Dak Prescott, along with several other starters, before pulling off an upset over the reigning AFC champion Bengals. That hasn’t stopped them from being a one-point underdog this week.
It’s fair to wonder, though, if the Giants are for real. They’re 2-0, but against opponents that are a combined 0-4 and are both underdogs this week. A closer look at the Giants, and the opponents they’ve faced, suggests that their record is actually quite misleading.
For starters, this Giants team ranks 18th in total DVOA, 18th in offensive DVOA, and 20th in defensive DVOA. The offense also ranks 21st in yards per play, 16th in points scored, 21st in EPA/play, and 25th in drive success, which measures how many of their downs result in either a first down or touchdown. Yet quarterback Daniel Jones, known for being a rather erratic passer, is currently eighth in the NFL in completion percentage over expectation (CPOE).
Eric Eager of Pro Football Focus shed some light on this strong start for Jones, which has helped the Giants prevail in each of their two games this year:
the #Giants have the lowest rate of contested targets this season— Eric Eager (@ericeager_) September 21, 2022
Kenny Golladay played two snaps Sunday
This prompted a little bit of research on my end. The Giants have thrown 49 passes that weren’t throwaways, and exactly three of them were contested passes. As Eric pointed out, that rate of 6.1% is the lowest in the NFL. Of those three contested targets, two of them were caught.
The Cowboys, as we know, play a lot of tight man coverage under Dan Quinn. So far, through two games, they’ve seen 59 targets and eight of those have been contested. That’s a contested catch rate of 13.6%, over double what the Giants have seen thus far. And on those eight contested targets, only three have been caught. In short, Dallas is creating contested targets more than twice as much as the Giants’ opponents have so far and forcing incompletions at a significantly higher rate.
Of course, the Cowboys also have a guy named Micah Parsons, who makes it easier on his secondary. That brings me to the second piece of evidence that suggests the 2-0 Giants are frauds. Parsons leads the NFL in pass rush win rate, sacks, and pressures; the Cowboys as a whole are fifth in pass rush win rate, third in sacks, and tied for 12th in pressures.
The Giants offensive line has struggled mightily in pass protection against two defenses that aren’t nearly at the level Dallas has shown through two games. They’re 18th in pass block win rate and Jones has been pressured at the highest rate in the NFL through two games. He’s also holding the ball at the second highest rate of any quarterback, which has made it easier for teams to pressure him.
The Cowboys won this past week in large part because they forced Joe Burrow to hold the ball long enough to get to him. This was a byproduct of a tenacious pass rush working in sync with a secondary that didn’t allow many uncontested catch opportunities. The Giants have been able to survive their poor pass protection thus far by having open receivers to throw to, but that’s not likely to happen against Dallas.
As for the Giants defense, it’s struggled against two middling offensive attacks thus far. The Cowboys didn’t set the league on fire last week either, but they did post a higher offensive EPA/play than both of the Giants’ opponents did in their games against New York. New defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has a pretty obvious gameplan: blitz, blitz, and then blitz some more. He must be counting his lucky stars that Dak Prescott, one of the best quarterbacks in the league against the blitz, isn’t suiting up this week.
But Martindale’s approach has yet to really click in New York. That’s okay, since he’s only two games into the new job, but it does bode well for the Cowboys. Only the Cardinals and Broncos have blitzed at a higher rate so far this season than Martindale’s Giants, but they rank 11th in pressure rate. That’s not terrible, but it pales in comparison to the pressure rates of their fellow blitz happy teams; the Cardinals are third in pressure rate, while the Broncos are seventh. New York also ranks 29th in pass rush win rate, further hammering home how underwhelming this pass rush has been.
This game is setting up to be a lot like the one the Cowboys just won. Their defense should live in the backfield again against a leaky offensive line and a quarterback with a flawed internal clock. But it’ll come down to Cooper Rush and the offense to execute well enough to score points. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard should be able to run against a defense that’s 22nd in run defense DVOA and has given up most of their yards on outside runs, which this offense specializes in.
If Rush can have a repeat of his performance a week ago - or, ideally, improve upon it - then the Cowboys should be in a good position to pull off yet another upset win and improve Rush’s career record as a starter to 3-0. Everything the Giants have put on tape (and the stat sheet) thus far suggest they’re not the better team in this one, but they also weren’t supposed to be 0-2. Regardless of how this one ends, it’ll tell us a lot about both of these teams.