The New York Giants expected to endure some frustrating moments after ruling out Odell Beckham Jr. for Sunday's NFC East tilt with the Dallas Cowboys.
After the G-men got drubbed, 19-3, on national television, it seems fair to say his absence was felt. It was left to others to make circus catches, notably the Cowboys' Cole Beasley.
New York managed just 13 first downs during the game -- nearly 10 fewer than Dallas -- while going a pedestrian 4 for 12 on third down and failing to covert their single appearance in the red zone into points. And while time of possession doesn't tell the full story of a game, the 8 1/2-minute gap between the two teams underscored the former's inability to keep its offense on the field.
Still, the Giants' problems extend beyond the scope of their star wideout's ankle sprain, suffered in the preseason.
The offense, a West Coast-derived scheme run by Green Bay Packers disciple Ben McAdoo, features a timing-based passing attack designed to put receivers in position to make significant gains after the catch. While deep shots remain a part of the plan, the intermediate passing game provides most of the offensive juice. All of which made New York's key offseason acquisitions -- All-Pro wide receiver Brandon Marshall and first-round tight end Evan Engram -- look like good fits.
However, that dynamic has rarely manifested for McAdoo's Giants regardless of personnel. While Beckham's ability to turn a quick slant pattern into a long touchdown has jumpstarted the offense in the past, no unit can live on those types of plays alone. McAdoo has tried to develop secondary receivers and a running game to take pressure off Beckham's overburdened shoulders, but nothing has yet provided the offense with the necessary balance. New York ranked 26th in scoring last season (19.4 points per game) and 22nd in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. When a big play or two never materialize, the Giants struggle to reach the end zone.
Sunday night proved no exception. Marshall failed to register a single reception while the Cowboys held Engram in check outside of a single 31-yard catch and run. Meanwhile, the Giants running backs produced just one rushing gain of more than three yards.
Giants fans trying to figure out how they can give their ankles to Odell Beckham Jr. pic.twitter.com/SMNYteLEiP- Jake Montgomery (@JakeM0NTGOMERY) September 11, 2017
But the team cannot expect to score among the league's elite until it resolves the longstanding issues in pass protection. General manager Jerry Reese used three top-50 picks into the offensive line, including first-rounders Ereck Flowers and Justin Pugh. Yet in the season opener, the Cowboys sacked Eli Manning three times and hit him in four other instances. Even some of his completions came with a defender in his face or draped over his back.
That volume of hits unsettles any quarterback, and it altered Manning's approach on Sunday. Rather than hold the ball an extra second to allow a deep route to develop, the Giants' signal-caller consistently opted for dump-off passes which stalled the offense. Manning averaged just 5.8 yards per attempt, more than a yard below his career average.
In all, these factors could derail an otherwise promising season for the Giants. The team made the playoffs last year largely on the back of its defense. That unit continues to look impressive in 2017 after holding Dak Prescott under 300 yards passing, Dez Bryant to just two catches for 43 yards and the Cowboys to only 19 points at AT&T Stadium. With B.J. Goodson and Eli Apple taking steps in their developments as they begin their second NFL seasons, New York could actually perform better defensively than it did a year ago.
The Giants defense can carry a mediocre offense, but it can't expect to overcome a bad one. Even when Beckham returns, every team facing New York will shade its coverage toward the All-Pro receiver to limit his impact. Furthermore, the injury that kept him on the shelf in Week 1 could flare up or cause other health problems, threatening his productivity. And with Manning in decline as he begins his 14th NFL season, the offensive efficiency could dip even further.
If the Giants don't resolve their issues on offense, they could soon fall behind in the highly competitive NFC East. They already trail the Cowboys, who possess superior offensive talent 00 with or without the potentially suspended Ezekiel Elliott -- and appear to have improved defensively. The Philadelphia Eagles have the defense to match New York and might have the quarterback position solved if Carson Wentz's 2017 debut provides any indication. Even Washington, which lost both of its top wideouts this offseason and cannot commit to Kirk Cousins, should put up more points this year.
One loss cannot define a season no matter how demoralizing, and the Giants have overcome more dire situations in their past. However, with significant longstanding offensive concerns and the cutthroat nature of the division, there is little margin for error.