ARLINGTON, Texas — With 58 seconds to go in the first half Sunday night in AT&T Stadium, Cowboys end DeMarcus Lawrence bullied past the Giants offensive line, sacked Eli Manning and hurriedly stumbled to his feet only to find Giants left tackle Nate Solder standing in his personal space. Lawrence instinctively put his hands in Solder’s chest and shoved the $62 million tackle out of the way so he could stretch his arms to the side and bathe in the roar of the near-capacity crowd.
“I make a sack, this is my zone,” Lawrence said afterward, outlining his space with his hands. “Don’t walk in my zone. That’s disrespectful.”
It was no more disrespectful than what the Cowboys (1-1) did to the Giants much of the evening, shoving them around with little significant resistance in a 20-13 victory that was not as close as the score might indicate.
While much of the weeklong attention was on whether Dallas QB Dak Prescott would meet the “challenge” of beating the Giants through the air — he answered on the third play from scrimmage when he found Tavon Austin downfield for a 64-yard touchdown — the spotlight likely should have been on New York’s inadequacies along the offensive line.
The unit was supposed to be improved from a year ago, when it struggled to create running lanes and protect Manning.
Solder left New England to sign a free-agent deal that, at the time, made him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league. Left guard Will Hernandez was drafted in the second round to provide toughness and attitude. Patrick Omameh was supposed to bring experience and leadership at guard. And Ereck Flowers, well, the thinking was that he would be less of a liability at right tackle than left.
So far, the plan has failed miserably. The offense has scored a total of two touchdowns through an 0-2 start, and Manning has been sacked eight times and hit on at least nine other occasions.
The larger takeaway is that the struggles up front are handcuffing one of the leagueâs top running back-wideout groups.
Consider last night: Receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard were virtually invisible with an innocuous seven receptions for 75 yards combined; tight end Evan Engram picked up 40 of his 67 yards (and only score) after New York trailed 20-3 in the fourth quarter; and running back Saquon Barkley gained only 28 yards on 11 carries and, though he finished with 80 yards on 14 receptions, nearly all were checkdowns or flares on which he had to make someone miss to get upfield.
“Just not good enough,” Manning said. “We didn’t execute well enough.”
Adding injury to insult, center Jon Halapio sustained an injury to his lower right leg late in the third quarter and had to be carted off after the leg was placed in an air cast.
Predictably, coach Pat Shurmur was confronted with questions about whether Manning, a 15-year veteran, has confidence in his blockers.
“He’s a pro and he battled throughout the game,” he said. “I thought he did a good job. I do sense confidence, yes.”
While the game amplified concerns about the state of the Giants, it muted — at least for a week — criticisms of the Cowboys offense, which converted on only two of 11 third downs and managed just a fourth-quarter touchdown in a Week 1 loss at Carolina. Much of the focus centered on Prescott, who threw for fewer than 200 yards for the seventh time in his last nine games.
“Challenge accepted,” came the reply.
Prescott, now in his third season, opened the game in the shotgun and found Allen Hurns on a 9-yard slant route. Two plays later, he saw Austin beat press coverage off the line and hurled a pass deep down the left side for the 64-yard score, which ranks as the fourth-longest of his career. He came back on his second series and had chunk completions of 12, 19, 15 and 15 yards, as well.
“I kind of said ‘challenge accepted’ [to Collins’ comment], but I can tell that I wasn’t the only one that accepted it,” Prescott said. “This team accepted it. That offense accepted it. We wanted to go out there and show these guys.”
Prescott said he did not take the comment to be disrespectful: “You have to put it in somebody’s hands. …I don’t put as much thought into it as you guys do.”
He finished 16 of 25 passing for 160 yards and rushed seven times for 45 yards.
“He controlled the offense,” said Collins.
But what stood out was his ability to come up with plays when needed. Like early in the fourth quarter when Dallas wanted to make sure the game was put away. Leading 13-3, he directed a 14-play, 82-yard drive that featured two third-down conversions and a fourth-down conversion. He was 5-of-6 passing and rushed twice for 17 yards.
“It was important for us to go out there and get a touchdown and not just a field goal,” he said. “That was a huge drive — making big-time plays, receivers getting open, offensive line protecting.”
Manning likely looked on with great envy. The challenge before him and the Giants now appears larger than what Shurmur outlined in the preseason, when he told reporters: “We’re going to go as far as that line will block for us.”
Giants can only wonder if those words will be written on the tombstone for the 2018 season.