ARLINGTON, Tex. — Saquon Barkley spent most of the first half Sunday on the Giants’ sideline. He was not hurt or benched. To the contrary: On their second play from scrimmage, he surged through a hole, shook a Dallas defender and sprinted down the sideline for a 59-yard gain.
Barkley loitered away from the action because, as a running back, he does not play defense. Though perhaps he should have Sunday, when the Giants’ inability to cover, tackle or generate any semblance of a pass rush hastened a 35-17 loss at AT&T Stadium that exposed the chasm of roster talent separating them from the Cowboys.
The Giants closed the first half by allowing touchdowns — all Dak Prescott passes, all to different receivers — on three consecutive drives. The Giants opened the second half by allowing touchdowns — another Prescott pass, and an Ezekiel Elliott run — on consecutive drives. The lengths of those drives, in order, went for 75, 93, 83, 75 and 89 yards. The Cowboys’ dominance was embodied by Randall Cobb’s nasty stiff arm that dropped cornerback Antonio Hamilton in the second quarter.
The longer the Cowboys held the ball, and by extension the more points they scored, the longer Barkley — by far their most dynamic player — lingered on the sideline, his ability to alter the game diminishing by the minute.
As Barkley touched the ball only seven times in the first half, the Giants’ offense revolved around Eli Manning, who threw 19 of his 44 passes before halftime. He demonstrated a connection with tight end Evan Engram, who caught 11 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, but the Cowboys dared Manning to beat them. Facing a Dallas defense that returned all 11 starters from last season, Manning threw for 306 yards but oversaw an offense that managed just 3 points over a six-possession span.
Even though the Cowboys, like the Giants, counter this passing-oriented league by pegging their identity on their running attack, they have a diversified enough offense to compensate as their own all-galaxy running back, Elliott, eases his way back into game shape.
Elliott missed all of training camp and the preseason, holding out for the six-year contract that he eventually received last week. Meantime, Prescott had more time to work with what is the deepest, and best, offense of his four seasons in Dallas. As Elliott rushed 13 times for 53 yards Sunday, Prescott dissected the Giants for 405 yards, completing 25 of 32 passes.
The Giants, after going 5-11 last year, profess they will be better this season for various reasons. More comfort in Coach Pat Shurmur’s system. An improved offensive line. A tighter locker room.
All of that might become true — emphasis on might — and yet it cannot obscure that they traded away one of the league’s best receivers, Odell Beckham Jr., and also no longer have the star safety Landon Collins or the strong pass-rusher Olivier Vernon, both of whom the Giants maybe, just maybe, could have used.
On the Giants’ efficient opening drive, Barkley touched the ball four times, accounting for 72 of their 91 yards, and Manning capped it with a 1-yard scoring toss to Engram. The problem was the Giants had to give the ball back.
Under their new coordinator, Kellen Moore, the Cowboys deployed a creative offense, loaded with play-action and screens, that seemed to maximize their bounty of receiving options — and perplex the Giants.
On Prescott’s first touchdown, Blake Jarwin was so open down the middle that he had time to learn Sanskrit before catching the 28-yard pass. On Prescott’s second, tight end Jason Witten, who might have come out of retirement solely to torment the Giants twice a season, slipped free off the line. On Prescott’s third, Amari Cooper welcomed the rookie cornerback Deandre Baker to the league by catching a 21-yard fade.
Trailing by 21-7 at halftime, the Giants managed a field goal on their first possession. They did not score again until late in the fourth quarter, and by then, it did not matter.