Even in defeat, the Dallas Cowboys looked strong in the season-opener. That excitement, unfortunately, was not given room to breathe, with news of La’el Collins’ five-game suspension, Michael Gallup’s trip to the short-term IR, and Randy Gregory getting added to the COVID-19 list right as Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin was cleared to return. And now, worst of all, DeMarcus Lawrence broke his foot in practice Wednesday.
Suffice to say, many of the “feel-good vibes” Dallas might have been feeling following their last-second loss to the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers were quelled by such developments.
Making matters worse, this week’s opponent, the Los Angeles Chargers, looked good in their Week 1, 20-16 win against the Washington Football Team. The offense, in particular, appears stacked. Following a stellar rookie season, quarterback Justin Herbert picked up where he left off, throwing for more than 330 yards with an average of 10.9 an attempt. That’s more than two yards better than last season’s leader in yards per attempt, Aaron Rodgers.
Making life even easier for L.A. is a receiving corps spearheaded by Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, who, against a stout Washington defense, combined to haul in 17 of 21 targets for 182 yards, and a touchdown. They averaged 10.7 yards per catch.
Finally, but certainly not to be dismissed, you have a talented Chargers defense led by Joey Bosa. Washington may have lost Ryan Fitzpatrick after just six pass attempts on Sunday but they didn’t come unglued in his absence. Their struggle was sustaining drives, not hanging onto the ball.
So why should the Cowboys feel optimistic heading into another tough showdown in Week 2, especially shorthanded? Three reasons.
3. Ezekiel Elliott won’t have to be primarily deployed as an extra blocker
Washington actually found their greatest success running the ball against the Chargers Sunday, with Antonio Gibson rushing for 90 yards on 20 carries. That 4.5 YPC average may have been boosted a good deal by a 27-yard burst, leaving his other attempts averaging just 3.3 YPC, but Washington actually cobbled together more than 120 yards as a team, winning the rushing battle.
With Martin back and Elliott likely to see more use than he did against the Bucs, there’s reason to believe the offense can replace one playmaker, Gallup, with another in Elliott. It’s also unlikely Dallas plans to have Dak Prescott throw 58 times again. As such, the team will have to lean more on its run game, though not overwhelmingly. Zeke shouldn’t be logging 25+ carries, but it should be more than the 11 carries and 33 yards the game dictated for him in Week 1.
2. The Cowboys defense is improved, and good or not, L.A. is not Tampa Bay
The Cowboys defense forced four turnovers against Tampa Bay, a trend that dates back to the second half of the 2020 season. What’s more, the much-maligned run defense held the Bucs to just 52 yards on the ground, giving up an average of 3.7 yards an attempt. Not too shabby considering last year’s squad allowed a whopping five yards a carry.
The Chargers have a talented offense, and Herbert will likely have a big day. The question is whether you can limit that day a little bit. Against Washington, Herbert threw one touchdown and one pick. Allen is a surgical route-runner, but Dallas’s lockdown-corner-in-the-making, Trevon Diggs is no stranger to covering the upper-echelon of that particular skill thanks to his daily battles with Amari Cooper in practice. If he can hold his own and limit Allen’s impact, Dallas might be able to take the teeth out of the Charger offense.
1. Dallas has Dak Prescott and they don’t
While Dak Prescott may not attempt 58 passes again, the show he put on in his first game in over 11 months proved not only that he hasn’t missed a beat but he’s somehow better than ever.
In total, Dak has thrown for more than 400 yards in four of his last five starts. He is the only player in NFL history to do so. His accuracy at all levels has reached “elite” status, and the benefit of weapons like Cooper and CeeDee Lamb only makes him more dangerous.
Dak Prescott has now thrown for 400+ yards in four of his last five games.— Elias Sports Bureau (@EliasSports) September 10, 2021
He is the first player in #NFL history to accomplish that. #DallasCowboys
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports pic.twitter.com/VwrJF2higX
#Cowboys QB Dak Prescott in his last 16 games:— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) September 10, 2021
65.3% completion percentage
5,538 total yards
When targeting Lamb and Cooper against the Bucs, Prescott was 20 of 29 for 243 yards and three touchdowns. Considering Lamb overall had an up and down night, adding in three drops, including a deflection that resulted in Prescott’s lone pick on the night, that’s pretty remarkable efficiency.
Amari Cooper & CeeDee Lamb combined tonight:— PFF (@PFF) September 10, 2021
3 TDs pic.twitter.com/DK6RXr7bam
Not convinced yet? Dak was blitzed roughly 20 times by an aggressive, stacked defensive front and picked it apart to the tune of 13 of 22 passing for 188 yards and all three of his touchdowns. He also had the pick, but as we established, that was more the result of the deflection of Lamb’s hands than a poor decision or throw. In short, Prescott was brilliant.
Dak Prescott against the blitz in Week 1:— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) September 15, 2021
13 of 22 for 188 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. His time to throw was 2.39 seconds, second-quickest among all quarterbacks.
(via Zebra Technologies)
Not perfect, but brilliant.
Anytime you have that guy commanding your offense, you have a chance to win. Last season, as bad as the defense was, he kept the team competitive before going down with a season-ending injury. After all, it’s difficult to win when your defense gives up more than 35 points per game as they have over his past six starts.
This year, with a revamped defense that’s off to an opportunistic start, he should have the help he needs to lead Dallas back to the postseason, starting with a win in L.A. this Sunday.