The Cowboys’ matchup against the Chargers on Sunday should tell us everything we need to know. If Dallas can travel to Los Angeles as underdogs and convincingly win against a borderline elite team, we may have something. If the Cowboys find a way to lose another close game against a team they could have beat, then a season similar to 2018 might be in the cards.
Yes, it’s only week two, but eventually the Cowboys have to prove that they can win against a playoff-caliber team. Dallas will likely remain the division favorite regardless of the outcome this Sunday. But winning a title in a weak division and being legitimate contenders are entirely different notions. So, what should Cowboys fans expect on Sunday?
The Cowboys Offense
Kellen Moore may be the best coach the Cowboys have on staff. In week one, Moore designed the offense to “run through the air” with quick passes behind, or close to, the line of scrimmage.
Ezekiel Elliott is assuredly going to receive more than eleven carries in week two. However, they will most likely not come on first down. In terms of rushing EPA per play allowed on first down, the Chargers were the best by a wide margin.
However, the Chargers allowed 4.7 yards per carry, tied as the ninth-worst last week. The game plan needs to revolve around passing on early downs to set up short-yardage conversions. From there, Elliott needs to be trusted to gain the necessary yards. The Chargers can be dominated on the ground, but it is significantly more challenging to do so on early downs.
In a complete turnaround from last week, the game has to be won on the back of Elliott. The Chargers finished with the best Pro Football Focus coverage grade in week one, meaning that throwing it 58 times is likely not going to work against this defense.
It is time for the offensive line to prove they still have it. Kellen Moore will play to the strengths of the line, rushing the opposite direction of whoever the Cowboys decide to play at right tackle. However, behind Zack Martin’s return, the offensive line needs to provide Ezekiel Elliott room to run.
The game plan needs to revolve around passing on early downs, setting up Ezekiel Elliott to take advantage of the Chargers’ weak rush defense in short-yardage situations. In doing so, you will open up the play-action to make it easier for Prescott to throw against a significantly improved Los Angeles secondary.
The Cowboys Defense
Take a quick sigh of relief because the defense does not need to face Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin, and Mike Evans again. In fact, the Cowboys match up pretty well against the Chargers’ offense.
Of every cornerback that played more than 20% of snaps in week one, Trevon Diggs was one of two players that allowed a passer rating of zero. Assuming that completely shutting down Mike Evans wasn’t a fluke, the second-year corner should contain Kennan Allen.
Additionally, finishing as the seventh-best team in terms of rushing EPA per play allowed last week, the Cowboys’ defense will be able to limit Austin Ekeler on the ground. The Los Angeles rushing attack is not a daunting force, ending the 2020 season below average in terms of rushing yards per game.
However, Austin Ekeler’s pass-catching ability and Mike Williams’ explosiveness are cause for concern. Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown both finished in the bottom 20 of PFF’s coverage grades among the 101 cornerbacks that played in week one. With Mike Williams putting up eight receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown against the Football Team, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the Cowboys roster who will be able to cover him. With Diggs lining up against Allen, Mike Williams could be in for a big day.
While Ekeler can be contained on the ground, his pass-catching ability is a different story. Over the last two seasons, only Alvin Kamara has more receptions among running backs than Austin Ekeler. How the Cowboys decide to account for the running back in the passing game will be interesting to see. It will most likely have to be Keanu Neal proving he can shut down Ekeler when targeted.
This game rests on preventing Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler from becoming a factor in the passing game. With Dallas losing Demarcus Lawrence, Herbert will have more time to throw. If the Cowboys cannot step up in coverage, this will be another shootout.
The 2010 Chargers are a prime example of how special teams can significantly impact a team. Most Cowboys fans blame John Fassel’s squad for the loss in week one, and it is hard to argue differently.
The only team that won their season opener while allowing the opposing team to start past the 30-yard line on average was the Steelers. The Cowboys’ special teams cannot afford to make it easier for the Chargers to score by giving them a favorable starting field position.
Last week, Dallas was horrendous in both kickoff and punt coverage, not even to mention deciding to attempt a field goal from 60-yards out. Giving opponents excellent field position with a below-average defense is a recipe for failure.
Greg Zuerlein performed horribly last week, and not even because of the missed field goals. The best way to prevent a long kickoff return is to ensure there is no opportunity to return it in the first place. Three of Zuerlein’s seven kickoffs did not reach the end zone, which allowed the Buccaneers to rip off over 30 yards per return.
We will see if John Fassel addresses these mistakes, but if he does not, then the Cowboys will assuredly lose this game. Justin Herbert is already a quarterback that will take advantage of a short field.
Cowboys fans spent the entire offseason speculating about whether this team is good enough to make a playoff run. Well, here we go; this is the game to prove it. The Chargers are not Tampa Bay, and there will be no “moral victories” in a loss. The Cowboys return to action on Sunday, this time against an evenly matched opponent.
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 44.98%
Final Score: Los Angeles Chargers 28, Dallas Cowboys 27