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Cowboys at Chargers: Week 2 Primer

So much has happened since the Cowboys’ last game, and none of it has been good.

Los Angeles Chargers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Remember a week ago, when the general sentiment surrounding the Cowboys was “Well, they lost, but it sure looks like Dallas has a team”? Those were the days.

In the week since the Cowboys’ narrow loss to the Buccaneers, they’ve lost La’el Collins to a blindside suspension, Michael Gallup to IR, Randy Gregory tested positive for COVID-19, Donovan Wilson reaggravated an injury he struggled with in training camp, and DeMarcus Lawrence broke his foot and is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks.

But, hey, Zack Martin is back, although he isn’t expected to play right tackle in Collins’ place. That is apparently going to Terence Steele, and Mike McCarthy didn’t seem happy about his owner spilling the beans on that one, but things are fine!

The Cowboys’ pass rush struggled to do much of anything against the Buccaneers last week with Lawrence and Gregory, and now it’s looking like they’ll have to roll with Tarell Basham, Dorance Armstrong, and Bradlee Anae against the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year in Justin Herbert. On top of that, Steele will be counted on to fend off Joey Bosa. None of this is ideal.

The good news for the Cowboys is the same as it was on Thursday night: Dak Prescott is back, and he looks great. In Week 1 against a stout run-stopping defensive front, Kellen Moore made the smart decision to more or less abandon the running game, which led to Prescott throwing the ball 58 times. He hit on 42 of those for 403 yards and three touchdowns, although most of those passes were quick dump off passes designed to mitigate the Buccaneers’ pass rush.

Expect a similar plan as far as Prescott’s average depth of target this week, especially with Bosa lining up against Steele. It should be noted that Steele showed signs of growth throughout last year and also put in work with well-renowned offensive line guru Duke Manyweather in the offseason. Still, Joey Bosa is Joey Bosa, so Moore is likely to scheme around him in a similar manner to what fans saw on Thursday night.

The good news is that the Cowboys should be able to give Ezekiel Elliott more carries this time around, so that Prescott isn’t dropping back every play. The Chargers’ defensive line - featuring a trio of Linval Joseph, Jerry Tillery, and Justin Jones - doesn’t quite hold a candle to the likes of Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh. And it may have been a small sample size last week, but all three of the Cowboys’ interior linemen ranked in the top ten in run block win rate at their positions. If Elliott and Tony Pollard can get going, Prescott won’t have to worry as much about Bosa bearing down on him, and that’s a plus.

Facing off against Herbert without their two best pass rushers isn’t going to be easy, and it will

be interesting to see what Dan Quinn schemes up without them available. It should be noted that Basham led the New York Jets in pressures last year (the Jets were sixth in pass rush win rate last year) and finished tenth in run stop win rate among all EDGE defenders. How that extrapolates over a full game’s worth of snaps, as opposed to the rotational role he had in New York, remains to be seen. But Quinn has some pieces to work with nonetheless.

The biggest challenge will be neutralizing Herbert, though. Last week against a fierce Washington pass rush, he averaged 2.6 seconds to throw the ball, whereas Tom Brady averaged 2.5 seconds to throw against Dallas. It’s likely that Dallas wouldn’t get to Herbert even if their two edge rushers were going to play on Sunday.

The good news is that Herbert wasn’t exactly lighting Washington up even with the quick trigger. The Chargers rank 20th in offense DVOA with a -4.9% figure, which is not good at all. Their passing offense ranks 22nd in pass DVOA, and Herbert individually ranked 20th in both DVOA and DYAR. The Chargers also had the second-most third down attempts last week, and while their 73.7% conversion rate leads the league, it’s concerning that they struggled so much on first and second down.

Additionally, looking at Herbert’s spectacular rookie year suggests that he’s actually at his best when he’s improvising. In a statistical rarity, Herbert led the NFL in EPA/play when facing pressure last year, but his EPA ranking fell to 21st when there was no pressure. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a bad quarterback as long as you don’t get in his face, and there’s no guarantee that such a trend would repeat this year. But Herbert is going into just his second game with new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, and it seems the two haven’t quite clicked just yet. That could end up going in the Cowboys’ favor.

The Cowboys have a daunting challenge ahead of them this week. Traveling to Los Angeles right after playing in Tampa Bay was already hard enough, but losing so many impact players complicates things further. And if the Cowboys lose this one, they’ll fall to 0-2 on the year; since 2007, only 12% of teams that start 0-2 go on to make the playoffs. The switch to a 17-game schedule might impact those odds but it doesn’t impact how important this game.

More importantly, Mike McCarthy has only started a season 0-2 once before in his career. That was his first year with the Packers, and the team finished 8-8. The Cowboys need to win this game, for both McCarthy’s sake and the team’s hopes at a successful season.