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Ten lessons learned from the Cowboys win over the Chargers

It’s not too early to gain some insight from the Cowboys win over the Chargers.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Chargers
Maybe Pollard deserves feeding more.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Nail-biter. Near must-win. Lucky break. Gutsy performance. All are terms that can be applied to the exciting, flawed victory the Dallas Cowboys had over the Los Angeles Chargers to climb to 1-1 and a tie for the early lead in the NFC East. Here are some things we can feel confident in saying about this one.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky rather than good

The Cowboys played their hearts out in this one. Still, the Chargers could so easily have won it. Twice in the second half they had touchdowns wiped out by penalties. The first led to Damontae Kazee’s interception in the end zone. The second forced them to settle for three rather than six. Those were two flags that definitely had a huge impact on the eventual outcome.

Outside of that, there were several other plays where the referees made calls that seemed to favor Dallas, including the sack awarded to Micah Parsons. And luck can be both some calls by the zebras that go in your favor, or the other team making a lot of errors to draw penalties. While the Cowboys had plenty of their own boneheaded plays, such as going for the block on the punt (which admittedly seemed to have a missed holding call by L.A.), they still came out ahead in penalties. Eight infractions for 76 yards is not good, but the Chargers’ 12 for 99 is worse.

We have certainly seen many games where we felt the vagaries of the game and the officiating went against Dallas. We will not feel at all bad for one where things fell the way of the Cowboys. It was in some ways an ugly win, but style points only count in the college ranks. In the NFL you take every win and don’t look back. Especially when there are no major injuries as seems to be the case this time.

Speaking of number 11

With DeMarcus Lawrence on injured reserve and Randy Gregory not cleared from the COVID protocols, there was understandable angst about what Dan Quinn would try to do to get some pressure on Justin Herbert. Shortly before the game, we learned that Micah Parsons would be playing the game as a pass rusher. And he was excellent. He notched that perhaps too quick sack call, but that was hardly all he did. He accumulated four QB hits, according to ESPN’s count, and was close to the quarterback on several other occasions. Despite switching primary roles only two games into his rookie season, he looked to be the best defender the team had on the field. Many were skeptical of using the twelfth pick of the draft on an off ball linebacker. I fully admit to being completely wrong to have even a scintilla of doubt about him.

Still, Herbert looks like the real deal

Let’s take a moment to offer a bit of praise for what looks to be one of the top quarterbacks in the league for a long time to come. He was absolutely on fire early in the game. He did have one pass picked off by Trevon Diggs on what was just a great play by the corner. But he strung together an astonishing 16 consecutive completions after that. He finished going 31 for 41 for 338 yards, a TD, and two INTs, but as mentioned he could easily have had a couple of more touchdowns if not for flags. He did cool off as the game went on. That could have been that his early excellence was unsustainable, or the Dallas defense finally figured him out a bit. But he is a name to watch in the future, and should get the Chargers into the thick of things in the AFC soon. Maybe even this year.

Now, for some unusual but deserved praise

Jaylon Smith was called on to play much more than he did in the first game with Parsons moving up to help the defensive line. He has taken some real slings and arrows from fans and media alike of late, but this was easily his best game in over a year. He finished as the leading tackler for the Cowboys with nine, and some of the plays were actually good. We want to see a bit more from him before we lose some of our doubts, but this was a good start.

Leighton Vander Esch also is coming off a pretty sketchy 2020, and he was perhaps even better as he was also called on to take many more reps this game than against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was the second leading tackler for the team with seven, including the first and fully legitimate sack of the game. He also notched a QB hit. With Keanu Neal also having a decent game, the linebacking situation looks a lot better than most hoped even if Parsons stays in a pass rushing role after the starting defensive ends come back. Given the way he performed, that may be the smart move. The work the LBs put in was very encouraging, and if they keep this up, the defense as a whole may start showing the improvement we all hoped for after Quinn was hired and Dallas invested so much in bringing in new talent on that side of the ball. Speaking of which...

Safety might no longer be a glaring weakness

We still have some concerns about cornerback outside of Diggs, but there were few if any plays where we saw the safeties fail the way we have seen so many times in the past. And that was without Donovan Wilson, who was held out of the game as he tries to recover from the injury in the first game. Kazee had the interception and a couple of tackles, free agent signing Jayron Kearse was all over the field and had three tackles, and training camp pickup Malik Hooker also came up with three tackles in his first action since his season ending injury in 2020. It has been a long time since this position group looked even adequate, and in this game it can certainly be argued that they may actually be rather good.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Cowboys running game

So many old school “analysts” bemoaned the lack of “balance” in the first game as they hardly even tried to run the ball. That is despite Dallas coming within just a play or two of knocking off the defending league champions who have one of the best run defenses anywhere. Faced with a much less intimidating defense, the running game came back with emphasis. They amassed 198 yards on the ground, led not by Ezekiel Elliott, but Tony Pollard with his 109 yards rushing. The explosive back also added 31 yards receiving to be the team’s leader in yards from scrimmage. Elliott by no means had a bad day with 71 yards on the ground and 26 via the air, but in this one game sample Pollard was clearly the more dynamic and effective back. Here’s hoping we see much more from him.

No La’el, no problem

Figuring out the pass rush was one of the two major concerns coming into the game. The other was the suspension of RT La’el Collins. Although Jerry Jones claimed early in the week that Terence Steele was the choice to fill in, later reports were that Ty Nsekhe was actually slated to get the start. That was abruptly changed when Nsekhe suffered a heat related issue in practice and had to be inactive. Steele was in fact the starter against the Chargers.

Not only did the offensive line open those holes for the runners, they only surrendered two sacks and four QB hits, the same number in both categories Dallas inflicted on Los Angeles. The concerns about Joey Bosa running rampant came to naught, as he only had three tackles, no sacks, and no QB hits. Things held up much better than anyone imagined. An underrated aspect of that was the return of All-World guard Zack Martin to the lineup. Many were crying for him to move out to tackle to counter Bosa, but his value in helping both Steele and center Tyler Biadasz in the game turned out to make keeping him at RG the correct decision. Give Joe Philbin and Kellen Moore credit for a far more successful fix to the O line issues than we saw in the admittedly far worse conditions last season.

Let’s here it for the backups

They weren’t all stars, but the many second stringers forced into bigger roles by the extensive Dallas injury list collectively did an admirable job. There were a few mistakes, but none of them were a real detriment. They certainly didn’t stop the Cowboys from notching their first win of the season. “Next man up” is a derided saying, but in this case, the next men up stood tall.

For now at least, we can let go of the Zuerlein worries

After his two missed field goals and one failed extra point, seeing him go out to attempt a 56-yard kick to win the game left most of us holding our breath. He boomed it right through the uprights for the win, and was the hero of the end of the game. The thought that he was not fully ready for Week 1 got some strong supporting evidence. Now we just need him to stay on track.

Dak didn’t have to carry the team on his shoulders

Prescott didn’t have to throw for 400 or even 300 yards. He didn’t have to lead the team to over 30 points to get the win. He just had to keep the team in things. Like Herbert, he was at his best in the first half, but when the team needed him to, he managed to get them just close enough for Zuerlein’s winning kick. He did have one bad interception, but in the end his team won. That is the only thing that matters. He still is key to the success of the team. It is just so very nice to realize he doesn’t have to do it all.

Now it’s on to the home opener at AT&T Stadium and the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football. The Cowboys have shown they can win, and we can cheer for the start of a winning streak as the schedule looks to be a lot easier for the next several weeks.

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