The Cowboys will have another preseason test against an opponent they faced in the regular season last year on Saturday night. Currently holding joint practices against the Chargers, the two teams will meet for their second-to-last exhibition in Los Angeles.
While preseason opponents are often treated as nameless and faceless opponents for players fighting for roster spots, it’s hard to ignore the recurring issues the Cowboys faced in last week’s loss at the Broncos. The same team that shut down the Cowboys offense at AT&T Stadium last year and started a season-long slide for them brought the same physicality that Mike McCarthy’s team couldn’t match in a preseason debut.
Memories of the Chargers game may be happier for the Cowboys and their staff, but they still face some of the same issues that came up in that early season come-from-behind win. It took a 56-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal as time expired for the Cowboys to avoid an 0-2 start after a loss at the Bucs in week one. The Cowboys will also open against the Bucs this year followed by a tough AFC opponent in the Bengals, but don’t have nearly the same reliability at kicker.
That game-winner ended up being Zuerlein’s longest kick of the season, and he would make just one other from fifty plus yards. The Cowboys intercepted Justin Herbert twice to stay in a game where they failed to score a touchdown after the first quarter.
From when that game was played until now is an eternity in NFL time, but it remains concerning that the Cowboys don’t have an answer for an even more unstable kicking situation, just one receiver with a career touchdown catch in CeeDee Lamb (who missed the first joint practice against the Chargers), and virtually no tackle depth behind Tyron Smith and Terence Steele.
If the Cowboys had such a hard time proving they’ve turned any kind of corner against the Broncos, the task gets harder against the Chargers. The Broncos game was simply a return to live action with an opponent other than themselves, and a chance to show an edge with attention to avoiding penalties.
Instead, the Cowboys led the league in penalties for preseason week one, and will now see how they measure against a team that gave them a major test in 2021. If the Cowboys are up for this test, they’ll have to show a better plan at kicker, wide receiver, and tackle - the same problem spots that have been noted all offseason. The Cowboys defense may also be able to get turnovers against the Chargers second and third teams, but their regression in this area is likely in the regular season.
While the final score won’t matter nearly as much as the development from young players like Simi Fehoko and Josh Ball, those meaningful games will be firmly in view when these four exhibition quarters are over.
Narrowly avoiding an 0-2 start was enough for the Cowboys to control the NFC East last year, though they limped into the playoffs with a first round exit vs. the 49ers. A three point win against the Chargers on the road is the type of game the Cowboys can’t bank on as much in 2022, though they’ll be tested out of the gate with the Bucs, Bengals, and Giants to open the season.
The pressure is firmly on Mike McCarthy and this staff to prepare the Cowboys for these games over the coming weeks, as they continue to practice against Saturday’s opponent in California.