We still didn’t see any starters when the Dallas Cowboys lined up against the Los Angeles Chargers in SoFi Stadium. What we did get were some huge plays by the Cowboys to jump out to a big lead that allowed them to cruise to their first win of the preseason, 32-18. It was a feel good game as it was basically out of reach by half. What was a bit of a problem was that some of the questions about the team just didn’t get much done in the way of finding answers.
By halftime of the game, some things were already emerging. The biggest and most obvious was the unexpected star of the game. KaVontae Turpin got the Cowboys their first lead of the game with a 98-yard kick return for a touchdown in the first quarter, then just to show it was no fluke, he added an 86-yard punt return score with just 52 seconds left in the first half. Both were textbook plays, with Turpin providing the elusiveness and speed and the rest of the special teamers giving him great blocking without drawing a flag. Dallas took a bit of a risk on Turpin, who sat out four years after college because of an off-field incident. He seems to have reformed himself and also taken the opportunity provided by his MVP stint in the XFL. The only one question was whether the dynamism he displayed in the spring league would translate to the NFL. Well, at least as far this preseason game, it absolutely did. Just for good measure, Turpin gained seven yards on an end around where the Chargers had the play diagnosed, but he just used his speed to get to the corner first and turn it into a nice game. It may be time to give Turpin the bubble wrap treatment, because what else does the team need to see from him? Indeed, for the second half, Turpin came out without shoulder pads.
The fact that neither score was called back by penalty was somewhat amazing, both because that happens all the time in the league, and because the Cowboys were hardly doing much better this game than last. In the first half, they were flagged six times for 42 yards, putting them on track to get a dozen for the game. That was somewhat better than they did in the first half last week, but hardly a success. The flags continue to be a headache with no real answer in sight. And things got off to a terrible start in the second half, with Braylon Jones drawing not one but two yellow hankies on the initial series of downs.
Those two flags were an additional hindrance for something that was being watched closely, the QB2 battle between Cooper Rush and Will Grier. Rush did not have the truly miserable performance he had against the Denver Broncos, but he was at best meh. He would only play into the early second quarter. Those flags and the special teams scores meant that there were just not many opportunities for him. He would finish his night going 3 of 6 for 32 yards. Will Grier would come in for the second series of quarter two, but he was also not afforded all that many opportunities. Dallas would finish the first half with 29 points and only 28 offensive plays. Grier was more solid than stellar into the second half, with one of his best plays being a nine-yard scramble on fourth-and-one to end the third quarter. He would then open the fourth quarter with the best pass of the night for the Cowboys, a 32-yard strike to Brandon Smith, who was the unexpected receiving leader for the night. He probably is the favorite to be QB2, but it is not a truly done deal at this point. Ben DiNucci would play most of the fourth, but remains an afterthought.
What was working early was the running game, with Rico Dowdle doing a decent Ezekiel Elliott impression in the sense of getting most of the carries. Some run stuffs on the way held his average gain per rush at 3.4, but he still was the leading rusher in the first half. Malik Davis only had four carries but was much better on average with 6.5 YPC. The backs did the bulk of the work on the two touchdown scoring drives in the first half, with Dowdle and Davis both reaching paydirt. The battle for the RB3 job looks very active, and the staff may have to think long and hard about whether they need to carry a fourth.
Unfortunately, the small number of opportunities also affected the receiver group. You can’t show what you can do unless the ball is being thrown to you, and it just wasn’t happening. Jalen Tolbert did have a couple of nice catches, and Jake Ferguson had the best catch and run of the night early when he caught a ball and then just trucked a defender for a 24-yard catch and run.
When so little is happening on offense, that means the defense is getting plenty of work. The defensive standout of the game was Israel Mukuamu. He had an interception, two pass breakups, and helped stop some running plays as well. His stock should be nicely up after this game. Another player who may have taken big strides in making the 53-man roster was Trysten Hill. His highlight play was a strip sack and fumble recovery to set up the fifteen-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half. That was hardly all for him as he also had some strong plays in run defense. It was more of mixed bag for cornerbacks Nahshon Wright, Kelvin Joseph, and DaRon Bland. They were all a bit up and down. Dante Fowler did help his case a bit with some good play early in the game.
With the kicker battle still very much to be determined, there still were not a lot of chances to evaluate them except for extra points and kickoffs. Lirim Hajrullahu did hit a 35-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, then followed it up with a squib kick that wound up pinning the Chargers back at their own seven. They did give Brett Maher a shot at a 61-yard attempt. He was dead on target but came up perhaps a yard short. It went down in the books as a miss, but really might help him.
Something that might have given the team some more information to work with but wasn’t obvious in the live watch was the offensive line, which was all backups if you don’t count Tyler Smith. Dallas only surrendered one sack and ran the ball well, which is a positive sign. But we will have to let the video grinders give us some more complete grades.
Still, you have to be happy with a late UDFA signing having a breakout game in only his second appearance in the league. Several players helped themselves, and no one really seemed to hurt their case. The coming cutdowns are not going to be easy, but having this team seem to come together in some noticeable ways may be just as valuable as any development.