The Cowboys last-second regular season win at the Chargers last year was a defining moment in their eventual NFC East winning season, narrowly avoiding an 0-2 start by beginning a six-game win streak. Saturday night’s preseason win hardly means the same, but the Cowboys still left SoFi Stadium with a lot of positives as week one rapidly approaches.
Winning 32-18 on two return touchdowns by KaVontae Turpin, the Cowboys showed off their depth at defensive line, running back, and in the secondary. How Dallas would fare at receiver and offensive line after losing multiple starters in free agency has been the question of the offseason, and these four exhibition quarters against the Chargers showed a real game plan.
Continuing to take the ball away on defense, setting up short fields and scoring with a physical run game, and making splash plays on special teams are all ways the Cowboys can overcome any inconsistencies on offense. All of this was on display against Los Angeles, as the Cowboys built on the work their starters did in joint practices against the Chargers.
Here are a few other immediate takeaways from the Cowboys first preseason road win since 2012.
- The Cowboys haven’t seen Micah Parsons yet this preseason, but the much bigger concern has been about the depth behind him at linebacker, particularly when Parsons is used to rush the passer. Saturday night showed the Cowboys not only have a plan here, but the potential for this front seven to be among the league’s best. Hybrid players like Israel Mukuamu and Markquese Bell have shown they can line up in the box and play the run, a role Dan Quinn will also have Jayron Kearse for in the regular season.
Mukuamu’s interception was his best play of the night, but on the play before he lined up on the second level with Luke Gifford and Jabril Cox. Both Gifford and Cox were blocked out of the play, as Mukuamu was the only one to get in the backfield and make a run stop. The Cowboys cornerbacks have also played more aggressively in man coverage when Mukuamu is the deep safety behind them. The Cowboys second year safety is showing the type of growth Dallas is counting on throughout the roster, and gives Quinn even more looks that opposing offenses haven’t seen.
- Quinton Bohanna is quickly taking a hold of the starting 1T position. The Cowboys brought back veteran Carlos Watkins and drafted John Ridgeway at this spot, but Bohanna has been the most disruptive through two preseason games. Playing with great pad level, Bohanna makes quick work of smaller guards to get in the backfield.
The Cowboys best run defense was their own offense at times last season, putting pressure on their opponent to pass and match their scoring. With a less experienced cast of receivers this season, the Cowboys defense needs to prove they can stop the run, and so far players like Bohanna have shown up here. Trysten Hill also had a strip-sack and fumble recovery, and has experience playing either DT spot. Quinn can use both Hill and Bohanna on all three downs, as well as Neville Gallimore and Osa Odighizuwa to make up a one of the deepest defensive lines Dallas has seen in a while.
- Jalen Tolbert’s near-touchdown on a play-action pass is another great example of the Cowboys using the preseason to work on their core concepts no matter who is in the game. Running back Malik Davis helped get the Cowboys into the red zone with more physical runs, mainly behind Tyler Smith, before his competition at RB3 Rico Dowdle scored from a yard out. The play before Dowdle’s touchdown was inches away from being a Cooper Rush to Jalen Tolbert score, but the third-round receiver only got one foot in with the other barely touching out of bounds.
Much like Dennis Houston’s big third-down conversion at the Broncos, the route concept and execution by Tolbert is something the Cowboys could go to plenty this season. Whether it’s CeeDee Lamb, Dalton Schultz, or Tolbert still getting this opportunity, the Cowboys want to use Dak Prescott’s mobility to create high percentage throws like this look in the back of the end zone. Overall, Tolbert had a much better game than his preseason debut, looking stronger at the catch point and coming back to the ball well to finish with two receptions and 25 yards.
- KaVontae Turpin’s speed has already been on full display at Cowboys training camp, but his kickoff return touchdown was a rare showing of the game-breaking speed Dallas now has in the return game. By the time Turpin hit the 30-yard line, he had the angle on the Chargers’ entire coverage team and blazed his way to the end zone. The Cowboys top special teams performers from last year were also reliable depth players on both offense and defense, and Turpin’s speed should fit in nicely as he finds a role in Kellen Moore’s offense - locking down his roster spot in dramatic fashion by scoring twice in the first half against L.A.
- It was impossible not to notice UDFA defensive end Mike Tafua in this game, a player some Cowboys fans may have never heard of following the Broncos game. Tafua did play 40% of the team’s snaps in that game though, and built on it with constant pressure against the Chargers’ QBs. Veteran Chase Daniel was frustrated by Tafua’s ability to knock down passes, while Tafua also showed off ideal speed and bend to get off blocks. This defensive line is a tough position group for undrafted players to make the team right now, but Tafua has the traits and position flex that Quinn can work with should Dallas find a way to keep him.
The Cowboys will leave the California sunshine on a positive note with this win against the Chargers, returning to The Star for a short turnaround to the final week of the preseason. Hosting the Seahawks on Friday night, the Cowboys still have plenty to correct over their last four exhibition quarters before playing the Bucs in primetime to start the season. For a team that needed to show they can find different ways to win though, the Cowboys certainly did that against the Chargers, with several position groups to feel great about their depth.