Sometimes, you don’t have to look very far to find juicy storylines in the National Football League. The upcoming edition of Monday Night Football will be a great example of this, as the 3-2 Dallas Cowboys visit the 2-2 Los Angeles Chargers. Both teams have been up and down in the early going of this 2023 season, the home Chargers coming off a divisional win versus the Raiders, and Cowboys coming for an encore in primetime after losing 42-10 at the 49ers last Sunday night.
Quarterbacks are usually the center of attention in most matchups, but in this case how both Dallas and Los Angeles have supported their QBs is a hot topic. Justin Herbert now has former Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore as his play-caller, and the Chargers have scored 34 and 24 points respectively in losses to the Dolphins and Titans, two games settled by a combined five points that put L.A. in a 0-2 hole. A 28-24 win at the Vikings and a 24-17 win versus the Raiders has them well positioned to salvage the season if they can keep this momentum going against the Cowboys.
When it comes to support for Herbert, he’s completing a career high 71% of his passes in Moore’s offense with only one interception, and running back Austin Ekeler should return to the backfield on Monday.
The Chargers are also coming off a bye this week with an extra day of rest on Sunday. Over Moore’s time as Dallas’ OC, the Cowboys were 3-1 and averaging 29 points per game immediately following a bye.
On the other side of this coin, anything and everything related to the offensive identity of the Cowboys has been under fire all week. Managing just eight first downs against the 49ers, the Cowboys were hardly present in the stunning loss, conceding anything San Francisco wanted both on the ground and through the air. Meanwhile the 49ers defense forced four three-and-outs with three interceptions and a fumble recovery. It showed the Cowboys have a long way to go in proving they belong anywhere near the upper echelon of the league’s elite teams, and getting more out of Mike McCarthy’s offense has to be the first step starting as early as Monday night.
The same issues that Moore’s offense would face later in seasons - defenses scouted his tendencies and making adjustments - are rearing their head much earlier under McCarthy. The offense has route concepts that give Dak Prescott few answers in the passing game, and too many breakdowns in protection putting them behind the sticks. The Chargers defense ranks top five in getting off the field on third down and sacks, but are the second worst team behind the Broncos in average yards per target against. The Cowboys have work to do in finding their core concepts that can give Prescott consistent completions, but if they avoid disastrous turnovers the opportunities to open up the playbook downfield could be there.
The offense may also find confidence in the situation they found themselves in against these Chargers in 2021, although much has changed on both teams since then. Coming off a close loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs, the Cowboys traveled to the Chargers looking to avoid a 0-2 start. Greg Zuerlein’s field goal from 56 yards with no time remaining would give them the dramatic win that sparked a six-game winning streak and changed the tenor of the season. McCarthy got credited with Dallas’ first win against the Chargers since week one of 2005, but just as this 2023 team is looking to do, it was one fueled by Dan Quinn’s defense. Trevon Diggs and Damontae Kazee had interceptions, and the Cowboys held the Chargers to one touchdown on four red zone trips.
The balance between McCarthy’s offense and Quinn’s defense for this year’s Cowboys team is still very much a work in progress. Offseason comments about McCarthy wanting to run the ball more to rest the defense were walked back before a ball was ever kicked off, but the run game has still struggled when needed, and so too have the staples of the West Coast offense that should be seeing Prescott play much more efficiently. The Cowboys would welcome the 13 attempts for 109 yards and a score Tony Pollard had against the Chargers the last time these teams met, but he also had Ezekiel Elliott leading the way with 16 carries for 71 yards and another touchdown.
In the Chargers two losses this year, opposing quarterbacks have dropped back 69 times against them. In their more recent wins, this number is 89. Giving Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa (when healthy) an abundance of pass rush opportunities has not been a winning formula against the Chargers.
The time is now for the Cowboys offense to use their weapons in CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks, Michael Gallup, and Jalen Tolbert to put together a complete game. The Chargers are building confidence that they can win close games, and have more than enough options for Moore to dial up on offense to control the flow of this game. Sure, the Dallas defense doesn’t come into this game completely free of added pressure on the heels of 42 points allowed and three touchdowns to George Kittle, but keeping all of the Chargers weapons at bay all night is hardly realistic. Whether or not scheming against an offense many around The Star are intimately familiar with is an advantage or not is yet to be seen, and as it plays out in real time, Cowboys fans won’t be worrying about if the team wins a low-scoring slugfest or shootout of dynamic quarterbacks. The goal of the week is to lay the groundwork that this season can still lead to a deep playoff run, and going into the bye with a win in Los Angeles would be a solid (albeit small) step in this direction.
The Cowboys have the head coach that’s proven he can win with his back against the wall, going up against Brandon Staley for the Chargers - a coach still vying for long-term status in the league as they try and capitalize on Herbert’s rookie contract. While Staley has Moore currently taking a lot of pressure off his responsibilities for the offense, McCarthy has tethered his future with the Cowboys onto their success on this side of the ball, calling plays directly across from Moore this week. The pre- and post-game handshakes and hugs between familiar faces all across these teams will be no different than usual, but the stakes of this week six game for two playoff contenders trailing the mighty Chiefs and Eagles in their division are high.