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Cowboys stars put them back in the win column with gutsy 20-17 road effort at Chargers

The Cowboys pulled off a tough win on Monday night thanks to some great fourth quarter play.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys needed their stars to shine bright in their second straight primetime game in the state of California, coming off a humiliating 42-10 loss in Santa Clara to the 49ers. A true road game in a hostile environment, back at the same stadium Dallas ended their season in the playoffs the year prior, the Cowboys were outclassed in every way possible in week five. Week six proved to be a much different picture, as the team overcame penalties and special teams’ miscues to make the plays when it mattered and beat the Chargers 20-17. The Cowboys did so in front of plenty of their own fans who took to SoFi Stadium to see them get past a now 2-3 Chargers team that had won two straight coming in.

At the end of the season, it’s not so much about how a team wins, but how many, and the Cowboys saw the opportunity that unfolded on Sunday with the Eagles and 49ers both losing in road upsets. It took Dak Prescott making big plays with his feet and the arm, Tony Pollard bouncing off defenders on an ad-lib play for the team’s longest of the season, and savvy veteran Stephon Gilmore securing his second interception of the season to clinch the win.

Was it pretty most of the night? Absolutely not. Will the Cowboys face a lot of similar questions from a week ago about their offensive identity and discipline in avoiding penalties? Almost certainly. Is correcting any of these mistakes over their bye week with a 4-2 record better than doing so after consecutive losses, one that early on Monday night felt like it was in the works? Let the Cowboys sideline reaction to Gilmore’s game-ending pick answer that one, as we get to a Victory Tuesday edition of post-game observations.

  • The Cowboys pass rush did a good job of making Justin Herbert feel their presence, but with the names Dan Quinn has at his disposal up front, this is a group that expects to finish plays with sacks. Give former Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore some credit in the early going of this game as his plan to contain Micah Parsons resembled how other teams have attacked this defense early in the season, too. Running the ball right at him or throwing screens on the opposite side had success, with Austin Ekeler making his season debut and converting a 1st and 15 on the opening drive with a 28-yard screen. The play was one snap after DaRon Bland missed a tackle on a short pass that allowed Josh Palmer to race into the endzone, but the young CB was bailed out by an offensive penalty. The Cowboys would rally to force a third and goal try, but Jourdan Lewis couldn’t stick with Keenan Allen, as the home team drew first blood on his short touchdown.

This early drive success from Moore’s opening script didn’t deter the Cowboys from sticking to their concepts, with Quinn emphasizing all week that the message was to not let the 49ers game “beat them twice”. Where San Francisco presents a unique physical challenge to the defense, forcing Dallas to line up in more base looks to defend the power run, Los Angeles allowed them to stay in their man coverage looks and trust the pass rush to win matchups. Parsons did so on the second to last play of the game, bull-rushing the tackle to land in Herbert’s lap and finish the only sack Dallas would need on the night.

Bland recovered with a key pass breakup in the third quarter to give the Cowboys a fourth-down red zone stop, Gilmore capitalized on an Osa Odighizuwa pressure to end the game, and Donovan Wilson and Markquese Bell combined to give the Cowboys a new pairing behind the defensive line they can trust to defend both the run and pass.

Herbert’s 6.1 yards per attempt against the Cowboys was his lowest mark of the season by a full yard, as the Cowboys were also much tighter in their run assignments across the board. Odighizuwa and Jonathan Hankins set the tone on the interior, while Jayron Kearse, Bell, and Damone Clark played with range and anticipation to not concede the edge.

  • With his former play-caller watching on, Dak Prescott turned back the clock a bit to tie the game and show the Cowboys were up for a fight a week after putting up no fight against the 49ers. His 18-yard touchdown on a read option with Tony Pollard was Prescott’s first rushing score since week eight of 2022 versus the Bears. Prescott using his legs more has come up as a potential missing piece to the development of Mike McCarthy’s offense, and his receivers did their usual good job helping him on scramble drills in this game, but keeping the ball himself should remain in play. Pollard had gains of seven and five on the ground, and a screen pass for seven yards just prior to Prescott faking to him and scoring himself, showing at least an inkling of the play sequencing that can make this Texas Coast offense work.

Another encouraging sign was Brandin Cooks finally having his coming out game, catching all four of his targets for 36 yards and a touchdown. Hitting Cooks on the move was expected to be a staple of this offense, but WR1 CeeDee Lamb carried the load here as well as Pollard in key spots. Instead, Cooks took the all-important possession receiver role and won a jump ball on third and nine on the fourth quarter drive that led to the game-winning field goal. The Cowboys will have the bye week to think of new ways to incorporate Cooks’ speed into the offense, but also could shake things up further with Michael Gallup struggling to separate in this game while both Jalen Tolbert and Jalen Brooks saw the field. Tolbert’s special team mishap that led to the Chargers tying the game late may not help his case here, but the Cowboys saw glimpses of how important run after the catch in this offense is on Monday, and would be wise to find ways to maximize it starting in week eight versus the Rams.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
  • The Cowboys problems against the 49ers went well beyond just their stars and newly-acquired players not living up to expectations, but they couldn’t have picked a better time to bounce back with the type of game that should calm some of the pressure on a still-developing team. Dallas has been steadfast in their commitment to Mike McCarthy having the championship pedigree that can pay off here, and while he should be the first to admit there’s massive room for improvement in a lot of key areas (his own end of half clock management to not take a shot at the end zone included), a win where trade pieces Cooks and Gilmore both performed should allow him to do exactly this - answer questions in a more positive light while working to help this team take the next step. The Cowboys don’t stick their neck out and make trades like the ones that brought Cooks and Gilmore to Big D very often, so both of them having their fingerprints on a bounce-back win is a best case scenario for a game that otherwise left plenty to be desired in all three phases.

It was a week headlined with uncertainty around the NFL, where prior assumptions on almost all contending teams were challenged, but beating a QB like Justin Herbert off a bye is never easy. The Cowboys did this with a cohesive game plan and gutted out the type of win they only hope is the start of an extended streak.

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