Mood before Cowboys face the Chargers: Existential dread.— Tom Ryle, regular season Cowboys junkie (@TomRyleBTB) October 12, 2023
That was before the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets did the Cowboys a couple of solids on Sunday and we feared the best the team could be was two games out of the NFC lead, and could be a full three back if they dropped the Chargers game. Now, instead, they sit at 4-2, a crucial stat in itself, and are only looking up at the Detroit Lions, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the San Francisco 49ers, all 5-1. Not only did they get what was feeling far too much like a must-win game this early, they showed us some things we weren’t sure they had in them.
Thanks, we needed that.
Here are some other stats that are meaningful.
CeeDee Lamb went off, catching all seven of the balls thrown his way for 117 yards. The connection between him and Dak Prescott was dialed in, and he was the offensive star of the game. With an average of 16.7 yards per catch, he was also instrumental in moving the sticks. As a matter of fact, every single catch he made resulted in a first down. That seems good.
Michael Gallup struggles
Total for all other WRs: 20 targets, 18 receptions, 248 yards, 1 TD
Gallup: 10 targets, 3 receptions, 24 yards
One of these things, as they say, is not like the others. There was a lot of hope that Gallup would finally be back to his pre-injury form this season, but so far, the evidence says otherwise. What is really mystifying is how the ball keeps getting thrown to him. Part of that may be that the defense focused elsewhere, and he was the open man when Prescott scanned the field. It is also likely that he was the primary target on many of these plays by design. This seems frankly unsustainable. We would love to see Gallup snap out of his doldrums, but until he shows more reliability, it is a no-brainer to start reducing his targets and putting the ball in the hands of players who can catch and do something with it. Tony Pollard was the second-leading receiver with 80 yards, but that was clearly distorted by his 60-yard catch, escape, and run after Prescott had performed his own Houdini move to get the pass off.
Brandin Cooks may also be finally finding his groove. He only had four catches for 36 yards, but it was on five targets, and included a 17-yard grab, the key 11-yard reception in the fourth quarter to make Brandon Aubrey’s game-winning field goal much easier, and a touchdown. He looks like a viable option to take a lot of those Gallup targets.
Once again, KaVontae Turpin and Jalen Tolbert disappeared from the offensive game plan, with zero targets for either, and Turpin only on the field for two plays. There seems to be a lack of confidence from head coach Mike McCarthy in them. That seems problematic.
What was really puzzling about this game was how the tight ends also were non-factors. Jake Ferguson and Sean McKeon each only had one target apiece, with Ferguson having the only catch for 15 yards. This focusing on only a few receivers is something the team really needs to work on during the bye week. Prescott needs more options, even if Lamb, and to a lesser extent Cooks, are starting to become his most reliable targets.
Running into a wall
The Cowboys only had 96 yards on the ground, and 40 of them were by Prescott, including his 18-yard score. Cooks contributed 14 on one carry. 42 yards from the running backs is just not going to cut it. Despite the full starting offensive line being together for just the second time this season, and playing 100% of the snaps, the blocking up front was pretty dismal. Yet McCarthy kept dialing up runs, or maybe Prescott audibled into some.
In any case, it just wasn’t working. That includes the failed fourth-down attempt when there was no push, either up front or on Prescott’s tush. While the passing game clearly won this one, that is not always going to be feasible. The Chargers defense is better against the run than the pass, ranking dead last in the latter category in yards per game allowed, so this was perhaps a logical way for things to go. This is still just unacceptable. You have to have some kind of running threat to keep defenses honest. Right now, that just doesn’t exist for Dallas.
A related stat was how the Los Angeles pass rush had Prescott scrambling all game, with five sacks. Khalil Mack and Morgan Fox are both in the top twelve in sacks this season, but this is still a possible sign of trouble. If Prescott was not so very good at getting out of trouble and creating, this game could have gone very differently. Perhaps the bye will help the offensive line get their act together. They certainly need to, in both phases of the offense.
Pressure versus sacks
The Cowboys only managed to bring Justin Herbert to the ground once, although it was a huge play when Micah Parsons burst through the line to drop him on the next to last offensive snap for the Chargers and setting up the game-sealing interception by Stephon Gilmore. Parsons seemed quiet all game. But Herbert was also under constant pressure, which Parsons definitely contributed to, and completed just 22 of his 37 attempts. He also was plagued by some drops, two big overthrows, and bad routes.
The Dallas defense held the Chargers to just a 35.7% third-down conversion rate, although that was mirrored by their own offense’s 38.5% success rate. But after the first Los Angeles possession, when they marched rapidly to the opening score of the game, Dan Quinn’s crew really stiffened. They only yielded one field goal and the touchdown following the bizarre muffed punt play by the special teams, and then slammed the door at the end.
They were even better against the run that the other guys
The return of Austin Ekeler was supposed to give a boost to the Chargers’ run game, but he was held to only 27 yards and a 1.7 average per carry. As a team they only gained 56 yards on the ground. Both teams were forced to play one-dimensional offense, and fortunately Dallas was a bit better there. However, Los Angeles is at best a middle of the pack team running. There are more formidable challenges coming down the pike, and the Cowboys will have to continue to be stiff against the run.
Technically, both of the teams had one turnover, but that punt situation was a really freaky one, and may have violated the rules about interfering with the punt receiver. However, the key is that Dallas did another really good job protecting the ball on offense. That always helps.
Another game-winning drive for Dak
It is frustrating to see opinions take hold that are in direct contravention of facts. One of them is that Prescott is not able to lead his team to a win when things are close at the end.
Well, he took the ball with the score tied in the fourth quarter, and while he was unable to get a touchdown, he set up that game winner from Aubrey. This should be a surprise to no one, because he is eighth among active quarterbacks in game-winning drives with 20, and all the ones ahead of him have played more games.
Mr. Almost Perfect
On his first extra point attempt of the season, Aubrey missed in a rainy game. Since then, he has nailed everything else, and hasn’t even come close to a miss. If there were a special teams MVP award given in the NFL, he would be one of the leaders, and it is hard to find anyone who would surpass him.
What a find by the Cowboys.