The last time the Dallas Cowboys were in action, they sealed a Monday night road win at the Chargers with back-to-back defensive plays by Micah Parsons and Stephon Gilmore. Parsons sacked Justin Herbert for the team’s first sack all night, leading to Gilmore’s game-ending interception. The win sent the Cowboys into the bye with a game they can build on as they look to catch the Eagles, welcoming another Los Angeles team in the Rams to AT&T Stadium this Sunday.
However, even with the defense finding its own footing and responding off the 42 points allowed at the 49ers, there’s no doubt the big question coming off the bye will be how Mike McCarthy’s offense takes the next step. The time for any install phase of the Texas Coast scheme that’s seen Dak Prescott complete a career high 69.5% of his passes so far has come and gone, and this early season bye should rightfully be looked at as something of a final tune up for the tough stretch run ahead of this team.
The Cowboys still have the most noticeable room for improvement in their red zone efficiency and run game. Dallas was two of four in the red zone in week six, keeping the Chargers in a tightly contested game that the defense was up to the challenge for. Their first test off the bye will be a Rams defense that ranks eighth best in the league in holding their opponents to field goals in the red zone, but coming off a home loss to the Steelers where Pittsburgh scored three rushing touchdowns in the red zone.
The Cowboys offense did just enough against the Chargers to complement their defense by giving them the lead in the fourth quarter, but still converted just five of 13 third down attempts. Getting Brandin Cooks more involved was a needed step for the passing game, as he caught his first Cowboys touchdown, but with Cooks averaging nine yards per catch and CeeDee Lamb averaging nearly 17, the consistent short to mid range completions are still missing from this passing attack. This is another area to watch for a clean game from Dallas at home on Sunday, as the Rams allowed Kenny Pickett to average 9.2 yards per attempt with a season high 68% completion percentage in their week seven loss.
The Dallas defense did a lot of great things against the Chargers, perhaps none bigger than showing they can regularly line up in sub packages that feature players like Markquese Bell at linebacker and have success. If this is going to be how they continue to line up and get the best results, the offense must stay on the field and finish drives. The bye week comes at an ideal time for banged up players like Tyron Smith and KaVontae Turpin to get rest, but also ideally for Tony Pollard - who got the lion’s share of the work against Los Angeles but failed to turn this volume into the type of impact game he’s capable of.
There was no change in the RB2 role behind Pollard as Rico Dowdle was active, but played just ten snaps. The Cowboys did deactivate Deuce Vaughn for Malik Davis at RB3, at least showing a vision for needing capable backs behind Pollard, but still very much searching for any consistency on the ground. The Cowboys offensive line has struggled to get to the second level and create lanes for these backs to make big plays, something they should be set up to do as a counter to shorter pass sets in the quick game. The Cowboys are just middle of the road at keeping Prescott upright by allowing 15 sacks in six games, with many coming as a result of him holding onto the ball because receiver aren’t creating separation.
This was possibly the biggest indictment of the Cowboys offense under Kellen Moore, and though similar issues have popped up under McCarthy early on, there’s new hope that this ongoing scheme change can keep this offense a step ahead of defenses later into the season. If beating Moore head-to-head was enough to starkly change the mood around The Star, with Jerry Jones happily sharing optimism again about his team’s chances, parlaying this win with another against Sean McVay (perpetually the type of offensive play-caller that Dallas has been missing) can be a significant boost for this Cowboys team.
Starting a new win streak against a Rams team with Matthew Stafford third in the NFL in pass yards per game, and running back Kyren Williams (now injured) trailing only Raheem Mostert, Christian McCaffrey, and Travis Etienne in rushing touchdowns would be ideal for a Cowboys team that still faces bigger tests against explosive offenses like the Eagles, Dolphins, and Bills.
In between these games, the Cowboys still have a match up with the Giants, two with the Commanders, and the currently winless Panthers to take advantage of. These are all games where the defense can potentially carry the offense through any shortcomings, but seeing as the Cowboys only have so many games left in the regular season to prove the 42-10 loss to the 49ers wasn’t an indictment of how they’ll play against other contenders, they need to start putting together complete games in all three phases.
This is why the pressure is squarely on the offense to get off to a hot start against the Rams and match their scoring if it comes to a shootout, as the Cowboys have quietly put up good statistics in some areas and shown signs of progress in year one under McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer, leaving fans to only hope there’s new wrinkles, a greater sense of urgency, and attention to detail in erasing penalties off the bye week.
The Chargers win showed that this team can win as a defensive first squad, but one with clutch QB play and a steady dose of impact plays from the offense. This trend may very well continue all season, but as the defense feels much closer to a finished product that will be fine-tuning things off the bye and playing inspired football down the stretch, the offense has so much room for growth still in search of their defining game on the season where they take matters into their own hands and see a complete game from the likes of Pollard, Lamb, and the offensive line all playing up to their potential.