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Cowboys challenge against the Jets has radically changed after Week 1

It’s not just the absence of Aaron Rodgers, either.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants
We didn’t want it to be this way for the second game, but what can you do?
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

As Han Solo once said, don’t get cocky. After the Dallas Cowboys administered a severe and embarrassing beating to the New York Giants, it is not hard to look at the New York Jets and think we might just see a reboot of that script. However, team history reminds us that the Cowboys have been stunned by backup quarterbacks and supposedly inferior rosters before.

That’s not to say this Sunday’s game is going to be hard to win for them. They just have to be focused and not make multiple mistakes to give the visitors for the home opener a chance. The Buffalo Bills did exactly that, and the Jets come into AT&T Stadium with the same 1-0 record as Dallas as a result.

Here are some things we are looking at for the second game of the season.

The nemesis is out

You can’t talk about playing the AFC team from New York without addressing the loss of Aaron Rodgers to a season-ending Achilles injury. Before the season, his expected presence made this a highly-anticipated game. In his career with the Green Bay Packers, Rodgers had crushed the hopes of Cowboys fans repeatedly, at times with remarkable heroics to pull out a win. He was seen as the first real test for the 2023 Dallas defense.

Instead, the Cowboys face a Jets team quarterbacked by Zach Wilson. New York made an expensive trade to get Rodgers because they did not deem Wilson good enough. It is a bit embarrassing to have to do a complete 180 and say he is now the guy.

Some of us remember a quarterback named Matt Flynn, whose only notable accomplishment in the league was leading a Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers to five consecutive touchdowns after they trailed Dallas 26-3. (Thank you, Atlanta Falcons, for making 28-3 far more notorious than that score.) Speaking of which, Dan Quinn certainly remembers that amazing comeback by the New England Patriots in that championship game. He is going to make sure the defense stays focused. And he doesn’t have to worry about Tom Brady leading the charge.

What do Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott HAVE to do to win this game?

The story of the season opener against the Giants was how the Cowboys defense completely shut down the New York offense. With the pick-six credited to DaRon Bland, with an assist from a big Trevon Diggs hit on Saquon Barkley, the offense did not even have to score to get the win. That is how dominant the defense was.

But the offense still scored 27 points, which is enough to win a lot of NFL games. Nevertheless, the debut of the anticipated Texas Coast offense was muted. It makes sense. It was raining, and with the big early lead (16-0 in the first quarter) there was no reason to push the ball downfield. Prescott did attempt one deep throw to Brandin Cooks early in the second quarter which resulted in a pass interference to move them 37 yards closer to the end zone, and that is all they had to do to keep the Giants defense honest. With some effective running from Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle, and just enough passing, the offense scored on five drives, including three rushing touchdowns. And we still got some glimpses of the new approach, including the use of KaVontae Turpin as a kind of change of pace back by lining him up in the backfield. He scored his first NFL touchdown as a rusher.

If the defense and special teams play anything like they did on Sunday Night, there is no reason to get away from an obviously conservative approach. That may also hold true for the two games before what may be the first real test for the defense against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 5. That could be a real advantage. The longer McCarthy can keep his cards hidden, the more effective they will be when he needs to play them. Barring an unexpectedly good showing from Wilson and the Jets offense, we can expect the offense to stay on the conservative side. On the other hand, being indoors may tempt McCarthy to roll out a few things.

We discussed this overall idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you do not miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

Could the defense look even better?

That’s a heady thought, given that the defense set records in the game, but it is not unreasonable to think that having played their first game with the starters on the field will just improve things. This was the first start for Stephon Gilmore and Juanyeh Thomas, who both performed quite well, with Gilmore getting his first pick as a Cowboy. It was also the first significant playing time for Markquese Bell. And both Donovan Wilson and Jourdan Lewis were inactive as they continue to recover from injuries. Both are expected back soon, perhaps this week. All are reasons this defense may just get stronger as the season progresses. It is great for us to think about, and absolutely terrifying for the teams that have to face Dallas the rest of the year.

The offensive line had no problems missing a starter

Tyler Smith’s absence with his own injury from practice was the source of much angst, but Chuma Edoga filled in quite capably. The stars played like we all expected them to. Dak Prescott was not sacked, and the running game was efficient on a wet track. The overall performance was so good, PFF named them the best offensive line of the week. (H/T to BTB fan Redsoxu571, who wrote an excellent Fanpost detailing all the PFF grades. Give him a read, and we hope he continues to do this kind of breakdown.)

Edoga turned out to be the kind of depth player the team badly needed, and they also got T.J. Bass, Asim Richards, and Brock Hoffman some valuable live reps to help improve their game. We won’t completely stop worrying about the depth situation, but it feels a lot better than it did before the game. Now they face the Jets defense. According to ESPN’s win rates analysis, New York is mediocre rushing the passer, but seventh overall stopping the run after one game. And they show the Cowboys as poor in pass blocking, ranking 29th overall, and just 17th run blocking. Don’t sleep on this matchup. (This apparent discrepancy is also an example of how different media outlets can look at the same thing and come to very different conclusions.)

Does the team have a tight end problem?

While so many units had solid or even outstanding games, one was clearly the weakest link. The team elected to not re-sign Dalton Schultz last offseason. He was the starting tight end last year and Prescott’s safety blanket. Jake Ferguson inherited that role, and his performance led to some concerns, as he was credited with two drops and only had two receptions on his six targets. (PFF differs from the official NFL stats there, with the latter showing seven targets.) This might be a sign that Ferguson’s grip on the starting job is in peril.

But receiving is not the only measure of a tight end’s worth. I’m going to quote the Fanpost linked above, because it does a very good job explaining.

Jake Ferguson - 69.0 grade (42 snaps, 14 route snaps, 6 targets)

You’ll be excused if you’re wondering how Ferguson managed such a solid grade despite recording 2 recognized drops on just 14 route snaps - well, it’s because his receiving grade was bad (39.2) even as his run blocking grade (88.3) led the position for the Week (his pass blocking was good too)! Assuming the rain was at the heart of the drops, Ferguson looks fully capable of taking Schultz’s former routes and making similar use of them, and if that comes with strong blocking Dallas will be in good TE1 hands this year.

The caveat about the rain may be valid, but CeeDee Lamb managed to bring in all four of his targets in the same conditions. It is best to reserve judgment on this until we see how things go without rain. Tight end is a key part of West Coast style offenses, and Ferguson and the backup tight ends have to do better.

Despite the lackluster play from the TE position, overall it is hard not to have great optimism about what we witnessed with glee on Sunday. The Cowboys still have to take it one game at a time. Hopefully we will have more positives to point to next week.

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