It wasn’t always pretty, but the Cowboys were able to get out of SoFi Stadium with a very important win over the Chargers. After struggling mightily in one score games recently, Dallas is showing signs of learning how to win. There was certainly a lot learned about this team Sunday.
As Greg Zuerlein’s 56-yard field goal passed through the uprights, everyone let out a collective sigh of relief as Dallas moved to 1-1 on the season. Since 2019, Dallas was 5-12 in one score games (decided by eight points or fewer), so to win a game like that is a big confidence boost for a team that has struggled in those games. Another first: per David Moore, this was the first game Dallas had won without scoring 30-plus points since December of 2018, which was a streak of 34 games.
Dallas was finally able to win an ugly game and it had to be a relief to Mike McCarthy and his staff. This was the first win where Dallas genuinely looked and felt good afterward since 2019, as no one felt good after the miracle Falcons win in 2020, and Dak Prescott was injured in the Giants win. Here are my observations from Sunday’s win:
1) Dallas won a game in which Dak Prescott wasn’t great, but don’t fall for the misconception that he was poor.
Prescott was by no means poor, as he completed 23 of 27 passes for 237 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass and was picked off once. Merely looking at the box score would indicate a subpar performance, but context matters. Chargers head coach Brandon Staley’s defensive scheme is designed to prevent big plays and force the offense to be patient.
Prescott largely took what he was given as his average depth of target was a bit over five yards. Despite a below-average quarterback rating of 39, Prescott’s 85.2 percent completion rate was 13.9 percent higher than his 71.3 percent expected completion rate. That differential was the highest in the league, per Next Gen Stats.
He also led an 11-play, 49-yard drive that milked all of the final four minutes that ultimately won the game, including a massive 12-yard connection through a tight window to Amari Cooper that put Dallas in field goal range. Don’t be confused, Prescott was fine Sunday.
2) Kellen Moore’s game plan is going to evolve each week based on matchups
Los Angeles plays a lot of zone in an umbrella-like scheme while showing light amounts of defenders in the box. Dallas didn’t go from 18 rushes against Tampa Bay to 31 rushes against Los Angeles without reason. The Cowboys averaged 6.4 yards per carry and leaned heavily on Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, and the offensive line. Moore’s mixing in of Pollard with Elliott was perfect as the two backs complemented each other well all afternoon. It will be interesting to see how much run Pollard gets going forward after an explosive performance.
I loved Moore’s quote today on the offensive philosophy: “Aggressively take what they give us.”
3) This was a very encouraging performance from the offensive line.
Tyron Smith did Tyron Smith things and was very good all afternoon. He did get beat by Kyler Fackrell in the red zone for a potentially disastrous strip sack that was recovered by Dallas. That play aside, Smith was rock solid. Connor Williams was great once again, as he was mauling in the run game and did not allow a single pressure (and has yet to do so this season, per Pro Football Focus). Tyler Biadasz was better this week and it probably had something to do with a step down in competition from Tampa Bay’s fearsome duo in the middle combined with the return of Zack Martin. Martin was fantastic and showed no signs of being affected by COVID-19, as he was the highest-graded player on the team per PFF with a grade of 95.5.
Terence Steele also deserves massive amounts of credit. There was a lot of skepticism about Steele starting at right tackle against Joey Bosa (myself included), and Steele delivered. He surrendered just three pressures, was great in the run game, and kept Joey Bosa almost completely quiet. He did receive some help (as he should), but he did his job and Dallas has to feel good about Steele holding up for the rest of La’el Collins’ suspension.
Zack Martin raved about Steele, saying, “He played unbelievable. We talked, if we had the center slide going right, trying to get out there and help him, and the the times I did, he didn’t need it. He did an outstanding job.”
4) Micah Parsons is going to be a superstar.
I’d be the first one in line to admit that I was highly skeptical of the Parsons pick. But he has impressed everyone at every step so far. He was one of the hot names coming out of training camp, was a wrecking ball in the preseason, looked solid against Tampa Bay, and was incredible Sunday. He was all over the field. Parsons had not played defensive end since high school and was asked to do so in the absence of Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence.
Some numbers on Parsons’ performance in Week 2:
- Parsons racked up eight pressures, which was the most by a rookie since Nick Bosa in 2019, and was tied for the most pressures of the week.
- Parsons earned the highest pass-rush grade from PFF by any rookie so far this season.
- His 90.8 pass-rushing grade from PFF was second among all defenders.
- Parsons led all edge rushers in pass rush win rate with an absurd 39 percent rate.
- His total stat line per PFF: eight pressures, four hurries, three QB hits, two stops, and a sack. PFF gave him a grade of 89.9, the highest defensive grade on the team.
To do this without any experience at the position beyond high school shows what a special player he is. His teammates and coaches won’t stop raving about him either. “He can run and hit like a you-know-what,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “He’s got rare speed and physicality to do that. We want to make sure that we’re always featuring that part of his game.”
“The dude is a beast,” Ezekiel Elliott said of Parsons. “He can be elite at linebacker. He can be elite at defensive end. I’m glad we got him on our team.”
It’s hard to say what Parsons’ role will be going forward, but I imagine he will be best fitted as a hybrid player. He should go back to primarily playing off the ball when Gregory returns, but Dallas would be silly to not feature his pass-rush ability on obvious passing downs. Parsons has an extremely rare versatility about him and his elite burst and athleticism is what makes him special. He is going to be the centerpiece of this defense going forward.
5) The Cowboys are…taking the ball away?
Dallas leads the league in takeaways through two weeks with six. The Cowboys went on a bit of a takeaway tear at the end of 2020, and it is appearing to carry over. Dallas has the second most takeaways in the NFL over the last 16 games and has the most over the last 14 games.
You need to be mindful of the fact that turning the ball over is very random and is not something to rely on. Regression to the mean is coming, and the Cowboys better hope that this run holds up until at least DeMarcus Lawrence returns.
You could even argue that Dallas should have had three takeaways yesterday, as a Jayron Kearse interception was taken away by a questionable pass interference penalty. The Trevon Diggs interception was a thing of beauty as he leaped across Keenan Allen to take the ball away. Damontae Kazee’s interception in the end zone in the late third quarter was an incredibly large momentum shift.
The Dallas defense has done a lot of bending but hasn’t quite broken (yet). Dallas won this game with its red zone defense, as the Chargers converted just one of four red zone trips into touchdowns. There’s a lot to fix on the defense, and Dallas better hope it fixes the issues before the eventual takeaway regression hits. But for now, it’s been more than enough and the young Cowboys were able to come away with a massive early season win that I’m not sure teams in the past would have won.
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