(CBS DFW) -- The Los Angeles Chargers continue their NFC East matchups this week against the Dallas Cowboys. Second-year quarterback Justin Herbert handled a difficult Washington Football Team defense last week to turn in the team's first win. (They'll visit the Philadelphia Eagles and host the New York Giants later in the season.) Their first home game of the season will also be their first ever game at the new SoFi Stadium.
The Cowboys are coming off a strong showing that ended in disappointment and seemed to pose as many questions as it answered. Dallas lost, 31-29, to the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game they easily could have won. And while returning quarterback Dak Prescott played like his pre-injury self, Ezekiel Elliott was a nonfactor and the Cowboys defense continued to be a weakness.
Prescott seems to have sufficiently recovered from the ankle injury that ended his season last year and the shoulder issues that limited his training camp and preseason. He lit up the Bucs defense, not one of the better pass defenses in the league, to the tune of 42 completions for 403 yards and three touchdowns. The 42 completions matched a career high. Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb accounted for about half of that, piling up 20 catches for 243 yards and three TDs between them.
"I don't think they want him (Prescott) to have to do that week in and week out," said NFL On CBS reporter Evan Washburn about Prescott's performance. "They have an All Pro-caliber running back that they pay a lot of money to in Ezekiel Elliott that was not a big impact player in that Week 1 game. I think that was more the nature of what that game became. But, Dallas, with Mike McCarthy running things, and the way that offense is structured, the running game has to be a priority. The way that they achieve balance is going to dictate a lot of how well this team plays this season offensively. So I think what Dak showed everyone -- most importantly, the people in that organization -- is that he's healthy. He can throw it, the shoulder didn't seem to be a problem. And he can move around and make athletic plays despite what was a pretty horrific ankle injury. So those are good signs. They need to be able to run the ball better to be an impact team this season."
Elliott only carried the ball 11 times for 33 yards. And while the Bucs are stout defenders against the run, the Cowboys will need more production out of him to be successful. That will be tough given the lack of continuity along Dallas's offensive line. Right tackle La'el Collins was suspended for five games after the opener for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. On the bright side, right guard Zack Martin will return after a week on the COVID list. But the team's top three offensive linemen -- Collins, Martin, and left tackle Tyron Smith -- won't play together until at least late October. Backup lineman Ty Nsekhe spent Thursday night in the hospital with a heat-related illness and will also miss Sunday's game.
The unit may have its hands full with a Chargers defense that includes outside linebacker Joey Bosa. "As talented as some of those tackles are -- Tyron Smith and company -- Joey Bosa can wreck a game at times," said Washburn. "So if that means putting a tight end in at times to chip him or a running back hanging in for some extra protection to give Dak that extra second, I think that those are all things you can employ to deal with a premier edge rusher like Joey Bosa. But I also I do feel like there's talent at that tackle position, at least on one side, to be able to manage that one-on-one matchup over the course of the game."
The Chargers defense limited a so-so Washington offense that played much of Week 1 behind backup QB Taylor Heinicke. Part of that success comes from a Brandon Staley scheme that provides different looks. The Los Angeles Rams defense, which he led last season, would rotate out of what seemed like a pass defense to stop the run. Still, WFT running back Antonio Gibson piled up 90 yards on the ground. The Prescott-led Cowboys, should they opt for a more balanced attack this week, could be a stiffer test.
There's some talent on this Chargers unit, aside from Bosa. Safety Derwin James, a 2019 Pro Bowl selection, has returned to the secondary after missing all of last season. Linebacker Uchenna Nwosu takes over for Melvin Ingram, who signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers this past offseason. And Michael Davis takes over the top corner spot.
The Chargers offense is generating a lot of excitement behind last season's Offensive Rookie of the Year, Justin Herbert. He finished last season sixth in passing yards, with 4,336 and 10th in touchdown passes with 31. And given his 337-yard outing in Week 1 (that featured plenty of receiver drops), he's on his way to another strong season. Keenan Allen, his favorite target, caught 100 passes for 992 yards and eight TDs in 2020. Their number two wide receiver, Mike Williams, is also dangerous. The pair combined for 17 catches and 182 yards against the WFT last week. Austin Ekeler is elusive out of the backfield and heavily involved in the passing game as well.
It remains to be seen if this much-maligned Cowboys defense can slow Herbert and company. Tom Brady torched them for 379 yards and four touchdowns in Week 1.
"This is a defense that's trying to rebound from a couple of challenging seasons," Washburn noted. "And look, they were tested out of the gate with arguably the best team in the NFL right now in the Tampa Bay Bucs. And they were able to make some plays, and you saw some flashes, despite the eventual score and yardage output that was pretty eye-opening. But I think that's just a product of the new NFL. I think there's enough talent defensively for Dallas to be a solid enough defense to work with what could be an explosive offense, and that should continue against L.A. on Sunday."
They'll have to live up to that potential without defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. He broke his foot in practice this week and will be out for six to eight weeks. Fellow starting defensive end Randy Gregory will also likely miss the game after testing positive for COVID. The Cowboys have no quarterback sacks so far this season and may struggle to get to Herbert this week. Dallas's secondary is also suspect, a problem that carries over from last season. And a lack of pass rush will expose it further. Trevon Diggs is a solid enough corner on one side, but Anthony Brown and slot corner Jourdan Lewis can be attacked for nice gains.
The Cowboys play the Chargers Sunday, September 19 @ 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS.
for more features.