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Impressive Cowboys defense a difference-maker in win over Chargers

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- It has been a while since anyone used the term brilliant in connection with the Dallas Cowboys' defense, but I feel compelled to do so, if only because the bar was set so low.

Historically bad last year, and coming off a season opener in which it surrendered 31 points, the unit lost starting ends Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory this week because of injury and COVID-19 protocols, then sought to compensate by moving rookie first-round pick Micah Parsons from linebacker to end, a position he had not played since high school.

But in perhaps its most impressive performance in years, the Cowboys' defense refused to give in to excuses or the Chargers, repeatedly turning them away en route to a 20-17 victory before 70,240 in SoFi Stadium.

Los Angeles had seven offensive possessions, each of which reached the Dallas 33-yard line or closer. And yet the Chargers could manage only one touchdown, their six other possessions ending via two interceptions, three field goals and a missed field goal.

If you saw such a performance coming from the Dallas defense, you're either clairvoyant or a liar because there was no visualizing it, not with the Chargers having the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year in quarterback Justin Herbert and a receiving corps that ranks among the league's best. Not with the Bolts seeking to make a positive impression in their first home game before a live audience, outnumbered though the "home" fans may have been.

And yet the Cowboys had two sacks, six tackles for loss and nine QB hits on Herbert, who threw for 338 yards but matched his career-high with two interceptions. Were they perfect? No. But they were good enough, which could be the first step back to credible relevance for something other than having a star on the side of their helmets.

All they've been missing is a capable defense. The offense is fine, as reflected again Sunday when quarterback Dak Prescott used 11 plays to drive them 49 yards over the final four minutes to set up Greg Zuerlein's 56-yard field goal as time expired. The only time the signal-caller looked more comfortable than he did on the final possession was when he left the stadium in a dark gray sweatsuit, white T-shirt and fresh pair of Air Jordans.

By Prescott's estimation he had played out that scenario or some facsimile "thousands" of times in his mind, going back to his high school days in Louisiana. So while the collective heart rate of those in attendance may have accelerated with the score tied and Dallas taking over at its 13-yard line, he was neither pressed nor concerned. He let his preparation take over.

"If I'm thinking, it's too late," he would say.

The Cowboys also rediscovered their run game, rushing 31 times for 198 yards, including 109 by Tony Pollard. This after rushing only 18 times versus 58 pass attempts in the opener. Special teams were a concern after the loss to Tampa Bay, with Zuerlein missing three kicks. But he rewarded their confidence Sunday, and now that seemingly leaves only the defense standing between the Cowboys and a legitimate run at the NFC East title.

With Gregory expected back next week after missing the game because of COVID-19 protocols, and Lawrence possibly returning in November, the hope is that youngsters such as Parsons can continue to step up. The former Penn State star was a factor all afternoon, consistently harassing Herbert in key situations. He showed that neither the stage nor the moment is too big for him. On Wednesday, after Lawrence broke a foot in practice, Parsons was approached by new Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

"Man, we're going to need you to step up big for us this week," Quinn said.

"Alright. Cool. Let's play," Parsons responded.

"I knew most of my snaps would come from me rushing the passer and I just took it head on from Thursday to today -- to be ready to play at a high level," Parsons said afterward. "After today, we can open the playbook even more. I think my teammates and Coach Q put an unbelievable amount of faith in me and it just keeps building my confidence to believe I can do much more than I thought I could do."

His most significant play was an 18-yard sack of Herbert with 5:26 to play. Herbert was retreating on the play, which started at the Dallas 7-yard line, and appeared to throw the ball away. But the official ruled that he was in the grasp. Los Angeles would kick a field goal two plays later to tie the game.

For the Chargers, there was frustration throughout. They had two touchdowns taken off the board because of penalties, winding up with three points instead of a possible 14. One call was particularly controversial, as wideout Mike Williams and tight end Jared Cook were called for an illegal shift.

"We had, first of all, the team coming to the line of scrimmage to get set," referee Tony Corrente said in a pool report. "And as the wide receiver on the offensive left side began in motion, the offensive receiver on the right side was still moving around. He was not in a set position. All 11 players have to be set simultaneously, at least for a second, before they can go into a shift, or they can go into motion. Well, what happened here was, this player went into motion without his whole team being fully set at that point. So you had two receivers never reset to allow the formation to become legal."

First-year Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said he sought to get an explanation at the time but could not get the referee's attention. Beyond that, he identified too many self-inflicted wounds.

"This game was about the Chargers," Staley said. "All the other stuff, I don't really want to talk about. This game was about us. We lost this game on all three phases of the game. We didn't play clean enough to win. Our guys competed. We played together, but we didn't play clean enough football to beat that team. That team's a good team, but we didn't play clean enough to finish it."

The Cowboys were able to finish, unlike a week ago, which could bode well going forward.

"As I said last week, we're going to have to go out there and score a bunch to win some games, and there's going to be some games like this one," Prescott said. "I think it showed tonight. The defense did a great job -- turnovers, a big turnover in the red zone when it was needed -- and we were able to come back out and get three. It's just important to play off of one another. When one team makes a big play, the other unit has to come on there and do a good job of picking up their back and taking advantage of them making that play. That's what complementary football's all about. That's how you win games, that's how you become a championship team, and be the team that we want to be."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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