When informed that his team is a 5.5-point underdog on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams at his press conference Thursday, Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said the following, "We're nobody's underdog."
Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons appreciated McCarthy's confidence.
"Yeah, it's us vs. everybody," Parsons said Thursday, via The Athletic. "That means that Coach knows what's up. He reads the room. He sees what we can do and how we've been performing. Your coach should have that type of confidence in his players."
"I don't ever look at point spreads, but I would agree with that: I wouldn't think we're underdogs," Cowboys right guard Zack Martin said Thursday. "It's going to be a great game, they're a great football team. We have a ton of confidence in our group. It's going to be a great football game."
One reason the Cowboys (3-1) have this level of confidence on their current three-game winning streak is the play of longtime backup Cooper Rush, who has won every start in filling in for an injured Dak Prescott -- dating back to his win on "Sunday Night Football" in Week 8 last season against the Minnesota Vikings. And with their streak of three in a row against the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants, and Washington Commanders this year, all of the team's playoff goals are intact despite Prescott's fractured thumb injury in Week 1. Owner Jerry Jones is floating on cloud nine.
"I'm just skipping along; I can't touch the ground," Jones said Tuesday morning on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas. "I did not [envision a three-game winning streak]... The thought for me [after Week 1] was … 'Let's not eliminate ourselves [from playoff contention].'"
Rush has not only kept the Cowboys offense afloat enough to earn victories in each of the past three weeks, but he's made some history in becoming the only quarterback since at least 1950 to win his first four career starts with more than 200 passing yards and a passer rating over 90 in each start. Rush is also the first Cowboys quarterback to win his first four career starts.
Cooper Rush as a starter this season
"It's been fun, trying to enjoy it. The NFL doesn't let you enjoy it much, you have to go week in and week out and play, but 4-0 is the defense and all the breaks we catch," Rush said after their win against the Commanders on Sunday. "QB win stats are what they are. It's a team game. It's nice having the defense have our back like that, Brett's [Maher] making kicks, and we're doing just enough on offense."
Jones initially said he would "walk to New York" if Rush played well enough to incite any calls for a quarterback controversy. Now, he has walked those comments back when talking about a potential controversy this week.
"No, as I see it right today," Jones said when asked about a scenario where the team would stick with Rush over a healthy Prescott.
The Cowboys' $160 million quarterback has begun ramping up his rehabilitation efforts, seen running off to the side gripping a football during Thursday's practice.
Cowboys QB Dak Prescott has incorporated holding a football in his side work with director of rehabilitation Britt Brown. pic.twitter.com/Gd51VHCXas— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) October 6, 2022
"I know [Prescott's thumb is] better," Jones said. "I know he's gonna go out every day and make progress toward being able to grip the ball. He'll have a big week and he'll be hard on himself getting ready to go."
Despite the progress he has been making, Prescott is still wearing a splint on his surgically-repaired right hand, seen sporting it at Tuesday's New York Yankees-Texas Rangers baseball game in Arlington, Texas.
Always appreciate the support, @dallascowboys! pic.twitter.com/QQRZ9SzOSr— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) October 5, 2022
McCarthy said Prescott had a good visit with a hand specialist Tuesday, but that he is still without a timetable for his return to play.
"He will work with the rehab group in practice, and he won't be targeted to play until he is cleared to work in quarterback school pre-practice," McCarthy said. "The next step is to get enough strength in the hand to throw the football. The goal right now is to get the strength to grip the football, that's the immediate goal."
Even though the wins have kept coming with Rush at the controls of their offense, their attack hasn't possessed the same level of firepower it showed last season when Dallas led the NFL in scoring offense, averaging 31.2 points per game. Its 17.8 points per game this season rank as the fifth-lowest in the NFL despite the 3-1 record.
Cowboys by starting QB (last two seasons)
|Dak Prescott||Cooper Rush|
"We just have to score more," receiver CeeDee Lamb said Thursday. "I feel like we got off to a rough start early on, we didn't score [any touchdowns] in Week 1. We put ourselves behind the eight ball, and we understand that we have to get in the end zone more. Just have to convert on third down, get more first downs, move the ball and do what we have to do to get in the red zone and finish off these drives."
Despite Rush knowing his days as the Cowboys starting quarterback are numbered, he maintained he isn't thinking about the end right now.
"You just enjoy playing ball. You don't get to start every week as a backup," Rush said. "While you're in there, you just want to do your job and enjoy it. It's really fun being with those guys. We have a heck of a team, great locker room. You cherish it all and when your number is called, you just keep playing."
Lamb, the team's leader in receptions (23), receiving yards (288) and receiving touchdowns (two) this season, has found a groove with Rush, catching both of his touchdowns in the past two games. A third in a row this week against the Rams would be Lamb's career-high for consecutive games with a receiving score.
CeeDee Lamb this season
|Weeks 1-2||Weeks 3-4|
Oddly enough, the 17th overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft averages more receiving yards per game with Rush starting (92.8) than Prescott (69.1). That gap likely is because every game of Lamb's career besides the 19-3 Week 1 home loss against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers involved him and four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper competing for targets in 2020 and 2021 before the latter was traded to the Cleveland Browns this offseason.
CeeDee Lamb in Cooper Rush's starts
2021 (Week 8) at MIN
2022 (Week 2) vs. CIN
2022 (Week 3) at NYG
2022 (Week 4) vs. WAS
"It's just Cooper [Rush] being Cooper," Lamb said Thursday when asked about Rush winning his first four career starts. "When you have him in the locker room and see him everyday, understand the kind of person he is… I've been working with him for three years. For him to get his opportunity and shine a little light on him, is huge for him. I hope he gets to 5-0. I'm proud of him and everything he has accomplished, looking forward to continuing."
Lamb, who didn't practice Thursday due to a groin injury, made it very clear that missing practice was about maintenance and that he will be playing in Los Angeles against the Rams on Sunday.
"I'm fine. ... I don't want to scare nobody," Lamb said with a smile Thursday.
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Facing Aaron Donald
Rush will be going up against a future first-ballot Hall of Famer on Sunday when Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald lines up across from him at the line of scrimmage. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (tied for the most in NFL history with Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt) is the league's leader in sacks (100.0), tackles for loss (155), and quarterback hits (230) since 2014.
"He's a true game-wrecker," Rush said after practice Thursday. "He's the best in the game for a reason. You have to account for him in the run game and in the pass game. He's the best to ever do it at that position, and it shows every week on tape. We have a good plan but it's going to take execution. ... You always have to know where [No.] 99 is. He's obviously a focal point."
Only two players have more than 85 quarterback pressures and more than 85 tackles since the start of last season, and they will both take the field Sunday at SoFi Stadium: Donald and Micah Parsons. Seeing the Dallas linebacker in practice is as good of a simulation of Donald's pass-rushing presence as Rush could have.
"You got Micah [Parsons], he can wreck a game, too. [Jalen] Ramsey kinda plays like [Trevon] Diggs, great ball skills," Rush said. "You see similar traits in all of them, so always going against our defense helps us because those guys are pretty talented."
Donald has generated multiple quarterback pressures in 56 straight games, according to NextGen Stats, but he'll be facing a fellow member of the 2010's NFL All-Decade team on the interior of the line Sunday in Cowboys right guard Zack Martin.
"Zack Martin is not only an anchor for our offensive line, but he's one of our keystones in the locker room, just a great pro all the way around, playing at an extremely high level," McCarthy said. "He gives us such a level of consistency with his experience and communication. He does a phenomenal job with our players. If you want to watch a matchup, that'd definitely be one to circle. It also depends on where Aaron [Donald] is going to play. I don't know how much he will be on the right side."
"He does some very impressive, natural things on tape," Martin said of Donald on Thursday. "I think they're just trying to get the best one-on-one matchup, they don't really care who it's against. They're just trying to find a one-on-one for him [Donald]. In my experience, he's played all over the place. He's just trying to get a one-on-one."
Donald may see plenty of double teams Sunday because the Rams don't quite have another headliner in their pass rush who plays anywhere close to the level of Donald. They have ranked second-to-last in the NFL in pressure rate this season (20.6%) after losing edge rusher Von Miller in free agency to the Buffalo Bills. A year ago, the Rams had the ninth-highest pressure percentage in the entire NFL (34.8%). However, Los Angeles' pass rush this season has been a one-man show, as Donald's 16 pressures are double anyone else's total on the team.
Most Rams pressures this season
No matter what happens on the field Sunday, Dallas will likely feel comfortable inside SoFi Stadium since it expects a significant amount of fans to be in the stands. The team operates its training camp out of Oxnard, California, a little over a one hour drive outside of the heart of Los Angeles. The Cowboys fans could be clearly heard in Dallas' 20-17 win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 3 last season inside SoFi Stadium, which the two L.A. teams both call home.
Cowboys have taken the field. SoFi Stadium louder than I’d have expected for how full it is right now. pic.twitter.com/5AizYWSc0o— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) September 19, 2021
"Cowboy Nation definitely shows up in LA," Lamb said. "Last year, when we played the Chargers it was the same scenario, it definitely felt like a home game in LA."
How quickly Rush gets the ball out of his hands will go a long way in determining the victor in Sunday's game, since Donald will look to rudely welcome his houseguests into the home of the defending champions.