Things didn't go how the Dallas Cowboys hoped they would when they visited Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, but there was plenty of good to take away from it without wandering into the dangerous territory of "moral victory." Dak Prescott returned and looked better than good; hell, he looked better than great. The two-time Pro Bowler looked better than the best quarterback to ever play the game, who happened to be on the other sideline. So while Brady got the win (most important), notice was sent that Prescott was back in business, and business is again booming offensively in Dallas.
Additionally, the Cowboys defense saw their mojo in takeaways -- momentum that began last December -- roll over into the season opener, with former second-round pick Trevon Diggs joining others like safety Damontae Kazee and All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence in giving the Cowboys extra possessions.
That said, it obviously wasn't all good, or they would've won, instead heading into their Week 2 matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers hoping to see those whose stock dropped last week see a spike on Sunday, so that they might avoid an 0-2 start to the season as they try to figure out the right tackle situation in the absence of La'el Collins and refine a plan for the absence of All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence.
Whose needle moved north after the regular season opener? And whose dipped in the wrong direction??
Let's talk about it.
Dak Prescott, QB
To infinity, and beyond. Any questions you might've had on if Prescott's health are now put to bed, along with any speculation of potential rust in his first game back since going down with a season-ending fractured ankle 333 days prior. The two-time Pro Bowler took the field against the GOAT and outplayed him at every turn -- the only reason for the Cowboys loss being attributable to missed kicks that cost Dallas four points and uncharacteristic drops by CeeDee Lamb that not only stalled a drive or two, but also gave Tom Brady an extra possession and touchdown for the Buccaneers.
For his part, Prescott finished with 403 passing yards and three touchdowns in a masterful performance -- every one of his yards being meaningful -- made even more impressive by it being his return to the field, and he's making my predictions of him being a frontrunner for both NFL MVP and NFL Comeback Player of the Year look very, very realistic.
First play for @dak?— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) September 10, 2021
🎯 to @AmariCooper9!
📺: #DALvsTB on NBCpic.twitter.com/CmljsoXfwG
Amari Cooper, WR
It seems to be a thing nowadays to question Cooper going into every season, but he once again shrugged them off. For while it's been CeeDee Lamb carrying the offseason headlines after a record-breaking rookie season, be not misled, because Cooper is still WR1 in Dallas; and he proved it in Week 1. Cooper joined Prescott in putting a flamethrower to the Buccaneers secondary en route to catching 13 of his 16 targets for 139 yards and two touchdowns, and there wasn't a single route he couldn't run that didn't see him put the defender on skates. And, like Prescott, the fact Cooper didn't practice for much of training camp due to injury truly drives home his value to the club.
One day, this receiving unit will be led by Lamb as the definitive alpha, but that day is not today. For while the talented youngster continues to work through some youthful hiccups, Cooper already has it all figured out. He's a lethal weapon, the likes of which would make Danny Glover and Mel Gibson blush.
We love to see it! 👏#DALvsTB | 🎥 Watch now on NBC pic.twitter.com/zphRcxPmjO— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) September 10, 2021
Trevon Diggs, CB
Diggs has four interceptions in his first 12 career NFL starts, and that's phenomenal as a standalone item, but add in context and it becomes mind-blowing. The former second-round pick has been only fingertips away from having two or three more INTs to his tally, and one of those near-misses came on Thursday night. After already picking off the immortal Tom Brady earlier in the game, he came a fingernail away from landing a second (and game-sealing) interception late in the fourth quarter when he jumped backwards at a 45-degree angle and nearly sent the Cowboys to a 1-0 record in jaw-dropping fashion.
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A takeaway-starved defense prior to landing Diggs, he continues to show he's on track to be the next premier cornerback in the NFL, and everyone got reminded of his trajectory in Week 1.
How about that @DallasCowboys defense?! #DallasCowboys @trevondiggs— NFL (@NFL) September 10, 2021
📺: #DALvsTB on NBC
📱: https://t.co/0VSAGL68p0 pic.twitter.com/XTiLnUs3ji
Damontae Kazee, S
The safety position has perennially been an area of concern for the Cowboys, but there's a chance they have it figured out for the 2021 season, in large part thanks to the addition of Kazee and potentially Malik Hooker in free agency to play alongside Donovan Wilson. With Hooker inactive for Week 1 as he closes in on his debut for the Cowboys, however, it was Kazee taking the field as starter and hoping to hit the ground running -- wanting to regain his prime form that existed prior to suffering a torn Achilles during the 2020 season.
He'd do just that, creating a pivotal takeaway when he forced wideout Chris Godwin to fumble at the Cowboys two-yard line, recovered by cornerback Jourdan Lewis to give Prescott a shot at mounting a game-winning drive. He nearly did, too, but it was undone by Brady in the waning moments of the game. Kazee, however, showed he's getting back to form, and in short order.
A FUMBLE AT THE GOAL LINE— PFF (@PFF) September 10, 2021
Greg Zuerlein, K
He's not making any excuses, and that's good, because there aren't any to be had. Now back from an offseason back injury that kept him out of much of camp, the veteran kicker needed to be on his best behavior if the Cowboys were going to upset the Buccaneers, but he was instead a problem child like Junior Healy. Toss the 60-yard attempt aside because it's arguable if Big Ben Healy should've made that call in the first place, but when you line up for a 31-yard field goal in the NFL, you make it. And when your team finds pay dirt with a touchdown and you line up for a PAT, you make it -- period.
Unfortunately for Zuerlein, he missed both, and left four points on the field in a contest wherein the Cowboys lost by two. He wasn't the only reason they're now 0-1, truth be told, but he's arguably the biggest. And with the club re-signing Lirim Hajrullahu as insurance, he better make sure he's on the right side of the Cowboys confidence one week from now.
Anthony Brown, CB
You probably knew that, in Spanish, the name "Antonio" means "Anthony." On Thursday, that's where the equality stopped, because while Antonio Brown and Anthony Brown basically have the same name -- in different languages -- they're not on the same planet when it's time to play American football. Brady realized this early on, targeting the Cowboys veteran cornerback with one throw after another after seeing him struggle against the quickness and speed of the former All-Pro.
By the time it was all said and done, one of the Browns had finished the contest with 121 receiving yards and a touchdown on only five catches while the other left with a coverage grade of 49.3 and a tackling grade of only 36.9 -- per PFF. The Cowboys awarded Jourdan Lewis a three-year deal this offseason, drafted multiple cornerbacks and saw Maurice Canady impress in camp and preseason in his return from 2020 opt-out, so an otherwise-capable Brown can't afford many more games like the one he had in Week 1, where his cobertura was unfortunately basura.
CeeDee Lamb, WR
This is a name you won't see in this category often, but the game-breaking wideout earned a spot here this week. Lamb is a dynamo, lightning in a bottle, and a whole lot more for the Cowboys but what he wasn't on Thursday night was consistent. His aforementioned drops began early, failing to reel in two passes from Prescott on a promising opening drive that -- instead of likely ending in a touchdown -- ended in no points for Dallas, and then a touchdown on the other end by Brady on the next drive. Lamb would find some sort of groove at times, finishing with a couple of key grabs that extended drives and put him over the 100-yard mark, along with a pivotal touchdown catch, but he caught only eight of his 15 targets.
So by the time he created the tip drill interception that led to another TD drive by Brady (if you're keeping track, that's 14 points that came directly after a drives ended by Lamb's drops), it was all the Cowboys could do to not pull their hair out. Lamb is better than what he showed in Week 1, but his stock is down a smidge, if only for a few days in what should be another stellar season to come.
Blake Jarwin, TE
This isn't the return to the field Jarwin was hoping for. One of the better playmakers on the Cowboys roster, Jarwin is returning from a season-ending torn ACL suffered in 2020 and wants to pick up right where he left off, but it's a slow start for him heading into the Week 2 battle with the Los Angeles Chargers. The good news is he caught three of his four targets on a day wherein Prescott opted to key in on the mismatch presented to Cooper, but Jarwin isn't on the wrong side of this article because of anything he did or didn't do in the receiving game. It's because the team needed him to make a clean block that would've allowed Ezekiel Elliott to challenge a defender one-on-one in space -- advantage Elliott -- but instead saw him have to pull up short to account for two defenders after Jarwin whiffed on his assignment.
It resulted in more points left on the field by the Cowboys, who might've blown the Buccaneers out at Raymond James Stadium if they could've gotten errors like missed kicks, drops and a whiffed block hadn't made Tampa Bay the better team when, all told, it doesn't appear they were.
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