Since 2001, there may not have been a more frustrating AFC series for the Cowboys (0-1) than with the Los Angeles Chargers (1-0). The Chargers, whether in San Diego or Los Angeles, have beaten the Cowboys in four of the last five meetings after Dallas took five of the first six contests. This week marks their first meeting since 2017, with neither roster looking remotely similar in many areas than four years ago. Here are five of the most important storylines for each team heading into Sunday's battle at SoFi Stadium.
- Sunday will mark the second straight NFC East opponent for the Chargers after starting the season on the road in Washington. Faced with a vicious front seven, Los Angeles was able to keep Justin Herbert upright and effective with 31-of-47 passing for 337 yards and a game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Chargers outgained Washington 424 to 259 in the 20-16 win, including just 133 yards in the air as Joey Bosa and the defense put constant pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick.
- In the second week of his second year, it'll be the Cowboys first look at reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, Justin Herbert. The young gunslinger out of Oregon was the first Charger on offense to win the award since Don Woods in 1974. His 4,336 yards was good enough for second-most all-time for rookie quarterbacks and his 10 multi-touchdown games was a rookie record. The Cowboys were first scheduled to see Herbert and the Chargers in the 2020 preseason before it was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
- Rashawn Slater has been a hot-button topic for many dating back to before the 2021 NFL Draft. He makes his debut against Dallas this week, which is significant because of how the Cowboys' front office passed on him to select Micah Parsons in the first round of April's draft. And now, as Dallas is thin at the tackle spot, the matchup with Slater will be under a massive microscope. The high-upside draft prospect caught the eye of many as an offensive tackle at Northwestern in 2019 and again last winter during the scouting process. Last Sunday, he caught the eye of the entire NFL by shutting down Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young to just one tackle and one hurry. It was the first time in seven games that Young did not finish with either a sack or multiple pressures.
- Wide receiver Jalen Guyton's prep career was played around 25 miles north of downtown Dallas at Allen High School. Then he played his collegiate ball around 30 miles north at the University of North Texas. So, it was only fitting that his hometown team, the Dallas Cowboys, gave him a shot as an undrafted free agent. Guyton caught four passes for 94 yards and a touchdown in the 2019 preseason before falling victim to the final round of Dallas' roster cuts. Since his release, he has been signed to the Chargers practice squad, elevated to the active roster, and worked his way to the third-receiver role and a starting spot. Sunday, he gets his first crack at his former team.
- Brandon Staley made one of the more highly anticipated coaching debuts in the NFL last Sunday in the win over Washington. His recent success in Chicago and Denver all peaked during his one season with the Rams as the defensive coordinator. In just one season, Staley helped the Rams defense to the NFL's top spot in yards allowed and in total yards allowed. The hire that moved him across town already seems like the right move, after the impressive defensive performance against Washington, from a defense that was 10th in total defense but 23rd in points allowed.
- One of the positives to come out of the Week 1 loss to Tampa Bay was the overall health of key contributors on both sides of the ball. Dak Prescott put up an impressive stat line and was able to emerge without any concerns surrounding his previous shoulder and ankle injuries. The one real blow to the offense was the loss of receiver Michael Gallup, who could miss 3-5 weeks with a calf strain he suffered in the second half of the 31-29 loss. Defensively, Dallas' starters appear to be fully healthy except for those already dealing with ailments or on the injury report last week.
- Despite minimal damage from a health standpoint, Dallas still received some bad news this week as La'el Collins was suspended five games for violations surrounding the substance abuse policy. The starting offensive tackle will be eligible to return to the active roster following the Week 6 matchup with New England. Tuesday morning, Cowboys owner/GM Jerry Jones announced that the initial backup plan is to start second-year tackle Terence Steele off the edge, who started 14 games in 2020.
- In addition to the Collins suspension, the Cowboys have another addition to the COVID-19 list. Zack Martin makes his return after being sidelined in Week 1 against Tampa Bay, but edge rusher Randy Gregory was added to the list and should be considered questionable for Sunday's matchup, though still hopeful to return in time. Martin's return solidifies the middle of the offensive line despite the concerns off the edge to his right, while Gregory's absence could raise questions on the defensive line against the revamped Chargers front.
- Just 11 carries for Ezekiel Elliott against Tampa Bay were only two runs short of a new career low for the sixth-year tailback. Additionally, he managed to gain just 33 yards in the loss as the Cowboys fell to 0-8 when Elliott has less than 45 yards rushing. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore may have more success on the ground this week against a Chargers defense that allowed 4.7 yards per attempt and 126 rushing yards against Washington last week.
- Dallas had never questioned the stability of their kicking game surrounding Greg Zuerlein, until last week. The veteran missed a PAT and a field goal from inside 50 yards (31-yard attempt) for the first time during his time in Dallas. Zuerlein, who had dealt with multiple injuries this offseason, saw minimal time kicking in practices throughout training camp and in the preseason. So as a precaution, the Cowboys re-signed kicked Lirim Hajrullahu to the practice squad. It's not a move for a potential roster spot, but more to be a safety net for if Zuerlein's struggles continue.