Sunday night bring the national stage and a challenging opponent, in Norv Turner's San Diego Chargers. San Diego has practiced against Dallas the last two day with minimal tackling, so Sunday's matchup gives Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan the chance to continue their rollouts against a quality opponent who runs very, very simillar offensive and defensive schemes.
When the Chargers have the ball, Ryan will find no better challenge for this schemes than Philip Rivers. The superlative quarterback enters his eighth season running the Zampese/Turner scheme and has attained a degree of mastery on par with the Mannings and Bradys. It seems that Rivers could roll out of bed, don a helmet, put some shoulder pads over his pajamas and run his offense down the field.
Last week, against Seattle, Rivers looked mid-season smooth. His drops were precise. The ball came out a count ahead of the rush -- every time. His passes were on target. He moved the offense in deliberate steps.
Ryan made his reputation in Cleveland stumping A-list quarterbacks. He got into Drew Brees and Tom Brady's heads last year and forced them into numerous mistakes. Can his rush and his coverage, which have been so out of sync the last week and a half, get on the same page? That will be the key to judging progress. The Cowboys have not had much trouble getting guys free runs at quarterbacks, but they have not been as effective clamping down in the secondary. Hence, Tony Romo and Kyle Orton have thus far been able to beat the blitz. If the secondary is still shaky, Rivers will undoubtedly do the same.
-- Stop the run: The Cowboys made some massive changes along the defensive line, in part because the Broncos first team ran easily against the Cowboys last week. Jay Ratliff will be back, and he'll be flanked by Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman. Both played on the left side, but the coaches must feel Spears is the best starting option on the right side, though he's never played there. Jason Hatcher has benefitted from flopping to the weakside. Watch to see if Spears, another ''underachiever'' picks up his game with the chance to rush off Rivers' blind side.
More important, see if the Cowboys can keep Ryan Matthews in check. He's had a stumbling career start and he looked so-so last week. The Chargers running attack has dropped off significantly since LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner left. A Matthews outburst would be a bad sign.
Some key young backups and starters get some quality head-to-heads
1. Orlando Scandrick vs. Malcolm Floyd. Scandrick has always wanted to start and now he gets his chance, with Terence Newman out. It he up to it? Floyd will tell. So will Vincent Jackson.
2. Victor Butler, Anthony Spencer, Sean Lee, Gerald Sensabaugh and Abram Elam vs. Antonio Gates. All five of these players will get to cover the perennial Pro Bowl tight end, depending on the coverage. Are five men enough for the job?
3. Tyron Smith vs. Shaun Phillips. The Chargers best rusher comes off the right side a lot. Smith has worked for three weeks against Demarcus Ware. Can he handle another plus rusher, with a different set of moves? He's going to face a lot of them this year.
4. Kevin Ogletree vs. Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer. Miles Austin's sore hamstring pushes Ogletree into the starting spot, where he'll face two good cornerbacks. Ogletree's ability to make plays may dictate whether the Cowboys pursue a veteran wideout to provide depth.
The starters should play close to a half this week. We'll have a lot more to parse and discuss come Monday. More chalk talk to Wes Bunting later today.