It wasn't pretty, but the Dallas Cowboys beat the LA Chargers on Monday night to improve their season record to 4-2. Fans are signing the praises of Dak Prescott, DeMarcus Lawrence and CeeDee Lamb, who all came up huge for Dallas, but other players proved pivotal in the 20-17 win.
Brandin Cooks had his coming out party, DaRon Bland made a huge breakup in the end zone on fourth down and Brandon Aubrey made all four of his kicks, including the game-winning 39-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise from the win? The Leighton Vander Esch-less Cowboys defense stymieing LA's rushing attack, which welcomed back star running back Austin Ekeler to the starting lineup after a three-game absence.
Ekeler was bottled up to the tune of 27 rushing yards on 14 carries.
While DeMarcus Lawrence and Osa Odighizuwa showed out in that regard, safety convert Markquese Bell had the game of his life Monday and is a possible star in the making for defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
Cowboys defender Markquese Bell showed out vs the Chargers
Bell finished second on the team with seven tackles and each of them felt immense. He stopped Ekeler in his tracks at the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter.
The Chargers scored a touchdown on fourth down to tie the game, but the fact Los Angeles was even in that position is a testament to Bell. Very few defenders are capable of tackling Ekeler in open space, especially near the goal line. Ekeler's 39 total touchdowns since 2021 are far and away the most of any running back.
Nobody's saying the Cowboys are a better defense without Vander Esch, but Bell brings more athleticism and speed to the second level. That's an excellent combination with ascending second-year linebacker Damone Clark.
Sure enough, Bell's athleticism paid dividends in coverage, too. The Florida A&M product posted a team-high 86.6 coverage grade on 27 coverage snaps, per PFF (subscription required). He was also the team's second-highest graded defender behind Odighizuwa with a 91.3 grade.
Beyond the box score and game grades, Bell passed the eye test ... for the second time this season. In Week 1 against the Giants, Bell led the Cowboys with eight tackles. Like Monday night, Bell made his presence felt whenever the Chargers attacked the middle of Dallas' defense.
He played 53% of the snaps Monday night. That number needs to keep increasing.
A former safety in college, Bell looks the part of a starting NFL linebacker. If he maintains this level of performance, the Cowboys will be just fine at the position with Vander Esch shelved for a minimum of four weeks and promising rookie DeMarvion Overshown out for the year.