Life without Ezekiel Elliott got off to a rocky start. The star running back served the first of his six-game suspension and consequently, the Cowboys lost 27-7 to the Falcons in Atlanta on Sunday. However, missing Zeke wasn’t the Cowboys biggest problem in the game. The absence of Tyron Smith at left tackle and losing Sean Lee to a re-aggravation of his hamstring injury had an even greater impact in the contest. With just seven games left on the regular season schedule and the NFC playoff picture tightening up, the Cowboys need to make some quick adjustments if they don’t want to be left out. The Falcons, Packers and Lions, along with the Cowboys, all sit at 5-4 and a game behind the Seahawks, who hold the last wildcard spot. The good news is Dallas hosts Seattle in Week 16, which surely seems to have significant playoff implications for both squads. Also, four out of the final seven match-ups for the Cowboys are against teams with a losing record. The bad news… Dallas still has to play division leader Philadelphia (8-1) twice, with the first of those tilts coming Week 11 on Sunday Night Football.
The Offense Missed Smith More Than Elliott
Or maybe better said, Dak Prescott certainly missed his All-Pro left tackle more than his stud running back. Prescott was sacked eight times, six of which came from Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn. With Chaz Green filling in for Smith, Clayborn took advantage, consistently beating Green on the speed rush. It got so bad for Green that after he gave up his fifth sack to Clayborn, FOX Sports Analyst Troy Aikman, remarked on the broadcast “That’s about as bad as I’ve seen anybody get beat in a football game in all my years of watching football.” Green was pulled after that, but it didn’t get easier for his replacement, Byron Bell. Bell yielded two more sacks, including Clayborn’s second strip-sack of the game. Cowboys fans need to pray for Prescott if Smith misses another game.
The Defense Will Struggle Without A Healthy Sean Lee
With Lee in the lineup, the Cowboys were 5-1, give up 18 points and hold teams to just 80 rushing yards per game on average this season (prior to Sunday’s loss). When Lee has missed time, Dallas is 0-2, gives up 35 points and 164 yards per game. This has always been the issue with Lee, though, as talented of a player he is, the guy just can’t stay on the field. Lee has never played a full season and has been forced to miss 41 of a possible 123 games with a variety of injuries throughout the course of his seven-year career. Having a healthy Anthony Hitchens will help as he will likely slide over to Lee’s weakside linebacker spot. The question remains if Jaylon Smith is ready to take on a full-time role again at middle linebacker. The prognosis for Smith was much better as Lee is expected to be out at least a couple weeks.
Ezekiel Elliott > Alfred Morris + Rod Smith + Darren McFadden
Last but not least, the rushing attack needs to be addressed. Elliott accounted for one-third of Dallas total offense in the first eight games of the season and obviously leaves a huge void with his suspension. The Cowboys rushed for just 43 yards in the first half, 36 of which came via Prescott scrambling. More notably, the Cowboys averaged two yards on first down in the first two quarters. Faced consistently with 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long situations, no wonder the Falcons pass rush licked their chops and got after Prescott. In the second half, the first down offense got better. On the first possession in the third quarter, Morris rattled off runs of 14, 20 and 12 yards, all on first down plays. However, that drive resulted in a missed field goal by Mike Nugent, subbing for the injured Dan Bailey and Atlanta was able to slam the door. With Lee out, the Falcons offense pulled away in the second half and the Cowboys were forced to abandon the run game. Morris did salvage the effort with those nice runs in the third quarter, averaging 4.5 yards total on 11 carries. Dallas will have to do a much better job on first down and establish the run early if they want to have a chance against the Eagles.