Cowboys learn they can survive without Ezekiel Elliott, but not without Tyron Smith.
Cowboys learn they can survive without Ezekiel Elliott, but not without Tyron Smith
The Cowboys had one key player missing during Sundays loss to the Falcons, and it brought down their entire offense. No, it wasnt suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Injured left tackle Tyron Smith did not make the trip to Atlanta with his back and groin hurting. Without him, quarterback Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense had no chance.
While Elliotts replacement rushing committee (Alfred Morris and Rod Smith) combined to average 4.6 yards per carry Sunday, Prescott was sacked a shocking eight times.
Six came from Adrian Clayborn, the Falcons situational edge rusher, at the expense of Smiths overwhelmed fill-ins, Chaz Green and Byron Bell.
It made the Cowboys one-dimensional in a way they didnt expect. When neither Prescott nor Morris nor Smith was running, the Cowboys were passing on empty.
Its strange for a team to rush for 108 yards in such a lopsided defeat. Prescott (20-for-30 passing, 176 yards) averaged 4.6 yards per attempt and was unable to buy time to push the ball downfield, even with his great mobility.
Prescott is not at his best when hes forced to be a dinker and dunker. Those short-to-intermediate routes become more effective when his elusiveness and big arm keep alive the threat of big passing plays, opening up easier plays underneath.
Considering the circumstances, the Cowboys had to be pleased with what Morris and Smith did with a limited workload (14 carries, 67 yards) because of game flow.
What really hurt is that Dallas had to turn to multiple-tight end formations in order to manage its best rushing stretch of the game, late in the third quarter.
Typically when a team is down 10 points that late in a game, it lets the ball loose with the passing game. But the Cowboys had no confidence in dropping back with Green turning into Clayborns personal turnstile.
Seeing how Prescott in the past has been unfazed in potentially high-scoring duels against quarterbacks of Matt Ryans caliber, he was in a rare situation of being out of his comfort zone.
Smith missing a game came at the worst possible time. The Cowboys offensive line was playing its best football of the season entering Week 10, finally jelling after its re-shuffle, only to have to start Green, a backup guard well out of place on the outside.
As a team that already was adjusting to life without Elliott, Dallas needed everybody else in order to be steady up front, especially on the edge.
It took just one rough afternoon in Atlanta to remind the Cowboys that Smith is more indispensable to their offense than Elliott is.
Its impossible to compensate for the absence of an elite tackle. The drop-off from Smith to Green and Bell was gigantic in relation to the drop-off from Elliott to Morris and Smith.
The Cowboys (5-4) have a huge, almost-must-win, home NFC East game next Sunday night against the Eagles deep and strong front four. They will have no chance if Smith cant return to the lineup.
Philadelphia saw its left tackle, Jason Peters, go down three games ago. In its next game, Carson Wentz took more sacks (three) than expected against the 49ers weak defense in his shakiest performance of a brilliant season.
The Eagles were able to adjust in the second Peters-less game, a rout of the Broncos.
While the Prescott-Wentz debate will rage over whos better in his second NFL season, theres no question that Wentz at the moment, with elite right tackle Lane Johnson, new feature back Jay Ajayi and more dangerous receivers all around, has the better supporting cast.
That makes Smith all the more important as an equalizer.
But dont assume Prescott is totally lost without Elliott. Ripping into the Cowboys QB, especially ahead of the matchup against Wentz, will be a convenient hot take this week.
Smith has been pretty durable during his still-early career, so the expectation should be that he will play.
If he doesnt, real desperation will kick in for Dallas.
And Dak will have little chance to save its season (again).