So this is what life is like for the Dallas Cowboys without Ezekiel Elliott…maybe. Losing 27-7 to the Falcons yesterday to fall to 5-4 on the season, the Cowboys dealt with a dangerous Atlanta team without Tyron Smith nor Sean Lee, who exited in the first quarter.
While the amount of absent stars the Cowboys had provides some hope that things can improve without Elliott, the simple fact that Zeke was sorely missed can't be hidden. Rushing for just 107 yards, Dak Prescott was under fire all afternoon, standing no chance on most of his 30 drop backs thanks to the performance of Chaz Green at LT.
Facing essentially a must-win game this Sunday at home against the Eagles, the Cowboys won't have much time to recover from this potentially demoralizing loss and more importantly nurse these key players back to health.
- We don't have to dive too much into Chaz Green's nightmarish day, because anyone watching this game saw just how much he cost the Cowboys any real chance of sustaining drives offensively. Simply put, Green had zero success putting all of the traits needed to play left tackle against the speed of the Falcons' rushers together from snap to snap. When he was alright in his movement or slide ability, Green was broken down due to repetitive hand placement and poor play strength. On the rare occasion that his upper body wasn't the issue, Green conceded the corner and was beaten with speed numerous times as Adrian Clayborn got to Dak Prescott six times. Tyron Smith was missed dearly on Sunday, to say the absolute least.
- It wasn't only Green that struggled on the left side of Dallas' offensive line in this game. I thought that Jonathan Cooper was well below average compared to the dominant level of play he's been at the previous few weeks. Some of this can surely be attributed to Cooper not having the same confidence that he would if Tyron Smith was next to him, but there were plenty of snaps where Cooper was forced to catch his man thanks to poor balance and technique. When Cooper struggles with his balance, he is simply a very beatable football player – as this leads to issues with his power and hands. Unable to deliver his normally strong initial blows to defensive linemen before clearing to the second level, Cooper was not nearly as effective on the afternoon moving defenders or anchoring in his pass sets. For these reasons, I believe the Cowboys can still be effective rushing the football without Elliott – assuming Cooper regains his form following this off day for the entirety of the Cowboys' offensive line.
- Dak Prescott's fourth rushing touchdown of the season was the only score of the game for the Cowboys, and rookie WR Noah Brown deserves some credit for allowing the play to develop as easily as it did. The only defender that had a chance to contain and close on Prescott was rookie DE Takk McKinley. A very tough blocking assignment, the willing blocker in Brown rode McKinley behind Prescott before forcing him to disengage and chase the ball from behind. Already turning the corner and gaining speed, Prescott beat the backside pursuit to easily cross the goal line.
- Adding another sack on the day, DeMarcus Lawrence continues to prove that he is one of the most versatile pass rushers in the entire NFL. What gives Lawrence so many ways to get to the quarterback is his quick hands. When Lawrence can use his hands to either take away a blocker's ability to reach on him or to stab and sharpen the corner, he becomes impossible to block. Lawrence is equally dominant bending towards the quarterback with great speed and drive or countering inside to get in a QBs face. There is no doubt that a healthy DeMarcus Lawrence is going to continue to be a player opposing offensive coordinator's dread game planning for.
- I am hopeful that the Cowboys' coaches on the defensive side of the ball saw enough from UDFA Lewis Neal (playing in his first regular season game) at the 1T DT position for him to replace Richard Ash. Ash has not played poorly, doing his job by eating up space on the interior, but the Cowboys are just noticeably better with an athletic 1T in the game like Maliek Collins or Neal. The penetration these players create is unique for a 1T, but it helps the Cowboys' linebackers do what they do best in shooting gaps and finding the football. Lewis Neal's best trait is his superb lower body strength, which keeps him from getting cut low by blockers. Both Ash and Neal freed themselves up to make plays down the line in this game, but it was Ash failing to get in position to stop the run at the line numerous times while Neal flashed some speed along with his high motor to make a noticeable impact playing next to David Irving.
- There weren't many bright spots for a Cowboys secondary that was simply outclassed by the Falcons receiving corps, but Xavier Woods' interception was sure one of them. The play was perfectly executed by both him and Anthony Brown. Dropping to the right depth in coverage, Brown put himself in position to drive on a Matt Ryan pass to Mohamed Sanu at just the right time – arriving as the high throw sailed into his hand and deflected into the air. Continuing to impress with his range and instincts, Woods saw the ball shoot behind Brown and, with his momentum going towards the sideline already, rallied to the football to grab a tip drill interception that set up his team's only touchdown.
The Cowboys chances against the Eagles will rest on the health of the simply irreplaceable players that were missing in this ugly loss to the Falcons. Nobody with the Cowboys this week should believe that not having Ezekiel Elliott on the field cost them this game, and Alfred Morris along with Rod Smith will be even more motivated to respond with better performances on the ground.
Maintaining balance to their offense is the only way the Cowboys can control games still and ultimately win enough to remain in the playoff hunt. This, and continuing to see young defenders like Xavier Woods take strides will help Dallas focus on the few positives heading into week eleven.