The Dallas Cowboys’ likelihood of success Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons was already minimal at best.
Then the Cowboys received a setback Thursday in a New York federal court as star running back Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy was officially reinstated.
Elliott’s absence was deeply felt in a 27-7 blowout loss that owner Jerry Jones described as being “taken to the woodshed.”
But add in injuries to left tackle Tyron Smith and linebacker Sean Lee, and the Cowboys had no chance in what was arguably their worst performance of the season.
The running game without Elliott was inept other than a few scrambles by quarterback Dak Prescott.
But as much as Elliott is the foundation of their run-oriented philosophy, the loss of Smith, the perennial Pro Bowler who was ruled out Saturday with groin injury, proved to be fatal for the entire offense.
The Cowboys entered the game on a team-record-tying streak of six straight games with 28 or more points — only to be held to one touchdown and a season-low 233 yards.
Backup Chaz Green started in Smith’s place and offered little resistance in what was easily the worst performance by a Cowboys offensive lineman in years. He allowed four sacks to Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn and also had a holding penalty. Clayborn had a team-record six sacks in the game, one shy of the NFL record held by Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas.
“When we got in those passing situations, we couldn’t slow them down,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “They put heat on the quarterback all day long.”
The Cowboys allowed eight sacks on the day, the most since Troy Aikman, who happened to be calling the game for FOX, was dropped 11 times by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1991.
Prescott rarely saw a clean pocket and got nothing down the field. He completed 20 of 30 passes for 176 yards and added six carries for 42 yards, mostly on scrambles for his life
“I’ve been playing football for a long time. I’ve had games similar to that,” said Prescott, who said he shared a text message with Elliott after the game. “It affects you. It was a team loss.”
Jones, however, expressed concern about the Cowboys’ inability to block the Falcons and the number of hits on Prescott.
“Yes, yes I am and do,” Jones said. “I saw Troy Aikman get sacked 11 times against Philadelphia in one game many, many years ago. To say the least, I’m concerned about that. This was disappointing. I had hope initially, but the facts are we weren’t able to block them up tonight. They took us to the woodshed tonight.”
Jones said Elliott’s presence might have helped mitigate the loss of Smith.
Alfred Morris started at running back and finished with 53 yards on 11 carries, but 34 of the yards came on two runs. Rod Smith had three carries for 14 yards and Darren McFadden had 1 carry for minus-2 yards.
The inability to run snowballed on the Cowboys. They found themselves in too many third-and-long situations and couldn’t block the Falcons on obvious passing downs.
“Any time you get beat as thoroughly and show some of the soft spots we showed out there, if you show that then that’s a concern,” Jones said. “Again, it shows you the game that we have and if you get real vulnerable, which we were, we we weren’t capable of really blocking their rush. We got one score on a short field, off a turnover. Other than that, we couldn’t block them.”
The lack of Elliott and Smith on offense was only made worse by Lee’s absence on defense.
The Cowboys got an early interception off quarterback Matt Ryan. Cornerback Anthony Brown tipped a pass intended for Julio Jones that rookie safety Xavier Woods intercepted.
It led to an 11-yard touchdown run by Prescott and a 7-0 lead.
But Lee aggravated a hamstring injury late in the first quarter. It’s the same hamstring that kept him out of two games early in the season.
“When he’s out, there’s a void,” Garrett said of Lee.
The Falcons scored 27 unanswered points.
Ryan completed 22 of 29 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. The Falcons rushed for 132 yards as a team.
“We didn’t handle the adversity of the day very well,” Garrett said. “We have to do a better job of that going forward.”
It’s a huge loss for the Cowboys (5-4) who saw their three-game winning streak end and fell further behind the Eagles (8-1) in the NFC East standings.
While the Cowboys have two games left against the Eagles, the division race is largely over. What matters now is staying in wild-card contention until Elliott returns.
Losing to the Falcons (5-4) means they lost an important head-to-head tiebreaker against a team they might be battling for a playoff spot. The overall performance certainly does little for the team’s confidence heading into next Sunday’s showdown against the Eagles at AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys talked all week about feeling confident without Elliott.
How about without Elliott, Lee and Smith?
And that’s not even including kicker Dan Bailey, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, who remains sidelined with a groin injury.
It should be noted that his replacement, Mike Nugent, missed a kick in the third quarter that would have made the score 17-10.
Final judgment: The Cowboys have little likelihood of success without Elliott and company.
“We’re not going to lose confidence off one game. We’re going to keep pushing, keep getting better,” Prescott said. “We’re excited for the challenges.”
Jones, however, remained down in the dumps.
“I feel like having been taken to the woodshed right now,” a despondent Jones said about the Cowboys being able to stay afloat until Elliott returns.
Falcons 27, Cowboys 7
Dal—Prescott 11 run (Nugent kick), 6:19.
Atl—FG M.Bryant 50, :00.
Atl—T.Coleman 1 run (M.Bryant kick), 1:31.
Atl—Hardy 3 pass from Ryan (M.Bryant kick), 8:26.
Atl—Hooper 1 pass from Ryan (M.Bryant kick), 13:48.
Atl—FG M.Bryant 29, 8:28.
Total Net Yards
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Dallas, Morris 11-53, Prescott 6-42, R.Smith 3-14, McFadden 1-(minus 2). Atlanta, T.Coleman 20-83, Ward 9-23, Gabriel 1-15, D.Coleman 2-8, Freeman 2-3.
PASSING—Dallas, Prescott 20-30-0-176. Atlanta, Ryan 22-29-1-215.
RECEIVING—Dallas, Witten 7-59, D.Bryant 4-39, R.Smith 4-15, C.Beasley 2-23, Butler 1-30, T.Williams 1-9, K.Smith 1-1. Atlanta, J.Jones 6-57, Hooper 6-49, Gabriel 3-58, Sanu 3-29, Hardy 2-7, Toilolo 1-10, T.Coleman 1-5.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Dallas, Nugent 38.