Life without Ezekiel Elliott didn’t get off to a promising start for the Dallas Cowboys.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan had no interest in discussing his unit’s struggles without the reigning rushing champion, declining a post-game interview request.
Nobody in the locker room was in good spirits after a 27-7 whipping by the Atlanta Falcons — particularly on the offensive side.
“I don’t think we showed up today and played a game that we know how to play, played a game that we have played in these past few weeks,” said Alfred Morris, who started in Elliott’s place and finished with 53 yards on 11 carries.
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“I feel like it showed. It showed on the scoreboard. It showed in our play. It showed in our lack of execution from the run game to the penalties to just overall. We lost today. We got our butt beat.”
The team’s final rushing numbers didn’t look terrible — 107 yards on 21 carries for a 5.1 yards per carry average — but those are misleading.
The Cowboys struggled to establish a running game early on and were playing catch-up all day long.
The Cowboys had a dreadful rushing performance in the first half. Quarterback Dak Prescott was leading the team with 35 yards on four carries at the break.
Morris and Rod Smith combined for 8 yards on seven carries in the first half.
“I take extreme ownership of that. I put it on me,” Morris said. “I was the lead dog today. We didn’t get it done on the ground. I take full ownership of that. I feel like that’s my fault.
“That’s OK. We’ll get back to the drawing board. We’ll learn from this game and next week we’ll come out swinging a little sooner.”
The running game eventually got going in the second half. Trailing 17-7, the Cowboys showed life on their first offensive drive with Morris opening with runs of 14 and 20 yards.
Morris added an 11-yard run later in the series to set up a first-and-10 from the Atlanta 12. But a sack and a negative run by Morris turned a possible touchdown drive into a 38-yard field goal attempt that Mike Nugent clanked off the right upright.
The Cowboys never got close to making it a game after that.
“[A score] would’ve been a big momentum boost for us,” Morris said. “The score would’ve been closer. It makes it seem that much easier to play catch-up. When you get down, you don’t get three points, you don’t get seven points, and then now you’re playing from behind even further cause they go down and score again. That’s tough to overcome.”
The Cowboys showed it’ll be tough to overcome Elliott’s absence, too, especially if All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith misses more time.
This is a team built on establishing the run behind a powerful offensive line. They like to use a ground-and-pound approach that wears opponents down.
Failing to do so early on makes it tougher to overcome.
Offensive line coach Frank Pollack compared the running struggles to the Week 2 loss at Denver. In that game, the Cowboys were held to just 40 rushing yards.
“It’s not a good deal. It’s a bad situation,” Pollack said. “It snowballs. If you can’t run the ball, then you know it’s a bad deal. Snowball effect.”
But the Cowboys remain confident in their running backs filling in for Elliott.
Morris and Darren McFadden, who had just one carry for minus-2 yards, have been 1,000-yard rushers in the league, and Smith has flashed promising signs in his young career.
“I think we’re in good shape with our running backs,” owner Jerry Jones said. “Tonight, I really want to give [the Falcons] a lot of credit for completely, really, compromising everything we did offensively by creating breakdowns in our blocking.”