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Ezekiel Elliott's Absence Was Far From the Cowboys’ Biggest Problem in Loss to Falcons

Sure, Ezekiel Elliott was missed in the Cowboys' loss to the Falcons. But Adrian Clayborn's six sacks, a Atlanta franchise record, show that Dallas probably missed LT Tyron Smith more.

On Sunday against the Falcons, Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott sat out the first game of a six-game suspension. Certainly Dallas would have fared better against Atlanta with their fantastic running back on the field, but Elliott’s absence was nowhere close to being the main reason why the Cowboys dropped to 5–4 in their 27–7 loss.

All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith missed the game due to back and groin injuries, and his replacement, Chaz Green, struggled mightily throughout the game. Adrian Clayborn will likely be the NFC Defensive Player of the Week thanks to Green, who let the Falcons’ defensive end beat him early and often—tallying up a franchise-record six sacks, to be exact—until Jason Garrett decided Green couldn’t be on the field any longer. 

Clayborn entered the game tied for 83rd in the league with just two sacks on the season. With six sacks Sunday, he’s now tied for seventh. Prescott was sacked a total of eight times on Sunday, four more than his previous career high. The six sacks are the second most in a game in NFL history, and the most in a game since Osi Umenyiora had six sacks against the Eagles on Sept. 30, 2007.

In addition, Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee left the game with a hamstring injury in the first half, and his absence was felt immediately. When he was on the field, the Falcons had negative rushing yards and could establish nothing on the ground with or without Devonta Freeman (who left with a concussion). Ultimately, Atlanta tallied 142 total rushing yards.

On Sunday Morning, NFL Network reported that Elliott would head out of the country to rest and train as part of a “reset.” But multiple eagle-eyed Cowboys fans doing some shopping spotted Elliott at a Kroger. Before kickoff, Elliott sent out an Instagram post of the Cowboys’ running backs saying “hold it down.”

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Try as they might, the backups could not hold it down.

Dallas rushed 12 times for 43 yards in the first half and finished with just more than 100 yards on the ground thanks to some garbage time carries. Alfred Morris and No. 2 back Rod Smith could never get anything consistent on the ground (and Darren McFadden, relegated to No. 3, finished with –2 yards). The longest rushes for the Cowboys in the first half: a 12-yard scramble by Prescott after just avoiding a sack late in the first half and an 11-yard rush by Prescott on a play-action rollout.

Dallas tried to go to bigger personnel groupings in the second half and saw a touch of success with Morris rushes for 14 and 20 yards, but that was fleeting. Mike Nugent missed an easy 38-yard field goal and, after a quick three-and-out, the Cowboys got the ball again midway through the fourth down 20 points.

If you only see the boxscore from this game—and I’m looking at some of the bloviating talking heads—you may think that Dak Prescott is not elite, that he cannot win without Elliott and that maybe these Cowboys aren’t worth much without No. 21. After all, he fumbled twice, had no passing touchdowns and threw for less than 200 yards.

You should not think that. The Cowboys struggled to establish a running game, yes, but Prescott was regularly hassled in the backfield and Dallas’ defense took a nosedive once Lee went out. Elliott was missed on Sunday, but his absence was far from the only issue for Dallas.