Cowboys exposed in Atlanta without their injured stars

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 25: Kicker Dan Bailey
GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 25: Kicker Dan Bailey /

Nevermind suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott. If the Dallas Cowboys lack Tyron Smith, Sean Lee, and  Dan Bailey, the playoffs aren’t in the cards.

Judging by local sports talk radio, a false sense of security permeated the airwaves. The popular opinion seemed to be that the Dallas Cowboys didn’t need to greatly alter their game plan. Touchdowns and points would pile up, and the train would keep rolling. Well, after yesterday’s fall in Atlanta, it’s back to the drawing board.

Does Dallas possess some competent backup runners? I think so. I sure hope so. If they don’t, then the next five weeks will be a slow motion dive out of playoff contention. Aside from a spark on their first drive of the second half, the rushing attack ranged from anemic to non-existent. And when that drive culminated in a clanked Mike Nugent attempt off the right upright, the ending was merely a formality.

The simple fact of the matter is the Cowboys were exposed yesterday. Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension is the headline grabber, but injuries at key positions further doomed this bunch. Namely, Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith is out. As we all witnessed, that directly leads to quarterback Dak Prescott running for his life all afternoon. My recall might be off, but I do not remember many runs to backup tackle Chaz Green’s side, either. The Cowboys had to go right, mostly out of necessity.

To add further injury to injury, it is painfully apparent that a defense without linebacker Sean Lee goes from competent to downright atrocious. In fact, the Atlanta offense started breaking off big chunks of yards on the ground immediately upon Lee’s departure. A wholly manageable 10-7 deficit at the end of the first half turned 17-7 hole at the end of the third quarter that felt much, much larger.

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Of course, Elliott’s absence made Dallas one dimensional almost from the get-go. This team simply isn’t constructed to pass their way out of trouble. So when the runners were unable to find seams in the Falcon defense, it made it a lot easier for Atlanta pass rushers to pin their ears back and come after Prescott. This begs the question as to who shoulders the blame for thinking Chaz Green was a viable option at left tackle. The Cowboys’ inability to draft for depth came back to bite them once again. They’re lucky Prescott wasn’t carried off the field.

It’s really inexcusable, given the fact that Green was a third round pick in 2015. That’s a pretty high price for a guy who’s spent a lot of time either injured or sparing us all to death. Third round draft picks are supposed to be helping their team at this juncture, not reminding everyone that they’re a wasted pick. I’d be surprised if more shuffling isn’t done next week in the event that Smith can’t go. In the meantime, we need to wish with all our might that his groin magically heals. It is woefully evident that a 75% Tyron Smith is exponentially better than a 100% Chaz Green.

Also, the kicking game’s deficiency reared its ugly head yesterday as well. The long view suggests that Nugent’s missed field goal didn’t affect the outcome. While that is true, his miss occurred at the worst possible time. If he makes that kick, it would’ve pulled Dallas to 17-10 and provided a glimmer of hope. The miss simply served to demoralize a Cowboys’ squad that wasn’t feeling great about their chances.

Maybe we can chalk the loss up as a bad day. But it’s hard not to armchair hate on this one. The offense looked out of sync all day. The defense looked mostly fine until Lee went out. It is amazing how one player makes that much of a difference, but stats don’t lie. The Dallas defense gives up a lot of points and a lot of rushing yards when Lee is not on the field. It’s as though they lose their brain when he’s gone. If he can’t go next week, the Eagles will likely run roughshod on this beleaguered unit.

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So with two games to come in the next eleven days, the Cowboys have no other recourse than to slink away and lick their wounds. In doing so, they have to hope they heal enough to put up a fight and stay in playoff contention. Given this club’s past history in dealing with injury adversity, that’s not a given. They need to steal a win next week against the Eagles, and I’m not sure I feel particularly good about their chances at this point.