Turns out Tyron Smith is more important to Cowboys' success than Ezekiel Elliott
Dallas can do without Elliott for the next month but is in trouble if Smith isn't protecting Dak Prescott
Ezekiel Elliott was arguably the Cowboys' best player a season ago when as a rookie he rushed for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. The team went 13-3 in the regular season and cruised to a first-round playoff bye before losing to the Packers in the divisional round.
But there was no mistaking Elliott's impact. The offense ranked third overall, according to Football Outsiders, and the running game was the second in the league with Elliott as the NFL's best running back -- ahead of LeSean McCoy and Le'Veon Bell.
Even through the first eight games this season, when Elliott averaged just 4.1 yards per carry, he was still Football Outsiders' top-rated back in terms of total value. That will change now that he is serving a six-game suspension, which started before Sunday's game against the Falcons.
The expectation might be that the running game would fall apart without Elliott but that didn't happen in Atlanta; Alfred Morris rushed 11 times for 53 yards (4.8 YPC), Rod Smith added 14 yards on three carries (4.7 YPC) and quarterback Dak Prescott ran six times for 42 yards (7.2 YPC).
Turns out, the Cowboys can survive without Elliott. What they cannot overcome is the loss of one of the league's best offensive linemen: left tackle Tyron Smith.
Smith missed Sunday's game with a groin injury he first suffered in Week 9 against the Chiefs. His absence couldn't have been more apparent if, instead of trotting out his replacement, sacrificial lamb Chaz Green, the Cowboys went with a life-sized milk carton with Smith's face plastered on the side positioned on the left side of the line.
Because neither Green nor the milk carton could block Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who had a career year over the course of a 60-minute football game. This isn't hyperbole; as a rookie with the Buccaneers in 2011, Clayborn registered 7.5 sacks. In the five seasons since, he never had more than 5.5 sacks in a season. On Sunday against Green (and, briefly, Byron Bell) Clayborn racked up six sacks. Six!
Behold the majesty:
So what the hell happened?
Cowboys' first drive: The signs were there, even before Prescott was ever sacked. On the game's third play, facing second-and-8, Clayborn blew past Green like he was wearing cement moon boots, forcing Prescott to step up in the pocket, hurry his throw and ultimately toss an interception. The play was overturned because the Falcons' Vic Beasley was offsides.
Green was solid for the next six plays, especially on running downs, and then Clayborn left him in his wake as he registered sack No. 1.
What you see above repeated itself a play later, on third-and-14, and Clayborn mauled Prescott just as he released the ball.
Incomplete, fourth down, Cowboys forced to punt.
Cowboys' second drive: Green had his most uneventful series of the afternoon. O Dallas' four plays, two were runs -- including a rollout to the right that ended with Prescott scrambling for 11 yards and diving into the end zone for the Cowboys' only points in the game.
Cowboys' third drive: On third down, the Cowboys finally give Green some help, having tight end Jason Witten, lined up in the backfield, chip Clayborn. That allows Prescott time to find Brice Butler downfield for a 30-yard gain. Three plays later, facing third-and-8, Green struggles to block Grady Jarrett who forces Prescott to step up in the pocket where he's sacked by -- you guessed it -- Clayborn.
Cowboys forced to punt.
Cowboys' fourth drive: Solid series from Green, who holds his own during the four-play series, though Prescott is sacked again on third down after Dontari Poe beats right guard Zack Martin on his way to the quarterback.
Cowboys' fifth drive: On the first play, Green again gets help chipping Clayborn on a long-developing pass play thrown to the right that is almost intercepted. On the next play, Green is on his own, is summarily abused by Clayborn but Prescott somehow escapes for a 12-yard gain and a first down.
Seriously, Prescott somehow got out of this:
The top image shows Clayborn making a beeline for Prescott and the bottom image shows the Prescott sandwich, which he somehow got out of.
This turned out to be one of the worst series for one player we can ever remember.
On the next play, Green jumps early but isn't flagged for a false start, and he's again helped by a chip block. And again, Prescott is pressured, this time from the right side. A play later, Green is on an island, Clayborn beats him easily and Prescott is forced from the pocket, scrambling around the right side for another first down. The play after that, Brooks Reed takes his turn treating Green like a turnstile -- but Prescott throws a quick completion before getting hit. Reed frog-marched Green into the backfield on the next snap, but Prescott again gets rid of the ball quickly for a first down. But that play was nullified because Green was flagged for holding (of course he was).
In related news: Prescott must've thought it was Groundhog Day
Things get worse before they get better. On the first play after the penalty, Clayborn rag-dolls Green and almost gets to Prescott, who again throws quickly. Clayborn beats Green again on the next snap and again on the snap after that to log sack No. 3. And for good measure, Clayborn forces and recovers Prescott's fumble.
Here's the Clayborn spin move moments before the strip-sack:
Mercifully, the half ended three plays later.
Cowboys' sixth drive: Dallas leans on the running game to start the third quarter, has success, and gets down to the Falcons' 12-yard line. On first down, however, Prescott drops back to throw, Green is left alone with Clayborn and, yes, Prescott is sacked for the fourth time.
Two plays later, the Cowboys attempt a field goal, which promptly doinks off the upright.
Cowboys' seventh drive: Dallas goes three-and-out but not before Clayborn gets his fifth sack, this time on third-and-13. Inexplicably, the Cowboys force Green to block Clayborn without help and the results are as predictable as the tides.
Cowboys' eighth drive: The Cowboys finally bench Green for Byron Bell and he holds his own for 12 of his first 13 plays. Unfortunately, Reed beats him for a sack on play No. 13. Insult to injury: Bell is flagged for holding too. The penalty is declined and the Cowboys turn the ball over on downs.
Cowboys' ninth drive: Bell remains at left tackle as do the results. On the second snap of the series, Clayborn beats Bell for sack No. 6 and strip-sack No. 2:
For the afternoon, Prescott was sacked eight times and fumbled twice, though he wasn't looking to point fingers.
"We're not going to leave somebody out to dry, for the most part," Prescott told reporters after the game. "We're not going to point fingers and say it's Chaz. It's whatever it is. We'll go back and look. I probably could have gotten the ball out faster sometimes. We'll go back and look at it and get better from it."
Green, to his credit, took responsibility for what had to be the low point of his career.
"I mean, it's unfortunate," Green said. "You have some good days. You have some bad days. This obviously wasn't my best day. I take this on my shoulders and look at myself in the mirror. Just need to fix the things I need to fix. I'm going to get it fixed."
Meanwhile, if you're wondering how Clayborn kept getting to Prescott, you're not alone. Clayborn sounded just as confused as the rest of us.
"I only have one move and it worked," he said, via the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which can't do much for Green's confidence.
If you're looking for a silver lining, how's this: Yes, Green was the worst player on the field on Sunday, but according to Pro Football Focus, he was average as a run blocker. It's not much, but it's something.
So to reiterate one final time: The Cowboys' playoff hopes hang in the balance, not because Elliott could be out until Week 17 but because Prescott's health could become a real concern with this makeshift offensive line that is without its best player.
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