He plays. He plays no more. He plays. He plays no more. He plays. He plays no more... finally, for Ezekiel Elliott the bloom is off the rose.
After weeks of back-and-forth courtroom drama, the Dallas Cowboys' star running back announced this week he’ll serve the remainder of his six-game suspension. It removes an element of suspense that, let’s face it, has hovered over this team since the punishment was announced midsummer.
But with his absence, the Cowboys face a crisis. Elliott’s first game out was a 27-7 drubbing at the hands of the Falcons where replacement Alfred Morrisran for just 53 yards. Add in an injury to left tackle Tyron Smith, whose absence led to eight sacks of Dak Prescott, and this powerful offense suddenly looks shaky.
It doesn’t help that their next opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, come in refreshed off a bye week and looking for the knockout punch. A victory Sunday night would push the Eagles to 9-1, give them a four-game lead in the NFC East with six remaining (plus tiebreakers) and push the Cowboys to the brink.
Can Carson Wentz, new acquisition Jay Ajayi and these Eagles keep rolling? Or can Prescott press all the right buttons for this Dallas offense while the defense adjusts to life without linebacker Sean Lee?
Philadelphia at Dallas
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 19 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Eagles -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How will the Dallas offense regroup?
The future for the Cowboys' offense these next five games is finally crystal clear. Ezekiel Elliott is out of the lineup, for certain, and they can look to build a temporary chemistry with a group of replacements.
But the problem for Morris, Darren McFadden, and whoever else tries their hand at running back is the absence of left tackle Tyron Smith. He’ll sit out another game, battling groin and back injuries while leaving Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Coxlicking his chops.
Against the Falcons, no Smith meant Prescott got sacked six times by the same guy. The Falcons’ Adrian Clayborn, not exactly a Pro Bowler, added six pressures and a QB hit against Smith’s hapless replacement, Chaz Green.
Cox and the rest of the Eagles' defensive line is a major step up in talent. So the Cowboys' O-line is going to have to pass protect while Morris, whose last 100-yard rushing performance came in January 2016, needs to find some holes.
“They did a good job of trying to make us one dimensional early on in the game,” Morris told the The Dallas Morning News about the Falcons' D. “I felt like they came out [Sunday] almost like, ‘we’re going to stop the run and make them throw the ball to beat us.’ And they did a good job of doing their job.”
But that’s where Morris needs to step up and earn early respect. Sure, he had almost five yards per carry but most of that was from one 20-yard run. Early sacks and early stuffs could leave the Cowboys down big and in an almost impossible position to recover.
2. Can the Eagles keep everyone happy?
It’s been a true team effort for the Eagles, who own the NFL’s best record at 8-1. Carson Wentz is having an MVP-like season, throwing for 23 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He’s done a great job of spreading the ball around.
When tight end Zach Ertzsat out with a hamstring injury two weeks ago, Alshon Jefferystepped up and caught two touchdown passes. Nelson Agholorhas been the team’s big surprise, emerging as a surefire performer in the slot. He already has more yards this season (428) than all of last year combined.
The run game now has two bona fide starters in LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi.Ajayi, acquired in a trade from the Dolphins, should be heavily involved in the offense this week after time to learn the system. But Corey Clementis making his case for playing time, too. The undrafted rookie from Wisconsin outperformed draft pick Donnel Pumphreyin the preseason and now has 105 rushing yards and two touchdowns over the last two games.
The Eagles are a team with a lot of mouths to feed. To this point, they’ve bought into the team concept and all sides are working together. Doug Pedersonfinds himself a quality candidate for coach of the year.
But did the bye week allow the pressure to start seeping in? Or the 8-1 record to get to their heads? The Eagles, seemingly happy just to make the playoffs back in August, are now neck-and-neck with the Patriots as favorites to win the Super Bowl.
In public, everyone’s playing it cool. Wentz was crowing about Ajayi’s big-play ability and the offense is anxious to add another weapon on the field. But the Eagles have to be careful. Ajayi was traded from Miami because head coach Adam Gase thought there was a locker room issue. Pederson’s biggest challenge in the second half is to keep all eyes on the prize and make sure star players like him, Jeffery, Blount, and others remain in the business of sacrificing for the greater good.
3. A guy named Jake
Jake Elliott is still credited with turning the Eagles’ season around with his 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants in Week 3. Since that moment, he’s missed just one field goal and has injected extra confidence to one of the better special teams units in the NFL.
Compare that to the Cowboys, forced to signMike Nugentafter their main kicker, Dan Bailey, suffered a groin injury. While Nugent is a longtime veteran, spending more than a decade in the league with the Jets and Bengals he hasn’t hit a 50-plus yard field goal since 2015.
Compare that to Elliott, who is five for six just nine games into the season from that range. That’s already a team record with seven games to go for a rookie who ranks eighth in the NFL in scoring.
Elliott’s leg adds an extra 10 yards of distance, giving the Eagles' offense room to breathe. Those pressure-packed kicks also help in a rivalry that’s gone to overtime the last two times these teams have played in Dallas. Having a kicker you can trust and one that shortens the field for your offense helps even a game out on the road.
It’s just one more Pro Bowl-caliber player the Eagles have acquired in what’s becoming a very special year.
You have to expect a better effort from the Cowboys this Sunday. It’s a desperate team that understands how quickly 5-3 with Ezekiel Elliott could become 5-9 without. Luckily, the schedule for them after this game is favorable, including a road game against the lowly Giants and the Chargers at home. But in a conference where 10-6 is a near-certainty to make the playoffs, this team needs every win it can get.
But the Cowboys are still weakened and their rivals smell blood. Coming in at 100 percent, the Eagles will benefit from Zach Ertz’s likely return to the lineup and have the defensive talent to make life miserable for Dak Prescott a second straight week.
A wild card here is whether Dez Bryantplays. Remember him? Terrance Williamsdid an admirable job last week for the Cowboys' receiving corps, gaining 173 yards but that’s only one option. Prescott needs more. Bryant has had a horrible year and looks nothing like the Pro Bowl option he once was.
Without Bryant, slowed by an ankle problem, there appear to be one too many missing offensive players here. The Cowboys are in trouble.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Cowboys 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.