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Cowboys hot topic: Surviving without Ezekiel Elliott

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We don’t know if the suspension will come soon, if at all. But it is still the biggest potential issue facing the Cowboys the rest of this season.

Kansas City Chiefs v Dallas Cowboys
How long will he still be suiting up?
Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

And still it drags on. The Ezekiel Elliott case to try and overturn his suspension enters what is seemingly the 2,459th chapter this week.

Just as they have so many times this season, the Dallas Cowboys now have to try and prepare for two possibilities: Playing the Atlanta Falcons with Elliott, or playing without him.

There is an obvious concern that not having him available could derail the current three-game winning streak. The Falcons game suddenly looked a lot more manageable with the defending NFC champs now sitting on a 4-4 record, and having lost four of their last five contests. If Elliott’s suspension is reinstated before Sunday, that could certainly change. And after that, the Cowboys face a huge NFC East showdown against the red-hot Philadelphia Eagles, owner of the best record in the league.

This is a mirror image of the situation the Cowboys faced before the 28-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Last week, Elliott was suspended until Friday morning, which had Dallas preparing a game plan without him. He came back with only one day to prepare for that matchup, but put in a solid performance as the team leaned heavily on him. He had 27 rushes for 93 yards and a touchdown, and was also just about flawless in pass protection. Now the Cowboys will be trying to get ready to play with him on the roster, but also have to be ready to account for his absence if the three judge panel rules that the suspension is back on.

We have seen over the past three weeks just how valuable he is, but can the team continue its drive to make the playoffs if he is gone?

There are reasons for optimism. First off, Dak Prescott is playing at a high level, and arguably better than he did in his outstanding rookie campaign. He accounted for three of the four Dallas touchdowns against the Chiefs, two by pass and one with his legs. His running ability adds a dimension to the Cowboys’ offense that few other teams have, and he picked up a key third down running as well on the third touchdown drive Sunday. Defending against him is a real headache. Run/pass options and designed runs for him have to be accounted for. Those are things most NFL offenses don’t do nearly as well, if at all. In most cases, opponents must come up with a very different scheme on defense than usual. That leads to extra stress on them, and of late, the Cowboys are making them pay.

Then there is the backup situation. Dallas would have to find an answer using Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden, and Rod Smith. McFadden has been inactive every game this season, making him something of an unknown quantity this year. But he is undoubtedly rather fresh. Morris is expected to be the first option to try and replace Elliott. He has seen very limited action this year, but his stat line is 14 carries for 116 yards, which gives him a very nice per carry average of 8.3 yards. Morris is a runner who seems to do best when he can stay on the field and get in rhythm. Meanwhile, there are some observers who think Smith may have the best ability to be a three-down back for Dallas outside of Elliott.

There is one big concern for the running game going forward, and that is the status of left tackle Tyron Smith. He has been dealing with a back issue all season, and he suffered a groin injury late in the Chiefs game. If he is unable to go, Chaz Green would have to fill in for him, and Green has a disturbing tendency to not make it through an entire game without his own problems, notably cramps due to dehydration. If Tyron is unable to play, it could have a real impact. That is a shame, because the offensive line has finally been performing at a level close to that of last year. La’el Collins had one of his best games as right tackle against Kansas City, and Jonathan Cooper has a solid grip on the left guard spot now. Green has shown the ability to be a decent fill-in, but he has to find a way to stay on the field.

There are a couple of other things that work in the Cowboys’ favor: The defense and special teams. Dallas now has one of the most productive pass rushes in the NFL, ranked third in the league in sacks, and bringing tons of pressure otherwise. Against the Chiefs, they also showed a strong run defense, holding the league’s leading rusher, Kareem Hunt, to a paltry 37 yards. They also limited big pass plays to that frustrating breakdown at the end of the first half. And we shouldn’t forget that Jeff Heath had the first interception of Alex Smith all season.

As for special teams, Jeff Sullivan of the mothership puts it this way:

Special teams: The coverage units have been spectacular. Kavon Frazier had a huge hit on a punt return, James Hanna another. For the season, the Cowboys are allowing 4.5 yards per punt return, which is fifth best in the league. Chris Jones has mastered angular punting. Opponents have returned just 13 of 31 boots this season.

Finding a way to win without Zeke is not by any means an easy task. But it is also far from impossible. Having a top-level QB, a quality line, good receivers, capable backup RBs, and some really good play in the other two phases of the game go a long way to solving the problem.

We all hope Zeke can play out the season. But if he can’t, the Cowboys have the tools to work around his absence. Let’s just hope we don’t have to see how that goes.