As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Actually, the Dallas Cowboys probably were already well aware of it, but in losing handily to the Atlanta Falcons, 27-7, it was a stark reminder of what happens when you’re missing some of your best players.
Indeed, this game seemed to be more about who wasn’t playing for the Cowboys rather than who was actually on the field. Gone, of course, was running back Ezekiel Elliott due to his suspension, but then prior to the team leaving for Atlanta, the decision was made that left tackle Tryon Smith couldn’t play due to a groin injury.
With those two out, the Cowboys’ running attack suffered. Alfred Morris, who took over the starting duties, finished with just 53 yards while Dallas totaled 107 rushing yards overall on its way to 233 yards of offense overall.
In fact, the team’s leading runner in the opening half was Dak Prescott, as he totaled 36 yards on four carries. But unfortunately, the reason the quarterback was the top ground gainer for the Cowboys through the first 30 minutes was because he was often scrambling for his life.
Smith’s replacement at left tackle, Chaz Green, struggled mightily throughout the game and was eventually benched in the fourth quarter in favor of Byron Bell, who wasn’t much better. The Cowboys eight sacks in this game alone with defensive end Adrian Clayborn finishing with six sacks by himself, which set both a Falcons record and were the most by an opponent in Cowboys history.
The Dallas defense, though, did manage to keep the Cowboys in the game early on. The unit even started out strong as on Atlanta’s first possession, cornerback Anthony Brown tipped a pass that safety Xavier Woods hauled in for the interception.
Set up at the Falcons’ 21-yard line, Dallas then needed just four plays to reach the end zone. Dropping back to pass at the 11-yard line, Prescott instead pulled the ball down, ran off right tackle and dove into the end zone to give the Cowboys an early 7-0 lead.
That, however, would be the only points the team could muster offensively. Meanwhile, the Dallas defense was able to knock Atlanta starting running back Devonta Freeman out of the game and limited the Falcons to a 50-yard field goal on the home team’s next series.
But things began to unravel late in the second quarter when Atlanta went on a nine play, 80-yard march to the end zone. The drive was helped by a pair of costly penalties, the first a facemask call on Jeff Heath that added 15 more yards to a 19-yard Matt Ryan completion. A pass interference call on Brown then gave Atlanta a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line, which led to a Tevin Campbell run up the middle for the touchdown and a 10-7 Falcons lead at the half.
Despite the close score, the Cowboys defense seemed headed for trouble, namely because Sean Lee had to leave the game earlier after injuring his hamstring again. He was listed as questionable heading into the break, but prior to the third quarter getting underway, the announcement was made that he would not return to the game.
And sure enough, without the Cowboys’ leading tackler and defensive general on the field, the Atlanta offense immediately took advantage. Getting the ball to start the third, the Falcons’ first play went for 17 yards with the next snap picking up 24.
That eventually led to another seven points, as Ryan wrapped up the series by finding receiver Justin Hardy in the back of the end zone for a three-yard score, Atlanta’s lead quickly up to a 10-point advantage, 17-7.
Using a three-tight end set, the Cowboys actually saw a little progress in the running game on their next possession. Morris had three carries of more than 10 yards each, picking up gains of 14, 20 and 11 to help Dallas get into field goal range. But Mike Nugent’s attempt from 38 yards out hit the right upright, the kick not only no good but also providing a sharp reminder that the team is missing its Pro Bowl kicker, Dan Bailey, as well.
From that point on it was all Atlanta. The Falcons kept rolling, adding another touchdown on their next possession, a one-yard pass to tight end Austin Cooper. They then followed that with a 29-yard field goal to wrap up the scoring, 27-7.
With the loss the Cowboys’ three-game winning streak was snapped, their record dropping to 5-4. They’ll now return to North Texas for three straight home games, beginning when the NFC East leading Philadelphia Eagles come to town for a prime-time Sunday night matchup.