Elliott was starting to look like the running back who led the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 2016. Dak Prescott had five touchdown passes in that stretch and was playing turnover-free football. The defense, buoyed by the return of Sean Lee from a hamstring strain, did not allow more than 19 points during the win streak, slowing down a Kansas City Chiefs‘ offense that was as dynamic as any in the first half of the season.
But when Elliott left, the Cowboys lost their identity. It wasn’t just Elliott’s absence. Left tackle Tyron Smith missed two games with a groin strain. Lee aggravated a hamstring strain on the second series of the first game of Elliott’s absence against the Atlanta Falcons.
They lost three straight games by more than 20 points for the first time since 2004. They failed to score at least 10 points in three straight games for the first time in franchise history.
A 5-3 record turned into 5-6 in a hurry with the Cowboys needing to win out to just have a chance to make the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since 2006-07.
Elliott returns to a Cowboys team that has won three straight, even if they were rather unimpressive, despite what the lopsided scores against the Washington Redskins and New York Giants might have indicated.
“At times we did some things really well. Other times, not quite as well,” coach Jason Garrett said of the team’s record without Elliott. “But I don’t think it’s the time to kind of pull back and do this overarching view of everything. You get back to work, and we did a good job really the last few weeks winning some ballgames, doing things the right way in each phase of our team that allowed us to win games, and now we just go forward.”
At 8-6, the Cowboys are in the playoff hunt but need a combination of losses by other teams and wins in their final two games to qualify for the postseason.
If they don’t make the playoffs, they can look back at the three losses without Elliott as the reason, which would ignore the three losses they had with him on the field, including two losses in which the offense scored 30 and 31 points.
But the running game was not the issue. It was adequate enough without Elliott. They averaged 121 yards per game on the ground — 27 fewer than they averaged with Elliott, but still good enough to be ranked tied for ninth in the NFL over that span.
It was the other parts of the team that led to the demise.
Here’s a look at where things went wrong in the Cowboys’ three losses without Elliott:
The 27-7 loss was the absolute wrong way to begin life without Elliott. But it was the pass protection that determined this loss. Prescott was sacked eight times after being sacked just 10 times total in the first eight games of the season. Chaz Green replaced Smith in the starting lineup and gave up four of Adrian Clayborn‘s six sacks. Rarely did they give Green help after they saw his difficulties protecting Prescott’s blindside. Once the defense lost Lee, they had no answers, giving up four scores on eight drives after he went out of the game.
With how the Eagles were playing, maybe the Cowboys would have lost had they had Elliott, Smith and Lee playing. But they ran the ball effectively against a top run defense. They could do nothing in the passing game, failing to make one play of at least 20 yards. So concerned about the protection — Byron Bell replaced Green in this game — Prescott averaged just 4.7 yards per attempt and had the first three-interception game of his career. It’s difficult to remember the Cowboys actually held a 9-7 halftime lead before they were obliterated in the second half for a 37-9 defeat. The Eagles finished with 215 yards rushing on 33 carries.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
A short week following a night game did not help. Once again the Cowboys were in the game at halftime, trailing just 3-0. But they had no answers for Philip Rivers, who threw for 436 yards and three touchdowns, and Keenan Allen, who had 11 catches for 172 yards and a score. Prescott had two more interceptions, including one that was returned 90 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The 28-6 loss left the Cowboys dispirited a year after they opened up 10-1 with Prescott and Elliott dominating.
The Cowboys have been able to reset with three straight wins to make Elliott’s return matter at least a little bit. They survived Elliott’s absence when they could have been eliminated, given the results of the first three games without him.
“It’s not mission accomplished but we’re putting ourselves in better and better positions,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “We put ourselves in a bad position, made the margin for error very small, but we’re starting to play the right way. We’re starting to finish games. And with Zeke, he has an unbelievable impact on our team on the field, off the field. He’s a guy that we really feed off.”