FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Ezekiel Elliott will miss at least the next three games depending on the next legal round in the Dallas Cowboys running back’s fight over his six-game suspension for alleged domestic violence.
It’s likely the same for kicker Dan Bailey because of a groin injury, and could be another game or two for Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith (groin, back) and 2016 All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee after he tweaked a hamstring in the 27-7 loss at Atlanta on Sunday.
The absence of four of the most important Cowboys showed up in various ways against the Falcons, and raises questions about the defending NFC East champions staying in contention with division-leading Philadelphia visiting Sunday night.
“When you have really good players, some of the best in the league and they’re not out there, certainly that makes a difference,” tight end Jason Witten said. “We believe in our system of football offensively and defensively. It’s harder when your key players aren’t out there.”
The most glaring absence was Smith: Replacement Chaz Green gave up five of Adrian Clayborn’s franchise-record six sacks for Atlanta. Green was benched for Byron Bell, who gave up the last one. The Cowboys, who allowed eight sacks of Dak Prescott, had never given up more than four to one player in a game.
Dallas (5-4) figures at least to have a competition between those two in practice this week before facing the Eagles (7-1), who can virtually wrap up the division title with a win.
“I’m not going to lose confidence in any of them from one game,” Prescott said. “As I said, I’m not going to put everything on them. I’m going to look back at the film and see what we could’ve done better as a unit.”
Clayborn and his fellow defensive linemen might have had more focus on Prescott because they didn’t have to worry as much about the Dallas running game without Elliott. And besides that, Elliott is considered a strong pass-blocker.
Alfred Morris didn’t show much beyond a 20-yard run, and Dallas’ 1,000-yard rusher from 2015, Darren McFadden, didn’t get a chance to show anything in the first game he was active this season. McFadden was dropped for a 2-yard loss on his only carry.
The Cowboys will have to think about whether to mix and match their approach in the backfield as well. Elliott has another court hearing Dec. 1, with a chance for a ruling before what is supposed to be the fifth game of his suspension Dec. 10 at the New York Giants.
“We didn’t get it done today, and I feel like it’s my fault,” said Morris, who had 53 yards on 11 carries. “That’s OK. We will get back to the drawing board and learn from this game. Next week we will come out swinging a little sooner.”
Lee left with his injury late in the first quarter, and the Cowboys gave up touchdowns on three straight drives not counting a brief Atlanta possession that ended at halftime. The Falcons faced just four third downs on those drives, converting all of them. The Cowboys had similar problems when Lee missed two games with a hamstring injury earlier in the season, losing both at home despite scoring at least 30 points each time.
“Sean is our guy, our captain,” defensive end Tyrone Crawford said. “It’s definitely noticeable when he is not out there, and hopefully he can get right and be with us shortly.”
Mike Nugent, Bailey’s replacement, missed a 38-yarder that would have pulled the Cowboys within 17-10 in the third quarter. The Falcons essentially put away the game on the next drive.
Bailey, who hasn’t missed from inside 40 yards since 2014, is three weeks into what executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones has described as an eight-week recovery from a right groin injury. In other words, it’s probably another month for the Cowboys without their best runner and one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history.
“We don’t want it to get easier,” Prescott said. “We’re excited for what’s coming ahead of us. We’re going to take each game separately, take each day within that week in preparation, one day at a time, and we’ll get better.”