Cowboys need passing game to kick into gear

FRISCO, Texas -- First things first, Dak Prescott, how is the bruised right hand?

"No limitations," said Prescott, who ditched a pad he had on his hand at the start of Wednesday's practice. "It's not holding me back at doing anything. It's simply bruised. It's fine. Good to go."

OK, now the tougher question: Where has the Dallas Cowboys' passing game gone?

With four games to play, the Cowboys have the 29th-ranked pass game. Only the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears are worse.

Because of their style of play, the Cowboys were never going to be near the top of the league in passing, but at the midway point of the season they were 17th. In their past four games, the drop has been precipitous.

Prescott has not thrown for more than 200 yards in the past four games. Before his touchdown pass to Jason Witten against the Redskins, he had gone 98 attempts between scoring throws. He did not have to wait that long for his second touchdown throw, hitting Dez Bryant in the fourth quarter.

So how do the Cowboys get the passing game going?

"Don't think. Just go out there and rip it," Prescott said. "I mean it's not a question to me. It's just about getting the plays coaches give me, executing them, letting it go and trusting my guys down the field."

A year ago the Cowboys' passing game ranked just 23rd best, but a lot of that can be attributed to the success of the running game with Ezekiel Elliott leading the NFL in rushing. The Cowboys are fourth in the NFL in rushing this season, so it should naturally follow that the passing numbers would be down.

But this far?

Through 12 games, the Cowboys have 24 pass plays of 20 yards or more. A year ago through 12 games, they had 30. In the past four games, they have just four plays of 20 yards or more, including none in the 37-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

The loss of Elliott has affected the entire offense, but Prescott said defenses have not changed very much.

Last year, Prescott was able to make plays with bootlegs and waggles, but defenses have done a better job countering that this year. Pass-catchers have not been able to shake free from man coverage consistently enough to give Prescott clear throws. He has not been as accurate when he has needed to be. In the three-game losing streak, the scores of the game got so out of whack that the Cowboys were one-dimensional and thus easier to defend. There have been protection issues (15 sacks in the past four games).

The coaches have not been able to design plays to create separation or come up with ways to make big plays.

"You just keep banging away. You keep looking for opportunities to get guys open and guys winning man-to-man and making the throws and making the catches," head coach Jason Garrett said. "Obviously it starts up front with your protection and making sure the quarterback's clean and then just keep trying to attack defenses different ways. ... We certainly can be more productive throwing the ball and we'll keep working on that.

In last week's win against the Washington Redskins, the Cowboys ran 42 times for 182 yards and Prescott still threw for just 102 yards. Some of that had to do with a bruised hand he suffered in the second quarter. Some of that is directly related to the success of the run game. He threw just two passes in the fourth quarter as the Cowboys killed the clock.

But, right now, everything is just a struggle.

"When you look at it, I think we just got to get into a rhythm there," Witten said. "This offense has been prolific in the passing game at times. It just hasn't been consistent enough. It goes hand in hand when you're able to run the football. There's less opportunities at it, but certainly we're going to continue to work at it and we just have to get in the flow of our stem. We're confident in our system. We know how to execute it, just do a better job collectively. Down the stretch that's going to be a huge part of our success, our ability to pass the ball."