FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys know they won’t have Ezekiel Elliott against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
The Cowboys have been preparing for this moment all season. On Aug. 11, the NFL made its initial announcement that Elliott would be suspended for six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
A week ago at this time, the Cowboys thought they wouldn’t have Elliott against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Now they know they will not have him against the Falcons. It is possible he could play sooner than six games from now, depending on more legal maneuverings, but that is for another time.
Come Sunday, the Cowboys will rely on Alfred Morris, Rod Smith and Darren McFadden to do what Elliott has done essentially by himself this season.
Elliott has 191 carries for 783 yards and seven rushing touchdowns this season. Morris and Smith have combined for 24 carries for 184 yards on the season. Morris played one snap against the Chiefs and gained 11 yards. Smith did not have a carry.
Ever since it became a possibility the Cowboys would need to rely on a running back or three not named Elliott, the coaches and players have expressed confidence in Morris, Smith and McFadden.
Morris has three 1,000-yard seasons to his credit and two Pro Bowl appearances. McFadden finished as the league’s fourth-leading rusher in 2015 when he ran for 1,089 yards. Smith is the most unknown, but he could be the running back who ends up getting the most work in Elliott’s absence.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said Thursday not much changes with the Cowboys' running game plan without Elliott. He can say that because of an offensive line that boasts three All-Pro selections: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin.
Smith, however, has not practiced this week because of a groin injury, and he is iffy at best to play Sunday. Wide receiver Dez Bryant said he expects to play against the Falcons after not practicing the past two days because of ankle and knee injuries, but it might not be his call.
So a Cowboys offense that has been rolling the past five weeks -- they have scored at least 28 points in each game -- won’t have Elliott, might not have Smith and could have a banged-up Bryant.
Quarterback Dak Prescott has played better in his second year than he did in his first, but he has not played a full game without Elliott in his career. That will be different no matter what the coaches say.
Without Elliott, defenses will not have to use an extra defender to slow the run, unless the Cowboys can prove their running game can have the same impact with Morris, Smith and McFadden. Without Elliott, Prescott will see tighter windows in which to throw. Without Elliott, the receivers will see extra attention.
Through it all, the Cowboys believe they will be able to move the ball. Most of McFadden’s 1,089 yards came without Tony Romo at quarterback in 2015. He had Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore at quarterback and still piled up 100-yard games.
It is possible for the Cowboys to still find success, but they will find their margin for error a little slimmer without Elliott going forward.