Cowboys' running back rotation worked, but needs to produce more

FRISCO, Texas -- After being beaten Sunday by the Atlanta Falcons, how do you evaluate the Dallas Cowboys' running game in the first game without Ezekiel Elliott?

The final numbers don’t look so bad: 21 carries, 107 yards, one touchdown.

But 42 of the yards and the touchdown came from Dak Prescott.

The Cowboys’ running backs combined for 65 yards on 15 carries in the 27-7 loss. Alfred Morris had 11 carries for 53 yards. Rod Smith had three for 14. Darren McFadden lost 2 yards on his only carry. Smith played the most snaps, 38 of 61. Morris had 22 snaps and McFadden had just one.

“Ultimately, we didn't have a lot of plays on offense. Some of those plays we did have were in two-minute situation before the half and kind of two-minute mode at the end of the ballgame,” coach Jason Garrett said. “When the game was at normal flow, it worked out the way we wanted to. You would like to have more snaps where you get some more opportunities for some other guys.”

Dating back to the fourth quarter of the loss to the Green Bay Packers, Elliott had two quarters when he had more rushing yards than Morris had in the Atlanta game. He had 85 yards on 13 carries against the Packers. He had 59 yards on seven carries, with two touchdowns, in the first quarter against the San Francisco 49ers.

The Cowboys had one quarter with more than 24 yards rushing against the Falcons. In the past 12 quarters in the Cowboys’ wins against the 49ers, Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs, Elliott had more than 24 yards rushing seven times.

The lone bright spot for the offense Sunday was the opening drive of the second half and that ended with Mike Nugent’s 38-yard field goal attempt hitting the right upright. After getting to the Atlanta 12 mostly on Morris’ runs, Prescott was sacked by Adrian Clayborn (who else?) on first down and Morris lost 2 yards on his last carry.

After carrying six times for 8 yards in the first half, Morris had five carries for 45 yards on the drive. He did not get another carry the rest of the game with the Cowboys trailing by so much and needing to throw more.

Most of that success came running to the right. Not only did the Cowboys miss left tackle Tyron Smith in pass protection, they missed him in the run game. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Cowboys averaged 6 yards per carry on designed runs to the left, which was second-best in the NFL. The Cowboys ran just once to the left by design and picked up 2 yards.

“There were some things we wanted to get to and they worked out well for us,” Garrett said of that drive. “Again, personnel groups and formations and runs. I thought our guys did a good job coming off the ball. He saw the holes and hit them. He did a good job making some positive runs for us."

As he stood outside the locker room after the game, owner and general manager Jerry Jones admitted the Falcons took the Cowboys to “the woodshed.” He knew things would be different without Elliott, but he never anticipated the woes the Cowboys had in protecting Prescott, who was sacked eight times.

“We’re in good shape with our running backs,” Jones said.

But where does the confidence come without Elliott for at least the next three games if not the next five?

“We know that in this game, in life, if you haven’t had some bad days at the office, then you haven’t really been living,” Jones said. “So this is one of those for us. We’ll have to get in here and it will really be a challenge for our team, for our coaches, everybody.”

After DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing in 2014 with 1,845 yards, it took until the sixth game of the 2015 season for McFadden to become the lead back. He ended up finishing fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,089 yards.

The Cowboys can’t take too much longer to get the running game going without Elliott. Despite the numbers, Morris is looking at the Atlanta game as a blip; not a sign of things to come.

“I wouldn’t worry about this going forward,” Morris said. “I think we’ll go back to the drawing board, learn from it, grow from this and next week we’ll come out better.”