FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Dak Prescott’s difficulties in the passing game go back further than a loss in the opener at Carolina for the Dallas Cowboys.
Now that the slump has extended into a new season, coach Jason Garrett and his staff must weigh the factors and when or whether to make changes to try to fix them.
Six sacks of Prescott and little running room early for star back Ezekiel Elliott magnified two significant questions on the offensive line.
Most of the focus, though, will remain on a revamped and largely unproven group of receivers trying to replace tight end Jason Witten and receiver Dez Bryant.
Then there’s the play-calling, with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan under siege from the unemployed Bryant on Twitter, along with the fans.
“I have a tremendous amount of faith in Scott,” Garrett said Monday, a day after a 16-8 loss to the Panthers. “We just have to do a better job collectively as a staff and as an offensive unit. That starts with basic execution, play after play not beating ourselves and then finding ways to generate some big plays.”
Going into a suddenly important home opener against the New York Giants on Sunday night, Garrett also sounds as if the Cowboys will stick with the same five on the offensive line.
Joe Looney is replacing four-time Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick, out indefinitely with a condition that affects his nerves. Rookie left guard Connor Williams was beaten twice for sacks by Kawann Short.
“Joe Looney … looked like he did a pretty good job in the game,” Garrett said. “Connor Williams, obviously it’s a challenging task for him Week 1 to go against that defensive front. There were some good things for him. There’s some areas in pass protection that wasn’t good enough.”
Prescott had fewer than 200 yards passing for the seventh time in nine games. That stretch started when he was sacked a career-high eight times in a loss at Atlanta that triggered the Cowboys’ slide out of playoff contention last year. It was also the beginning of Elliott’s six-game suspension over domestic violence allegations.
Elliott’s presence didn’t help much against the Panthers, and the question going forward is how the Cowboys can hope to live off the running game when they haven’t shown they can be a threat throwing the ball.
Focused on stopping Elliott first, the Panthers held the 2016 NFL rushing leader to 18 yards before halftime. Nearly half of Elliott’s 69 yards, and his touchdown, came in the fourth quarter after the Cowboys had fallen behind 16-0.
If the Cowboys want something resembling the remarkable rookie seasons of Prescott and Elliott two years ago, when they had an NFC-best 13 wins, they will need bigger numbers from the focal point of their offense earlier in the game.
“We’ve got to start faster,” Elliott said after the game. “That’s not Dallas Cowboys football. That’s not how we’ve ever played. If we want to succeed, if we want to go out there and win ballgames, we can’t come out there and lay an egg in the first half.”
Filling the void left by Witten and Bryant will probably look a lot as it did in the opener, except for draft-day trade acquisition Tavon Austin getting shut out. The speedy receiver and returner figures to have more of a role.
Holdover Cole Beasley had the most targets (eight), catches (seven) and yards receiving (73). The rest were split among newcomers Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson and rookie Michael Gallup.
No. 1 tight end Geoff Swaim had three catches, and backup Blake Jarwin was open for what would have been the biggest play of the game for Dallas if Prescott hadn’t underthrown him.
“We think each of those guys has some strengths and they have some different things that they can bring to our offense,” Garrett said. “We do think as we go forward that mixing those guys in and giving them all an opportunity to contribute will be a good thing for our team.”
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