ATLANTA (AP) — The Dallas Cowboys’ enviable running back depth will be tested, as will their three-game winning streak, when they figure to face the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday without Ezekiel Elliott.
Barring another late legal maneuver, Elliott, the second-leading rusher in the NFL, will begin a six-game suspension for alleged domestic violence this week. A federal appeals court in New York City on Thursday denied his request to extend a hold on the suspension.
The Cowboys (5-3), two-and-a-half games behind first-place Philadelphia in the NFC East, will attempt to maintain momentum without Elliott. It’s a huge loss, but Dallas has proven backups, including former 1,000-yard rushers Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden. Rod Smith, a big third-year back, is another option.
McFadden flourished in 2015, when he rushed for 1,089 yards for Dallas. Morris had three straight 1,000-yard seasons for Washington from 2012-14. Morris has played in seven games as a backup to Elliott this season while McFadden has been inactive.
Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said last week Morris would have the first opportunity to replace Elliott.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn expects no big changes in the Cowboys’ offense.
“I don’t think the scheme would change because the style of what they do is pretty clear,” Quinn said. “Alfred and McFadden are certainly backs who have proven themselves in our league.”
Quinn doesn’t agree with speculation the Cowboys will use a committee approach at running back.
“I would say right now they feature one back,” he said, adding “Maybe that would change.”
Replacing Elliott won’t be easy. He led the NFL with 1,631 yards rushing as a rookie in 2016 and already has 783 yards with seven touchdowns this season.
The Falcons prepared to face Elliott this week, but at least one player dared to hope he wouldn’t be available.
“We’re going to prepare like he’s playing and hope he doesn’t,” said safety Ricardo Allen before Thursday’s ruling.
Here are some things to watch when the Falcons try to end a streak of two straight home losses in their new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium:
SUPER PRAISE: Atlanta has lost four of five , and has scored no more than 17 points in any of the losses. Even so, Dallas coach Jason Garrett referred to quarterback Matt Ryan, running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and others when he said he still sees the talent that took the Falcons to last season’s Super Bowl.
“They’ve got a big-time quarterback,” Garrett said. “They’ve got two big-time running backs. They’ve got good tight ends. They’ve got playmakers all over the place at receiver. … They’ve got a lot of weapons. They know how to use them. They challenge you a lot of different ways.”
BIG-NAME PRACTICE OBSERVERS: The teams’ top wide receivers, Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Dez Bryant of Dallas, are battling injuries. Jones (ankle) and Bryant (knee, ankle) did not participate in practice Wednesday and Thursday.
It’s not unusual for Jones, who has a history of lower-leg injuries, to play after missing practice. Bryant hinted he’ll be in uniform.
“We’re going to see,” Bryant said Thursday. “In my eyes, the way that I feel, yeah, of course, I’m going to be on the field Sunday. It’s not just up to me.”
BRYANT HURTING: Falcons placekicker Mike Meyer may be forced into action as veteran Matt Bryant missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a right calf injury . Meyer, who made three of four field goals in the preseason, was re-signed to the practice squad on Wednesday for his third stay with the team. He was released before the season and then signed to the practice squad on Oct. 11 when Bryant was slowed with a back injury but did not miss a game.
Bryant hurt his leg in warmups before last week’s 20-17 loss at Carolina and still made a 53-yard field goal.
DOWNER FOR DEZ: Bryant is enduring the longest streak of sub-100-yard games since a 21-game stretch spanning his first three seasons (2010-12). His current stretch is at 15 games. Terrance Williams, a solid No. 2 who has struggled in the lead role when Bryant was injured in recent years, is coming off his first 100-yard game of the season and third of his five-year career. He had 141 yards on a career-high nine catches in last week’s 28-17 win over Kansas City.
SACK STREAKS: David Irving is gaining on fellow defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who is second in the NFL with 10 1/2 sacks. Irving leads all defensive tackles with six sacks in four games after missing the Cowboys’ first four on a suspension for performance enhancers. The rangy 6-foot-7 Irving has a sack in each game and has already risen to second on the team behind Lawrence, whose seven-game sack streak to start the season ended against the Chiefs.