Cowboys’ defense dashes Dak Prescott, own playoff hopes

Dak Prescott made it three straight games without a passing touchdown in the Cowboys’ third consecutive blowout loss, a 28-6 defeat to the Chargers on Thanksgiving.

Prescott (20-of-27, 179 yards, 2 INTs 2 sacks, 60.6 passer rating) also threw his third pick-six of the season, a 90-yard TD return by Los Angeles’ Desmond King that sealed Dallas’ fate in Week 12 — and for the 2017 season.

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With a 5-6 record, the Cowboys need a ton of help to even get back to sniffing true wild-card contention. They’ve lost three straight games without the services of suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott, and he’ll miss three more.

From a glance, it would be easy to put this on Prescott; to say he and the Dallas offense is nothing without Elliott, a dink-and-dunk, predictable passing offense playing off a more respectable than explosive rushing attack. That’s true to a point.

But the bottom line is Prescott isn’t equipped to win when the game flow is so out of hand.

With the Chargers’ output Thursday, the Cowboys have now been outscored 92-22 without Zeke. It’s also been three games mostly without the glue of the defense, outside linebacker Sean Lee.

As Lee watched again from the sideline hamstrung, Philip Rivers ripped Lee’s teammates for 434 yards passing and 3 TDs. The Cowboys tried their best to load up and stop Melvin Gordon and the Chargers’ running game after getting gashed by Atlanta and Philadelphia the past two weeks. The results were just as disastrous, as LA had no problems spreading the ball out and throwing all over the field for several chunk gains.

Dallas’ once-impressive pass rush was non-existent. The bending now comes with total breaking. The bad coverage now comes with even worse tackling. Wide receiver Keenan Allen’s performance (11 catches, 172 yards, TD) was the epitome of a monster game, stamped by a 42-yard scoring catch-and-run during which at least five Cowboys were undressed on the way to the end zone.

The Cowboys were good at playing keep-away with Prescott and Elliott in their magical rookie seasons. Their wide receivers and tight ends, although not putting up huge numbers as a group, came through in tough matchups when needed.

But now the Cowboys’ limitations around Prescott in the passing game have been totally exposed as game flow has gone in the other direction. With Lee no longer available to lead and duct-tape all their issues, the Cowboys have unraveled defensively, and they are simply not built to come back offensively with a one-dimensional attack.

Strangely, Alfred Morris and Rod Smith have done an admirable job running the ball in Elliott’s stead. The issue simply has been one less explosive playmaker (Elliott) for a team devoid of them in the passing game.

Dez Bryant has disappeared in most games. Terrance Williams, a surprise re-sign in the offseason, has only flashed as a shaky No. 2. Cole Beasley hasn’t been close to the slot machine. For some reason, Brice Butler remains criminally underused on the outside. Venerable tight end Jason Witten, who did his best to rally the Cowboys with his pregame meeting, simply has little left in the tank beyond being a reliable very short passing target.

The Cowboys were a perfect complementary team last season, and they were expecting the same kind of things to fall into place this year. With little inspiring depth, they were not prepared for injuries or suspensions throwing one or two wrenches that could derail everything.

There was Elliott, and there was Lee, and there were the two previous games left tackle Tyron Smith missed, too. Earlier in the season, David Irving was a big defensive line loss for four games.

There’s no doubt Prescott has pressed to make up for the defensive ineptitude, and it has backfired. With Elliott not there, Prescott can’t be as effective as an occasional runner. He’s been forced to drop back, and teams are teeing off, not scared by the Cowboys downfield. The Chargers were the worst possible matchup for that, with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram leading the pass rush and cornerback Casey Hayward shutting things down on the back end.

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The Cowboys did their best to upgrade defensively with offseason salary-cap limitations, using their first three draft picks to try to bolster their weakest positions at defensive end (Taco Charlton) and cornerback (Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis). But they’ve regressed in that area.

Given what Bryant, Williams, Beasley and Witten look like as a group, Prescott didn’t get enough credit for making it work with them. He’s trying to make plays that aren’t available, knowing that if a possession goes without a points, it might be pointless.

The Cowboys gave themselves and Prescott little margin for error in 2017, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that unforeseen further setbacks have doomed them.