We have a pretty good idea what Ezekiel Elliott is going to do for the Cowboys’ running game this season.
He’s going to dominate.
We have no idea what the Cowboys’ passing game is going to do - and that’s a problem.
Dak Prescott said he feels good about the Cowboys’ passing game, and we’ll get another glimpse at it Saturday night when the Cowboys play the Cincinnati Bengals at 6 o’clock at AT&T Stadium.
It was OK last week against San Francisco, when Prescott completed each of his three for 39 yards and a touchdown. He threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Michael Gallup and all was right in the world.
But Cole Beasley (groin) has missed five straight practices, and Deonte Thompson has missed 10 in a row. Tavon Austin has a slight hamstring strain and didn’t practice Thursday and probably won’t play Saturday.
That’s three of his top six receivers.
Alan Hearns (groin) has missed a couple of practices too. Michael Gallup, a third-round pick, is the only receiver who hasn’t missed time.
“It is important for those guys to play together,” Garrett said. “You want to be a careful of putting them in the situation where it’s ultimately not going to be productive for your team, so you want to find your spots in practice and preseason games to get them quality work.”
None of that is a positive for a quarterback who needs as much practice with his new collection of receivers as anybody.
"We're starting to click," Prescott told reporters this week at training camp.
"We’re starting to hit the deep ball a lot more in some of these last practices than we did early on.
“But we knew that would be a part of it, working out the kinks. And we're all getting comfortable with each other."
The challenge for Prescott, coach Jason Garrett and play-caller Scott Linehan is to make this passing game work without Dez Bryant and Jason Witten who combined for 132 receptions and 219 of Prescott’s 490 targets last season.
The Cowboys must get big plays from their passing game because defenses will put eight or nine defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop Elliott - and if the Cowboys can’t force them to back up with completions of 20 yards or more on a regular basis, it’s going to be a long season.
It’s too hard to consistently drive the ball 10 plays and 80 yards against NFL defenses without the benefit of big plays in the passing game.
All you have to do is look at last season. In the Cowboys first eight games, Prescott had 19 completions of 20 yards or more and the Cowboys averaged 28.2 points and 370.5 yards a game.
In the final eight games, Prescott had 14 completions of 20 yards or more and the Cowboys averaged 16.0 points and 293.3 yards per game. Five times, they failed to score more than 12 points.
In their nine wins, Prescott had 24 completions of 20 yards or more and just nine in their seven losses.
It’s not a coincidence.
"Sometimes you've got to throw it and make the defense back up,” Prescott told reporters. “It's not a live-or-die thing, but we've got to take advantage of the opportunities when they give it to us because if not, they're just going to sit on underneath routes. We've got to let them know we can beat them over the top."
Without Bryant, the question becomes how is Dallas going to get those plays. It’s hard to complete deep balls to short receivers such as Austin and Beasley on a regular basis because the further they go down the field the harder they are to see.
That said, Austin can turn short passes into long gains by making defenders miss. Thompson is supposed to be the deep threat, and Hurns has the versatility to do both.
“We have a lot of knew kinks here and there that is going to help everything else,” Prescott said. “It’s going to help our running game. It’s going to help our play-action game out. As long as we’ve all bought into the offensive system, it is going to pay off.
“It’s challenging, but it’s not tough. That is what you want. Those guys are going to be rotating in the game. So we have to go ahead and get in out here, so I can gain chemistry with all of them and figure out who is a guy I can call on in those important moments.”