UPDATE: So about Zeke not playing ... now he is. Our conversation took place before the news.
AP: What is the Cowboys plan without Zeke? What is your concern level?
BTB: The Cowboys have sort of been planning for this eventuality since the idea that Elliott might be suspended first came around. Dallas has Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden and Rod Smith as the backups, and that's a quality group as backups. The question is can they succeed as starters. The Cowboys have been using Alfred Morris as the primary backup this season, and he's had one big run (70 yards). He's likely to get the first crack at the majority of carries, but running-back-by-committee could be an option.
Dallas has kept McFadden inactive all year, so he will be fresh and ready to go. Rod Smith showed up in preseason and mop-up duty this year, but is kind of an unknown against starting competition. The key here is the Cowboys offensive line, which has been getting better and better as the season has progressed after having to replace two starters. They have been doing a great job of opening up running lanes, and if they can continue to do that the running game may still be productive.
Still, my concern level is high. Mainly because Zeke is an elite running back who can do all kinds of things very well. He can break long runs, can fight for yards after contact, can covert a short 3rd and 1 for a first down, he can block in pass protection and he's dangerous out of the backfield. It's hard to replace all of those qualities. He's just a special back and replacing that is almost impossible to do. Still, I think the Cowboys will still be able to run somewhat effectively.
AP: Who are the other Cowboys weapons on offense? It seems like Dez is having a quiet season.
BTB: The Dak Prescott to Dez Bryant connection is not the same as it was with Tony Romo. For whatever reason, those two are not always in sync, but Bryant is the Cowboys leading receiver this year by yards. The guy who leads the team in receptions is old reliable, Jason Witten. He's still chugging along, he doesn't get downfield as much as he used to, but he can still get open with regularity under 10 yards. The Cowboys are a running team, they depend on that so their receiving stats aren't upper tier. Still, Bryant, Witten, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley can get it done when required. The guy who orchestrates it all is Dak Prescott, and he's running just under his pace of last year in most categories, but has exceeded it in some others. He will probably be asked to throw the ball more without Zeke in the backfield, so we'll have to see how he responds.
AP: Demarcus Lawrence is having a big season. Where does he play and what's his strength?
BTB: They generally line Lawrence up on the left side of the defense so he will go up against the offense's right tackle a lot. They can move him around, but mostly that's where you will find him. He is having a monster season, leading the league in sacks and producing three forced fumbles and he's recovered two fumbles. He's been pressuring the QB even when he doesn't get home for the sack. His strength is his ability to do multiple things well. He can bend around the edge, he has decent quickness, he can bull rush and he has multiple pass-rushing moves. In essence, he doesn't do any one thing extremely well, like beat you off the snap, or a killer spin-move. But he has multiple weapons in his arsenal, and he's smart enough to make adjustments to what he's doing as the game progresses. He uses good technique and is relentless.
AP: Teams who have had success against the Cowboys, what has been the game plan?
BTB: Teams that have had success against the Cowboys can usually run the ball well. Or at least run it well when they are playing the Cowboys! Part of the problem is that Anthony Hitchens, the starting middle linebacker, missed the first part of the season with injury, and then Sean Lee, the weak side linebacker, got hurt. The Cowboys also were having problems at the nose tackle position so they were extremely soft in the middle of the defense. Teams were taking advantage of that by running the ball, and throwing to their running backs and tight ends over the middle. One of our safeties, Jeff Heath, is also a liability on the defense. It was a bad combination. With both Hitchens and Lee back in the lineup, and better play on the interior of the line, things have gotten better.
Defensively teams were loading the box and determined to stop Zeke. For a while that was working because our offensive line was struggling to find its groove with two new starters. Teams were also getting pressure on Prescott because of the spotty line play. Things have gotten much better in that regard in recent games, and Zeke was starting to tear things up even with 8-men in the box. It's hard to say how those strategies will transfer to this game because of the absence of Zeke.
AP: What's your score prediction and why?
BTB: I'm still holding on to the idea that the Cowboys will be contenders even without Zeke. To do that, they have to win these games at home. So on Sunday they will edge out the Chiefs 24-23. The Cowboys will win because they will find success in the running game even without Zeke. This will allow them to run their standard offensive plan, control the clock keeping the Chiefs offense off the field and protecting their defense. They'll just be able to squeak out a win.