Atlanta -- On the morning of each Cowboys game, you'll get a chance to take a sip of Joe's gridiron insights with our 'Morning Cup of Joe.' He'll offer five story-lines to follow when the Cowboys take the field, plus his expectations.
1.Next man up is not enough
We all understand how important running back Zeke Elliott is to the Cowboys offense, and their current 3-game win streak has been the perfect illustration. Elliott has accounted for nearly 40-percent of the Cowboys offenses output, averaging 130 rushing yards per game during the streak.
Running backs Alfred Morris, Rod Smith, and Darren McFadden will be the 'next men up,' to use coach Jason Garrett's phrase, but it's not all on them; it can't be. Across the board the Cowboys must be better, it's is the only way they'll make up for Elliott being on the couch, especially with all-pro offensive tackle Tyron Smith out of the line-up as well.
The Cowboys best two players won't play against the Super Bowl runner-up. Next man up won't get it, it's all hands on deck and contributing.
2.Morris: from 'pinch-hitter' to primetime player
Morris will start in place of Elliott. The 2-time pro-bowler told me since becoming Elliott's backup, he's changed the way he prepares for games.
Morris added a new facet to his pregame ritual, hopping in the hot tub when gets to games to help get warmed up. He said without knowing just how many carries he would get in any given game, he had to figure out a way to be "full go" as soon as he entered the game. He had to take a pinch-hitter's mentality and said the adjustment has made him a better pro.
Morris says he's looking forward to seeing how the adjustment works, knowing he should get plenty of chances against the Falcons.
The Falcons have struggled against the run, giving up at least 138 yards rushing in three of their last four games. So, for Morris, McFadden, and Smith this figures to be a chance to show they can be really productive without Elliott. Morris needs to lead the way.
3. Dak needs to play even better than his best
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says quarterback Dak Prescott is playing at the "highest level" in the NFL, and as of late we've seen Prescott's best football yet.
In the Cowboys 3-game win streak, Prescott's sporting a 108.6 QB rating, completing 64% of his passes with five touchdown passes, zero interceptions and a couple of rushing touchdowns.
Without Elliott, Dak has to keep it up and do even more. We've seen Prescott and Scott Linehan dial up just the right mix of quarterback keepers lately, and I expect Prescott to do more on the ground. The key will be Prescott showing that in his sophomore season he's grown up enough to understand how not to try and do too much.
4.Kick a good team while they're down
Well, I don't literally mean kick them, but The Cowboys can't let quarterback Matt Ryan and company get well on the Cowboys watch.
A year ago, the Falcons averaged 33.8 points for the season, which was the seventh-best in NFL history. This season, they're ranked near the middle of the pack in NFL scoring with 21.5 points per game. And in the last five games, they're averaging less than 17 points-a-game.
The biggest issue - last year's offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is in San Francisco now, and his replacement, first-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian is struggling. He's been moved to the press box and that can't be good. It's up to Rod Marinelli and company to keep it that way.
5. Disrupt Ryan & Co.
For all the reasons listed immediately above, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and company are feeling the pressure. Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence and company need to add on to that feeling
Lawrence is coming off the first game this season where he didn't get a sack. But that doesn't mean he wasn't a force.
He was all over the field. Whether it was forcing Kareem Hunt into a big loss, or doing a perfect job maintaining discipline on the zone read against Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, Lawrence impacted the game in a number of ways.
Now that he and David Irving (six sacks in four games) have something cooking together, they've got to disrupt Ryan. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and his favorite target Julio Jones are game-wreckers; contain Jones and go get Ryan and a win.
I think the Cowboys will take care of that part of the equation and get a tough road win against the struggling Falcons, 27-23..