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Cowboys’ spotty passing attack holds key for Elliott’s space

FRISCO, Texas — Dak Prescott heard the assessment from New York Giants safety Landon Collins on how to beat his Dallas Cowboys.

Stop running back Ezekiel Elliott, put the ball in Prescott’s hands and “I think we’ll have a better shot at winning,” Collins said a few days after the Carolina Panthers illustrated as much in the opener.

“Challenge accepted,” the Dallas quarterback said. “Challenge accepted.”

The Cowboys know every opponent wants to stop the running game. Elliott says it’s been that way since the first game of his rookie year, when fellow first-year star Prescott replaced an injured Tony Romo and became the starter for good while Elliott won the 2016 rushing title.

If the players in Prescott’s passing game are feeling the burden of creating space for Elliott while also trying to figure out life after retired tight end Jason Witten and released receiver Dez Bryant, they’re not showing it going into their home opener Sunday night against the Giants.

Dallas is trying to avoid the first 0-2 start in seven seasons under coach Jason Garrett.

“No burden at all,” said Allen Hurns, one of the free agents brought in to try to fill the void left by Bryant. “I think we did a pretty good job. Things didn’t go our way as far as getting catches. But I feel like we did our job as far as creating separation.”

Case in point: tight end Blake Jarwin. The second-year pro was wide open as Prescott scrambled during the 16-8 loss to the Panthers. Prescott underthrew him badly, but part of the problem was Jarwin going deep when Prescott thought he would come back.

“When you scramble, there are a lot of things that go into the scramble rules,” Prescott said. “What you should do, what you shouldn’t do, what you look for. That’s a good example of not knowing what each other wanted.”

Dallas has new receivers galore, after roughly five years with the same core. Besides Hurns and Jarwin, there are receivers Deonte Thompson (free agent) and Tavon Austin (trade). Then again, it starts to sound like an excuse to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

“The solution is we’ve just got to keep meeting and you’ve got to keep going,” Linehan said. “Sometimes we think we’re on the same page. But a guy, he may never, ever have done that because he wasn’t here.”

Clearly, the Cowboys have something to get fixed. Prescott has thrown for less than 200 yards in seven of his past nine starts, although six of those were without a suspended Elliott.

Since a club-record 11-game winning streak that ultimately sent Romo into retirement two years ago, Prescott and the Cowboys have been average. The passing game has struggled, which is part of the reason Dallas cut an underperforming Bryant rather than pay him $12.5 million.

Without better results throwing, the Cowboys risk a first half with Elliott like they had against the Panthers: 18 yards rushing.

“We believe in the guys we have,” said Elliott, who finished with 69 yards and scored the team’s only touchdown in the second half. “We believe in our offensive line. They’ve been the best players on our team. We got to rally around those guys and just keep working.”

The offensive line is trying to replace four-time Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick, out indefinitely with a nerve disorder. Joe Looney is set for his second start, and has a rookie next to him in left guard Connor Williams, a second-round pick.

“I thought we did some good things and I thought we did some bad things,” Looney said. “It wasn’t like we went out there and go beat 50-0. It’s one game. I take that approach. We’re not pressing the panic button. It’s a long season.”

The idea of a “long season” will take on a different meaning if the Cowboys can’t find go-to threats, or Prescott has trouble connecting with them.

“I keep saying it’s a simple thing for me,” said Geoff Swaim, still the only tight end on the roster with a catch in the regular season. “I think about it like, ‘If I do my job well, then the impact we’ll have is a good one and it will help Zeke and it will help (Beasley) and it will help Dak. Everything will get better.'”

Swaim’s quarterback accepts that challenge.

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