If an accomplished and experienced left tackle is a security blanket for an NFL quarterback, then Dak Prescott has been shivering in the cold for two weeks, the loss of four-time All-Pro Tyron Smith exposing the Dallas Cowboys play-caller to the ravages of pass-rushers.
In the first eight games this season with Smith, Prescott was sacked 10 times. In the last two games without Smith, who was sidelined by chronic back problems and a groin injury, Prescott was sacked 12 times.
The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Smith, a former USC standout who was a first-round pick in 2011, was limited in practice Monday and Tuesday. He told reporters he expects to play against the Chargers on Thursday, but even if he does, he might not be 100%.
The Cowboys gave up eight sacks — six by Adrian Clayborn, one shy of the NFL single-game record — in a 27-7 loss at Atlanta on Nov. 12. Smith’s replacement at left tackle, Chaz Green, gave up five of the sacks.
Green was replaced in the fourth quarter of that game by veteran Byron Bell, who started Sunday against Philadelphia. The Cowboys gave up four sacks in a 37-9 loss to the Eagles.
Dallas managed only 233 yards (126 passing, 107 rushing) against Atlanta and 225 yards (113 passing, 112 rushing) against Philadelphia.
No doubt, the loss of star running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is serving a six-game suspension for a domestic-abuse allegation, has slowed the offense, but the loss of Smith has forced the mobile Prescott to scramble for his life.
“It will be important to get [Smith] back, and it will be huge if we do,” Prescott said on a conference call Tuesday. “Without him, you’ve got to adjust and adapt and know that you might not have as much time as if Tyron is in there. But we’ve got a running back to help, and I’ve got my ability to get out of the pocket to run.”
Prescott, the second-year pro out of Mississippi State, is one of the league’s most versatile and elusive quarterbacks, a two-way threat who “can extend plays with his legs, especially on third down,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said.
If the Cowboys offensive line is compromised, either by Smith’s absence or his inability to play at full strength, a stout Chargers defense, led by edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, could pressure Prescott into another rough day.
“I think up front, they might not be the most talented we play … but they have that high motor and that intensity to bring it every play and cause havoc, not only in the run game but in the pass game,” Prescott said of the Bosa-Ingram tandem. “They get after it every play. That’s a great quality to have in this league.”
The Chargers, who improved to 4-6 with Sunday’s 54-24 thrashing of the Buffalo Bills, expect Smith to play. With the Cowboys’ season hanging in the balance — a team many expected to challenge for the Super Bowl fell to 5-5 on Sunday — they can’t afford to play another game without Smith.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said of Smith. “He’s a great pass-protector, a great run-blocker, and he’s so athletic on the perimeter and out in the open, on some of those screens and stretch plays. He’s elite. I think any offensive line would like him as an addition.”
Rookie receiver Mike Williams is looking forward to meeting Dez Bryant, the Cowboys receiver he is often compared to, “just to chop it up with him and pick his brain a little bit,” he said. Casey Hayward? Not so much.
While Williams can watch the three-time Pro Bowl selection from the sideline, Hayward will have to cover the Cowboys star, who is among the most dynamic and physically dominant pass catchers in the game.
The 6-2, 225-pound Bryant, who has 50 receptions for 541 yards and four touchdowns, will have a decided size advantage over the 5-11, 192-pound Hayward, the Pro Bowl corner who had two interceptions against Buffalo.
“He’s a big guy, he’s been doing it for long time, he can run routes,” Hayward said. “I don’t think there are too many receivers who are as good as he is with the 50-50 ball, so this week I’m gonna have to contest a lot of jump balls without a lot of practice. We have to figure out how to do that.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers on his heated exchange with Lynn in the first quarter of Sunday’s game: “We had a lot of exchanges in the game, some more jolly than others, but there was nothing to it really. We’re all competitors, and he and I are still getting to know each other. We both want what’s best for the team. So there were plenty of other exchanges where we were laughing and high-fiving. There’s really nothing more to make of that.” … Defensive end Chris McCain (quadriceps) and linebacker Hayes Pullard (neck) were full practice participants and are expected to play Thursday. Right tackle Joe Barksdale, who has sat out four consecutive games because of a left foot injury, was limited, and Lynn said he was hopeful Barksdale could play.
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna