Cowboys have to prove fast start wasn't fluke after 1st loss

Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten fumbles against New Orleans Saints strong safety Vonn Bell in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

Jason Witten and Ezekiel Elliott lost first-half fumbles for a Dallas offense that wasn't quite the same against New Orleans after a fast start to the season

FRISCO, Texas — Jason Witten's rare fumble was the first sign the Dallas offense wasn't going to be quite the same against the New Orleans Saints after putting up big numbers each of the first three weeks.

When Ezekiel Elliott lost another fumble on the next possession, the Cowboys (3-1) were pretty much guaranteed their first halftime deficit of the season.

Now they're dealing with their first loss, and are easy fodder for critics who say the Saints, without star quarterback Drew Brees in their 12-10 victory Sunday, proved how the easy the first part of the Dallas schedule was.

"We pride ourselves on being a team that doesn't beat itself," said Witten, the 16th-year tight end. "That has been a formula around here. When you're on the road in an environment like this and you turn the ball over, it is going to be hard to overcome."

Witten had the ball punched out of his left arm from behind by New Orleans linebacker A.J. Klein at the end of a 16-yard catch. Vonn Bell recovered that fumble, then caused and recovered the fumble by Elliott, who lost the ball just as an elbow hit the turf after the star running back converted a fourth-and-1 run.

Without those miscues, the outcome might have been similar to the slow-starting victory over winless Miami a week earlier. Instead, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore had his first clunker after a strong start, and quarterback Dak Prescott has an all-too-familiar feeling from the first half of last season when the offense struggled.

Last year, Dallas was 3-5 when the turnaround kicked in and led to a second NFC East title in three seasons with Prescott and Elliott. In that respect, the Cowboys are still ahead of the game, but they won't be winning much with Elliott averaging 1.9 yards per carry (second worst of his career, 18 carries for 35 yards).

"This was on us. This was about our lack of execution," Prescott said. "Regardless of the way they were doing things, there were a lot of plays left out there on my part and this whole offense's part."

WHAT'S WORKING

After two games that made it appear something was off, the Dallas defense has looked much more like the 2018 unit that helped carry the team early in the season when the offense struggled. The team's first interception of the season led to the game's first points against the Saints.

Several of the season-high five sacks were timely, most notably Jaylon Smith's 16-yard sack of Teddy Bridgewater that knocked the Saints out of field goal range and gave the Cowboys a chance to win with a field goal in the final 2 minutes.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The passing game is showing signs of missing Michael Gallup, who could be out another two weeks with a knee injury. The average yardage per pass play was 10.7 yards in two games with the second-year receiver. It's 7.2 yards per pass play without Gallup.

STOCK UP

Robert Quinn has three sacks in two games with Dallas since returning from a two-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancers. The ninth-year pro has looked even more dominant than DeMarcus Lawrence, who has two sacks in four games after signing a $105 million contract in the offseason.

STOCK DOWN

Connections with Randall Cobb. The veteran slot receiver had a third-down drop that contributed to a sputtering offense, and Prescott misfired on a throw to Cobb in the back of the end zone, forcing Dallas to settle for a 3-0 lead in the first quarter.

INJURIES

LT Tyron Smith sprained his right ankle when Prescott was sacked on the first play of the final series. Coach Jason Garrett didn't rule him out for this week. S Kavon Frazier is expected to miss the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle.

KEY NUMBER

36%. The Cowboys converted four of 11 third downs after leading the NFL through three games at 58%.

NEXT STEPS

The Cowboys face a division leader for the second straight week with Green Bay visiting Sunday. That's after opening with victories over three teams that are now a combined 2-10, including still-winless Washington and Miami. The Packers are also coming off their first loss.

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More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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