Free Press writers Shawn Windsor, Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez dissect the Lions’ 26-10 win over the Patriots on Sept. 23, 2018 at Ford Field.
Carlos Monarrez, Detroit Free Press

The number didn’t come as a surprise to Eli Harold.

“We’re on it,” Harold said Wednesday. “The staff’s on it. They give us very good information about the team and how do we stop guys.”

Conventional wisdom suggests the most surefire way for the Detroit Lions to beat the Dallas Cowboys this weekend and extend their winning streak to two games is to stop Ezekiel Elliott.

Elliott is one of the best running backs in the NFL. He’s tied for the league lead in rushing and is a true difference maker at a position where every-down impact players are hard to find.

But Lions coaches presented an alternate theory about the Cowboys offense Wednesday, one that centered around third-year quarterback Dak Prescott.

The Cowboys have an impressive .657 winning percentage with Prescott as their starting quarterback, and while most of those wins have come with Elliott in the lineup, Dallas’ fortunes seem to rise and fall with Prescott’s arm.

Prescott has thrown for 200 or more yards 20 times in his NFL career, and the Cowboys are 16-4 in those games. In the 15 games in which he’s failed to hit 200 yards passing, Dallas is just 7-8.

Lions coach Matt Patricia downplayed those numbers in a conference call Tuesday.

“I don’t really know about the numbers,” he said.

But Harold admitted they tell an important tale about the Cowboys offense.

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“It just tells you that in order to beat this team you have to not only stop Zeke but you have to stop Dak also,” Harold said.

The Cowboys are just 1-2 this season and it’s easy to see why. Elliott has been his usual tough-to-tackle self and Rod Marinelli’s defense is ranked third in the league, but the Cowboys have gotten minimal production from a passing game that parted ways with Dez Bryant in the offseason.

Prescott has not thrown for more than 170 yards this year, and his streak of consecutive games with less than 200 yards passing dates to the middle of last December.

“Obviously, we want to be able to be productive running the ball and productive throwing the ball,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said in a conference call with Detroit reporters Wednesday. “You want to be able to attack lots of different ways. He’s been a very productive player for us in his two-plus years as a starter, and he’s been a very good passer for us. We have to continue to strive to be more efficient, more productive and more explosive in our passing game to go along with our ability to run the football.”

No one doubts the Cowboys’ ability to run the football.

Even though their once dominant offensive line has been decimated by injuries — All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith has chronic back problems and All-Pro center Travis Frederick has not played this year because of an autoimmune disease — the Cowboys still run the ball better than most teams in the league.

Elliott is averaging a hearty 5.7 yards per carry, but he’s managed just 16 rushes a game because of other problems in the Cowboys’ anemic offense. The Cowboys don’t have any game-breaking receivers, and defenses routinely stack the box to force Prescott to beat them through the air.

The Lions likely will take the same approach Sunday.

“We definitely got to stop the run and Zeke is definitely a big part of it,” safety Glover Quin said. “We definitely got to make sure we’re honed in on that.”

But with the league’s worst rushing defense tuned into Elliott, the Lions insist they can’t go overboard and ignore what Prescott brings to the table.

At his best as a rookie in 2016, Prescott completed 68 percent of his pass attempts and took precious care of the ball, with just four interceptions in 459 pass attempts. He’s a second rushing threat in the pocket, and Patricia said Elliott’s presence makes the Cowboys’ play-action game tough to defend.

Add it up and Harold said the Lions’ challenge defensively on Sunday is twofold.

“Obviously it starts with Zeke and they have a really, really good O-line,” Harold said. “But you stop Zeke, you kind of get after Dak also because he’s a heck of a quarterback. He has a very strong arm and he’s very athletic and very mobile, and he has athletes all around him. Cole Beasley, Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns. A lot of deep-ball threats, so obviously it starts with Zeke but we also have to stop Dak.”

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