The Dallas Cowboys currently have the number-one offensive in the NFL, spearheaded by the MVP-level play of Quarterback Dak Prescott. But as they head to New England this week to face the Patriots' top-ranked defense, it may be a game when Dallas needs an old-school performance from Running Back Ezekiel Elliott to get the job done.
2019 hasn't been a banner year for Zeke thus far. He's near his career low in yards-per-carry (4.1) with just 4.3 YPC and netting just 83.3 rushing yards per game. Elliott's never had less than 95.6 YPG since entering the NFL.
It's been especially tough sledding the last few weeks. After strong performances against the Eagles and Giants Zeke has been shut down lately by the Vikings and Lions. In those two games combined, Elliott has had 36 carries and just 92 rushing yards to show for it.
That's scary stuff in general, but especially as we draw close to this game against the Patriots. If there's ever a week when Dallas needs to be able to exert their will against an opponent, leaning on strength over scheme, it's this one.
Perhaps the biggest mismatch that the Cowboys face in this game is on the sidelines; Bill Belichick and his staff versus Jason Garrett's. It's very difficult to out-coach New England, and this Dallas coaching crew has showed little signs of being able to do it during their topsy-turvy run thus far in 2019.
As good as Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and the rest of the passing game have looked so far in 2019, Belichick is capable of scheming ways to slow it down.That will put the spotlight back on Ezekiel Elliott and the run game to see if they can step up and produce in a way that's been somewhat rare this season.
Beating New England may require the Cowboys to just overpower them on the ground. Establishing the run with Elliott and Tony Pollard can open up the passing game and give Prescott more opportunities to hurt the Patriots with his own feet or play-action calls.
To do that, Dallas will need to see dominance out of Elliott, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith and others on offense that we have not witnessed much of in 2019. They will need to go back to their offensive roots from recent seasons, when Zeke was still the Cowboys' focal point.
Thankfully, the opposition may allow for a strong rushing day more than you'd assume. Despite having the top overall defense in the NFL right now, the Patriots are only 10th against the run at 97.3 yards per game.
Even that stat has some fool's gold in it. New England was great at shutting down the run earlier in the year against the Steelers, Dolphins, and Jets. They held those teams to just 32, 42, and 36 rushing yards each, which represents almost a third of their overall ranking.
But then in Week 4, the ageless Frank Gore ran for 109 yards on just 17 carries. Since that game the Patriots have allowed an average of 123.3 rushing yards, giving up especially big days to the better backs on their schedule; Gore, Nick Chubb, and Mark Ingram.
Getting a classic performance by Ezekiel Elliott will give the Cowboys a strong foundation for success. It will help them in all of those nuances of the game that a coach like Bill Belichick knows how to leverage, such as time of possession, field position, and clock management.
Leaning on Zeke allows Dallas to mitigate risk in the passing game. A strong run game also generally allows for sustained drives and keeping your defense fresh, which is often critical to stopping Tom Brady.
Truthfully, there are few weeks where the Cowboys don't need a good day from their rushing attack to get a win. But that may never be truer than this Sunday given the opponent.
Dallas won't outmaneuver New England. The Cowboys will have to overpower them, and that puts Ezekiel Elliott back in the offensive spotlight. If he can deliver, Dallas can get this upset victory.