The Dallas Cowboys have been a team that has controlled the clock behind a dominant offensive line and the running ability of All-Pro Ezekiel Elliott since his rookie campaign in 2016. This season, however, we’ve seen the maturation of Dak Prescott under first-year Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore who has let the Cowboys signal-caller fully display his arm talent. So much so, that currently, Prescott leads the entire NFL in passing yards and is tied for fourth in passing touchdowns.
The downside to Prescott having a career year is that it’s created a false sense of how the Cowboys operate the best. In particular, the last three games, the Cowboys have gone away from Elliott after he had firmly established his presence and that must change going forward.
In Week 12 vs the New England Patriots, the Cowboys would be tested against one of the best run defenses in the league all season. The challenge was answered by the offensive line as Elliott had 61 yards on 15 carries in the first half. Instead of continuing to pound the ball with Elliott, the Cowboys only ran him six times for 25 yards in the second half of a game that was within seven points or less from start to finish. In this case, the Cowboys should have simply stuck to the formula and wore down the Patriots defense with Elliott instead of making the offense one dimensional. There’s no excuse for Elliott’s final rushing attempt to come with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter.
A week later vs the Buffalo Bills, the Cowboys again came out by setting the tone with their ground attack. The Bills were a top-three ranked defense but were 20th in the NFL allowing 4.4 yards per rush at the time. The Cowboys took full advantage as Elliott ran for 56 yards on 10 carries in the first half. Unfortunately, like the previous week, the Cowboys went away from their bread and butter as Elliott only carried the ball twice in the second half, with his final attempt coming with around nine minutes to go in the third quarter. That means Elliott didn’t have a carry for the final 24 minutes of game action which is totally inexcusable. Prescott should never have 49 pass attempts with Elliott in the backfield.
This past Thursday night vs the Chicago Bears saw the Cowboys open the game with their most impressive and physically dominant drive of the season. They went 75 yards on 17 plays mostly behind the legs of Elliott who had eight carries for 32 yards and capped the drive off with a touchdown. However, the Cowboy’s workhorse running back was an afterthought the rest of the game as he only saw 11 carries in the final 51 minutes. Once again, the Cowboys got away from their philosophy and became one dimensional as Prescott had his second consecutive game with 49 pass attempts.
Ezekiel Elliott, to use a boxing analogy, is a body puncher at running back. He’s not gonna give you the 50-60 yard chunk runs but rather the consistent four, five and seven-yard carries that mentally wear down a defense. Once he’s set that tone you can’t go away from it. The Cowboys have faced three consecutive top ten defenses and set a physical tone by establishing Elliott early only to stray away from it each time which led to three straight losses.
The Cowboys still sit atop the NFC East at 6-7 and control their own destiny to the playoffs. However, if they wish to get there for the second consecutive season, they must continue to ride the coattails of Elliott once he gets rolling. The Cowboys are 20-4 when Elliott goes over 100 yards since his rookie season, 4-1 in 2019 specifically. With their playoff future in jeopardy, it would be wise for the Cowboys to remember that their go-to method of success is still through Elliott and allowing Prescott to play-action pass off of it.