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Ezekiel Elliott Primed for Best Season of his Career in 2020

For six seasons, the Dallas Cowboys have had one of the best running games in the NFL. It has helped propel them to a lot of wins and along the way, they’ve racked up three rushing titles combined between DeMarco Murray (2014) and Ezekiel Elliott (2016 and 2018).

While at times, the running game was one of the dominant forces in the NFL, over the last couple of years it had become all too predictable. The yards that Ezekiel Elliott racked up were tough, often plodding yards, as the offensive scheme created situations that were not conducive to running the football. In particular, the team’s heavy use of two and three tight end sets or motioning wide receivers into the formation, bringing with them another defender.

The Dallas Cowboys under Jason Garrett from 2016 to 2018 had the highest amount of first down runs in the NFL at 58.%. The Green Bay Packers under Mike McCarthy had the lowest rate of first down runs during that same period at just 43.4%.

Looking back it’s quite incredible that Ezekiel Elliott has been as successful as he has. The Cowboys were one of the most run-heavy teams on first down. Per Warren Sharp’s Football Stats, the Dallas Cowboys ran the ball on a league

In 2019, Elliott was sixth in the NFL  with a success rate of 56% per Football Outsiders, which accounts for yards gained in relation to down and distance. In 2018, Elliott was 21st in the NFL in success rate at 50%.

A play is deemed successful if it gains 40% of the yardage to go on first down, 60% of the yardage on second down, or 100% of the yardage on third or fourth down. So a four-yard play on first and 10 would be a successful play, while a four-yard play on 2nd and 10 would not. A one-yard play on first and 10 would not be successful, but a one-yard play on third or fourth and one would be successful.

In 2018, the Dallas Cowboys ran the ball 43% of the time and had a success rate of 47%. On first down, the Cowboys ran the ball 54% of the time and had a success rate of just 45%. In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys ran the ball 42% of the time and had a success rate of 53%. On first down, they ran the ball 53% of the time and had a success rate of 50%. That compared to a 57% success rate when they threw the football on first down in 2019.

Ezekiel Elliott has consistently been one of the best running backs in the NFL since entering the league as the fourth overall pick back in 2016. His ability to make things happen even after defenders get into the backfield or look to be stringing the play out for a loss is second to none.

The two-time NFL rushing leader has been excellent, but could be even better if the Cowboys offensive hierarchy runs him from more favorable formations and against lighter boxes. By using 11-personnel more frequently, the Cowboys could make Elliott even more efficient moving forward.

The Cowboys used 11-personnel for 67% of their offensive players in 2019, but they only ran the ball 32% of the time. Elliott had a success rate of 58% in with three wide receivers and one tight end on the field.

Ezekiel Elliott has a high level of comfort running out this formation from his time at Ohio State. Former Head Coach Urban Meyer used 11-personnel as his primary offensive formation and Elliott obviously flourished.

11-personnel works as a running formation because, especially when in shotgun, teams are thinking pass. It also works because it draws a defender away from the ball and provides more space with which to run.

The Dallas Cowboys under Jason Garrett didn’t care if you knew what was coming. Garrett believed that football was won by players winning individual matchups. For a time that worked. But after a decade and when the offensive line wasn’t dominant, it wasn’t enough to just “beat your man.”

When the talent is the same, or even if it’s deficient, coaching can be a difference maker. And even as I thought Jason Garrett was a good coach, game-planning to attack an opponent’s weaknesses was an area he was deficient as a coach.

Ezekiel Elliott will be better and even more efficient in 2020 simply because McCarthy and Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore won’t be as predictable. They won’t show a hard-headedness about running into stacked boxes or on first down.

With the addition of CeeDee Lamb it’s likely the Dallas Cowboys will use 11-personnel even more than they have in the past. They’re best lineup right now is with three wide receivers in the field and CeeDee Lamb brings something to the table as a run blocker, which will benefit Elliott.

The talent that Moore is working with is one of the best collections of offensive talent in the NFL. In addition to Lamb, the Cowboys have Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in the outside. The trio, along with Blake Jarwin will threaten the defense enough that they can’t key on the run as they have throughout most of Ezekiel Elliott’s career. After Dak Prescott our up career numbers in 2019, the league has taken notice of his ability as a passer and Elliott is the beneficiary.

Mike McCarthy has never had a running back of Ezekiel Elliott’s talent level as an offensive coordinator or head coach in the NFL. During his tenure in Green Bay, McCarthy was able to get functional seasons out of Eddie Lacy, James Starks, and Ty Montgomery. With Starks leading the way, the Packers went on their Super Bowl run. Imagine what he could do with arguably the best running back in the NFL.

Evan as the Cowboys become more of a passing team, Ezekiel Elliott will still approach 300 carries and 350 touches in 2020.

The difference is, this Cowboys coaching staff will get Elliott carrying the ball into more favorable situations.

Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing in 2016 and 2018. Heading into 2020, Elliott is a favorite to reclaim his rushing crown. But even if he doesn’t set career highs in yardage or touchdowns, this could still be Elliott’s best season yet, because he’ll be a much more efficient runner.

This offense has the talent on the field and on the sidelines to maximize and make life easier for their All-Pro running back. Ezekiel Elliott is primed for an excellent season in 2020 and it might just be his best yet.

What do you think?

John Williams

Written by John Williams

Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual, reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

Make sure you check out the Inside The Cowboys Podcast featuring John Williams and other analysts following America's Team.

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  1. Really well written article John McCarthy nay have never had an elite RB but he had A Rodgers who was a terrific runner in his own right. His ability to avoid the rush and make plays downfield with his pinpoint accuracy on the run were unparalleled. And if he decided to tuck it and run hecewas lethal. I figure Zeke has 3 more yrs at this level as RBs have the shortest shelf life of any position, generally peaking in the mid 20s. The cowboys have a window here

  2. Nailed it John, nice job! It all hinges on the personnel and play calling. I’m really eager to see how it plays out. Kellen Moore is still unproven in my opinion, so I suspect McCarthy will have a heavy hand in the scheme, personnel and play-calling, but he’ ll allow Moore enough leeway to grow into a quality OC. That said, I think your projections are spot on. Good call-out on Lamb’s blocking ability, and since he will likely be doing so out of the slot, that could be really big. It also could spell the end of the Noah Brown experiment. I’m hoping that the trick up McCarthy’s sleeve is the increase of play-action and/or rollouts.

  3. Leading the league in rushing is a useless category in this era as only one other team uses a one back system. But, Elliott has rushed for fewer total yards and been less effective each season.
    Elliott and the run game have not been effective since 2016.
    An effective run game is when you can line up and run when you want to. San Fransisco had an effective run game last season as did the Titans. The Boys have not been able to just run since 2016.
    The Boys run game leaves them repeatedly in 3rd and 5 so the pass game is used at the worst down and distance.
    McC has to either fix the run game or just concentrate on the pass game. Given the offense line rebuild and Elliott’s decline, McC should just pass and use the run game as a change of pace.

    • Only one other team uses a one-back system? Just off the top of my head I can come up with NYG (Barkley), GB (Jones), ARZ (Drake), OAK (Jacobs), MIN (Cook), NO (Kamara), CIN (Mixon), CAR (McCaffery), CLE (Chubb), TEN (Henry), and you’ll probable be able to add DET and MIA to the list assuming those rookies start. Everybody gets their RB2 some touches, but all those teams are led by one back.

      You’re correct in that an effective run game can impose it’s will, but 3/5’s of this line has done it before and now (presumably) with more diverse play-calling and the added presumption that McCarthy will likely have teams thinking pass-first, there is every reason to expect Elliott will have nice numbers. But again, whoever ends up lining up a LG and C will likely ultimately decide how effective they can be as an overall running team.

  4. I wouldn’t say Elliott is in decline and he should in fact be right in his prime for the next few yrs He might run less but should be more efficient, and hopefully breaks off some of those big chunk runs he was lacking last yr. I think the O-line will benefit greatly from having a super bowl winning coach at the helm and his schemes and innovative mind should help along their development. Big part of the reason Cowboys found themselves in frequent 3rd and 5 situations was due to unimaginative play calling on first and second down.

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