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Playoff Primer: Dallas Cowboys Running Backs

Sean Martin

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Ezekiel Elliott, Lions

The strength of the Dallas Cowboys, above all else for the foreseeable future, is their offensive line. A punishing unit that dominates their match ups across the board each week, the Cowboys play through their highly paid line - particularly when it comes to running the football.

Making a splash with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 Draft, the Cowboys put together the league's best running game this season by grabbing Ezekiel Elliott. A well-rested Elliott will now look to carry this team through the playoffs, and he'll have a solid stable of backups behind him.

Let's preview the embarrassment of riches that the Cowboys have at running back going into the playoffs.

Ezekiel Elliott

Ezekiel Elliott is better at carrying the football than you are at your job. You know it is true. The remarkable 21-year old rookie led the NFL in rushing this season despite not even being in uniform this past weekend against Philadelphia!

As expected, he has fit perfectly in Scott Linehan's running scheme, regularly bursting through gaping holes in the front - only to do most of his damage on the second level with an array of open-field moves.

Looking ahead to the playoffs, Elliott has faced all but two teams that the Cowboys may face. While the New York Giants were able to slow down Zeke in their two wins against the Cowboys this season, Elliott ran wild on the Lions and Packers.

In Green Bay, Elliott rushed for 157 yards on 28 carries - both close to season high outputs. In week 16 on Monday Night Football against the Lions, Ezekiel Elliott exploded for a 55-yard touchdown on his way to 80 yards on 12 carries with two touchdowns.

Just a year ago, Zeke Elliott was playing in the College Football Playoffs, and the 25 days off between Ohio State's conference championship win (where he rushed for 220 yards) and their semifinal game against the vaunted Alabama defense saw Elliott dominate Nick Saban's team in epic fashion - carrying the Buckeyes with 230 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.

Elliott even topped both of these performances in the National Championship against Oregon, cementing his status as a once-in-a-lifetime running back prospect with 246 more rushing yards - and a casual four touchdowns.

Now, Elliott will have 19 days since the last time he took just 12 carries to appear in the NFC Divisional Playoffs - looking to make even more history with his rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.

The best rushing defense he could possibly face would be the Giants, who you know the entire Cowboys' roster is fired up to potentially see again, and they'll have to first get through the Packers on the road.

It is time for Ezekiel Elliott to eat his way to Houston.

Darren McFadden, Giants

Darren McFadden

Has any back been through a stranger 2016 season than Darren McFadden? A forgotten man as soon as Elliott was drafted, McFadden then missed training camp along with the first 15 weeks of the regular season with his elbow injury.

Appearing in the final three games for the Cowboys, McFadden has been a welcome veteran option behind Elliott, not missing a beat from 2015 where he totaled 1,089 yards as the Cowboys' best offensive option.

It's no secret that Dallas is prepared to run Ezekiel Elliott into the ground throughout the playoffs - as they should - but McFadden will play a key role in being able to rest Elliott for short periods of time while still forcing defenses to respect him out of the backfield much more than a Lance Dunbar or Alfred Morris.

The entire premise of the Cowboys' running game is to keep the offense ahead of schedule on short passing downs, and McFadden will certainly help them do just that as he has shown throughout his time in Dallas.

Alfred Morris

Alfred Morris was supposed to be another reason that Darren McFadden was going to have a tough time finding a role in 2016's crowded backfield, but instead McFadden has recently proved to be the better option as Morris has become a healthy scratch two of the past three weeks.

While he may not have a huge role in the playoffs, Morris is still capable of wearing down defenses as a physical back. If he is called upon, after Elliott and McFadden, expect the professional in Morris - who has never played past the Wild Card Round in two postseason appearances - to execute in his role.

While it hasn't shown, Morris is actually the better scheme fit to play with the Cowboys' offensive line compared to McFadden, so one well-blocked zone play with The Butler carrying the ball could turn a postseason game for the Cowboys.

The X-Factor: Lance Dunbar

Don't roll your eyes at me. Back on a one-year deal for this season, Lance Dunbar has been a major disappointment. After seeing 19 snaps in that ugly loss to the Giants on the road, Dunbar was only on the field for nine snaps in the following two weeks.

Again, the world already knows that the Cowboys are great at running the football - but Lance Dunbar is not. More of a receiving threat at the running back position, Scott Linehan has realized that he can get the same production out of Elliott and McFadden, while keeping much more of a rushing threat on the field.

At the same time, Linehan has dialed up some creative calls to utilize all of his skill players this season, and it is obviously not far-fetched to see Dunbar hitting a few big plays throughout the playoffs - making him my x-factor at this position.


Playoff Primer is an ongoing series here at Inside The Star, preparing Cowboys Nation for the 2016 playoffs with a breakdown of every position on this team. To catch up with previous editions of this series, click here!

Tell us what you think about "Playoff Primer: Dallas Cowboys Running Backs" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and wmscradio.com every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

Game Notes

Cowboys Wishlist: Snap Julio Jones’ Hot Streak

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Cowboys Wishlist: Snap Julio Jones' Hot Streak

The Dallas Cowboys will try to get their second road win of the season against another inconsistent Atlanta Falcons team. As both try to get back to .500, this game will be filled with interesting matchups and implications. After upsetting the Philadelphia Eagles 27-20 last Sunday, the Cowboys need to get another upset win to keep being relevant in the league this year.

Here's this week's edition of Cowboys Wishlist! I hope you enjoy and I encourage you to let me know what your wishes are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!

Wish #1: Stop Julio Jones' 100-Yard Game Streak

With the Atlanta Falcons sitting at 4-5, many have overlooked Wide Receiver Julio Jones' hot streak. In each of his last four games, Jones has accounted for more than 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Totaling 476 yards in his last four games, Jones is ready to face Cowboys' Cornerback Byron Jones.

Byron has certainly been a pleasant surprise in 2018, playing at a great level right now. He has faced Odell Beckham and DeAndre Hopkins this year and made a good job of defending these "Tier 1" pass-catchers. It's worth noting the Cowboys are not making him "travel" with these players but rather keep him on a specific side of the field. That shouldn't change against the Falcons.

Wish #2: Contain WR Calvin Ridley

Back in April, Cowboys Nation eyed Calvin Ridley as a prospect who could end up wearing the Star on Sundays. However, Dallas passed on him and the Alabama product fell right unto the Falcons' lap. He's had a pretty good season and despite sharing the field with Julio Jones, he's done a great job as a rookie averaging 14 yards per reception.

The Cowboys need to contain him. While Dallas should feel comfortable with Byron doing his job, the truth is Chidobe Awuzie has struggled at times. Not that he's suddenly a bad player, but he needs to step up his game. Lining up against Ridley today will be a great test and one I wouldn't expect him to pass easily.

Takeaway Tuesday: CB Awuzie Hasn't Met Expectations in 2018

Wish #3: Score 28+ Points

The Cowboys have the huge advantage of going against a defense that ranks 29th in scoring defense. They did a nice job on Philadelphia last week and should continue to build on that success to do something they haven't done much this year: score a lot of points.

Scott Linehan's unit needs to do a better, more consistent, job. They've shown us they're capable of scoring, but they've also shown us their remarkable ability to seemingly forget how to do so. Blame it on play-calling, QB play, poor offensive line or whatever you prefer, it's a flawed unit.

They need to capitalize versus a poor defense like the Falcons' to find a steady rhythm.

Wish #4: Dak Makes This Falcons' Game a Turning Point

Last year, when Dak Prescott was sacked six times in Atlanta (five times by Adrian Clayborn) something changed for the Cowboys' young quarterback. Missing RB Ezekiel Elliott and LT Tyron Smith that day, Prescott had one of the worse days in his career. It was a turning point for him as a QB and the public eye.

Now he has a chance at redemption. A shot at putting the Cowboys at .500 and reviving playoff hopes, as unlikely as it sounds.

I wish that's the case for the Cowboys young passer in Atlanta. As flawed as he is, I'm a fan of his. The kid leaves it all on the field.

Tell me what you think about "Cowboys Wishlist: Snap Julio Jones’ Hot Streak" in the comments below, or tweet me @MauNFL and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!



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Dallas Cowboys

Final Thoughts on Cowboys Matchup with the Atlanta Falcons

John Williams

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Takeaway Tuesday: Cowboys Offense, Coaches Have a Ways to Go Still

This week, like every week for the rest of the 2018 NFL season, is a must-win game for the Dallas Cowboys. Getting ready to face an Atlanta Falcons team that took the heart and soul of the Cowboys offense in last year's matchup, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys have a lot to prove as they attempt to get back to the .500 mark for the fourth time this season.

It feels like the Philadelphia game was forever ago. Now that it's finally game day, here are some final thoughts on the Cowboys matchup with the Atlanta Falcons.

Amari Cooper Breaks Century Mark

Amari Cooper has proven his worth in his first two games since coming over to the Dallas Cowboys from the Oakland Raiders. He's had 11 catches in the first two weeks and has made an instant rapport with Quarterback Dak Prescott. I believe they take another step forward this week and Amari Cooper goes for 100 yards in just his third game with America's Team.

Cooper had 75 yards against the Eagles and 58 against the Titans. He's trending toward the 100 yard mark. If Prescott and Cooper could have connected on just one of the deep shots they missed on, Cooper goes for 100 last week. This week, Dak and Coop get another weak defense.

The Atlanta Falcons pass defense is one of the worst in the NFL. They have the sixth highest net yards per attempt number in the NFL and the sixth most yards allowed. They've also allowed the fourth most passing touchdowns; 21.

Since the Atlanta Falcons can score and move the ball with their passing attack, the Cowboys will have to throw to win this game.

Can Xavier Su'a Filo Continue to be an X-Factor

The Cowboys offensive line had their best game of the season on the ground on Sunday as they gashed the Philadelphia Eagles -- who were second in rushing heading into the game -- for 171 rushing yards. They did it by going right at the Eagles defense and were most successful when they used Su'a-Filo to get to the next level of the defense.

There's been a lot of talk about whether Su'a-Filo should continue to start when Connor Williams comes back and for me, it depends. Williams has had some problems with the strength that defensive tackles bring on the inside, but he's been getting better too.

If Su'a-Filo and the Cowboys offensive line plays well during this stretch that Williams is healing, then it would be a shock to see the rookie second round pick reinserted into the starting lineup.

Check out this week's film review on Xavier Su'a-Filo.

Dominant Defensive Duo

Jaylon Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence has been exceptional this season. Jaylon Smith looks to be healthy and progressing to be what the NFL thought he would be coming out of college. A transcendant middle linebacker.

DeMarcus Lawrence sack numbers may not be as high as they were this time last season, but he continues to show that he's a dominant player on both pass and rushing downs.

Cowboys Stats & Graphics on Twitter

Cowboys playmaking EPA, now with snap counts! The most efficient playmakers have been Jaylon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, Sean Lee, Daniel Ross and Jourdan Lewis. "Playmaking EPA" = total EPA on failed plays forced through sacks, QB hits, turnovers, passes deflected, tackles, etc.

As you can see from our friend Daniel Houston, who manages Cowboys Stats and Graphics on Twitter points out, Smith and Lee have been the best playmakers on the team on a per snap basis. By just about every measure out there, those two have been worthy of Pro Bowl and perhaps All-Pro selections.

Playing for his Life

Chidobe Awuzie has been struggling this season. And that's stating it kindly to the second-year corner back. He's had decent positioning for much of the year, typically being right where he's supposed to be, but he's not making any plays of the football, which is something he was known for coming out of college.

There's something not quite right with his game this season as he's become the focal point for opposing passing attacks and for good reason. He can't stop anyone.

Well, this is the week to turn all of that around. The Dallas Cowboys need him to have a big week this week.

Ailing Interior

As humans, we know that when our interior isn't right, it doesn't matter what else we have going on on the outside, we don't function as well. The same is true for defense. If your interior isn't right, your defense isn't right. The Dallas Cowboys defensive interior is struggling with some health issues.

On the final injury report of the week, Defensive Tackles David Irving and Daniel Ross have already been ruled out,  Antwaun Woods is doubtful, and Maliek Collins is questionable. If for some reason Maliek Collins isn't able to go, then it's probable that the team will go into the game without a functional one-technique defensive tackle. Even with Collins in the lineup, being down Woods and Ross means the Cowboys have to run Collins at 1T and Tyrone Crawford is your primary 3T defensive tackle.

With Crawford having to play inside this week it means a three-man rotation at defensive end of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Dorance Armstrong. They should be alright on the outside, but Crawford is one of their best run defending defensive ends. He's good on the inside, but you want to save him for your passing situations.

Prediction

This is one of those games that I'm having a difficult time getting a read on. The Cowboys haven't been good on the road this season until last week at Philadelphia, one of the more difficult places to play in the NFL. In that game, they finally got their offense clicking through the air and on the ground.

This week looks like an opportunity for the Cowboys to continue to prove themselves offensively against an average to below average opponent.

On the defensive side of the ball, they're going to have their hands full with an Atlanta Falcons offense that is averaging more than 30 points a game at home and has one of the best receivers in the NFL in Julio Jones.

I think this is going to be a close game where both teams get into 20's in point scored and it comes down to who plays better offensively at the end.

My heart leans Cowboys, but my gut leans Falcons. So it should be a 20-20 tie. Really though, I'm going with the...

Cowboys 24-20. 

Who you got?



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Game Notes

Cowboys, Falcons Week 11 Injury Report

Jess Haynie

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Zack Martin

The Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons are both 4-5 and playing to keep their seasons alive. It's a mutual must-win game, and both will have to try to win it without some key players. Once again, we look at this week's injury reports.

Let's begin with your Cowboys, whose report is getting longer as the season wears on:

Dallas Cowboys

  • WR Tavon Austin (groin) - OUT
  • DE Taco Charlton (shoulder) - OUT
  • DT David Irving (ankle) - OUT
  • DT Daniel Ross (calf) - OUT
  • LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - OUT
  • DT Antwaun Woods (concussion) - Doubtful
  • G Zack Martin (knee) - Questionable
  • G Connor Williams (knee) - Questionable
  • DT Maliek Collins (knee) - Questionable
  • LB Joe Thomas (foot) - Questionable

The biggest news is the guy who won't miss tomorrow's game; All-Pro guard Zack Martin is expected to play despite his knee injury from last Sunday night. The Cowboys, already dealing with Travis Frederick's absence and now health issues at left guard, could ill afford to go without Martin in such a pivotal game.

Even if he was healthy, rookie Connor Williams might have a hard time getting in the game. Backup Xavier Su'a-Filo looked like an experienced former second-round pick last week, and he may be the better player for now.

The defensive line has been hit hard, particularly in the middle. With Irving and Ross out, Woods doubtful, and Collins uncertain, Dallas called up DT Christian Ringo from the practice squad. They will also be without Taco Charlton, who could play inside some. Veteran Caraun Reid will be seeing a lot of playing time.

Sean Lee's ongoing absence has become almost an afterthought now with the stellar play of Leighton Vander Esch. We've seen in the past when missing Lee meant disaster on defense, but Dallas' first-round rookie has helped mitigate the damage.

Atlanta Falcons

  • LB Deion Jones (foot) - OUT

It's a short list for Atlanta, but the one name on it is a big one. Arguably the team's best defensive player, Deion Jones will miss the game with a foot injury.

The Falcons' injury issues have been more in players suffering season-ending injuries. Both starting guards, Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco, are on injured reserve. Star running back Devonta Freeman is also there, and those losses help explain Atlanta's 30th-ranked rushing offense.

Both starting safeties are also on IR; Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal. Atlanta has one of the league's worst passing defense this year without them, ranking 30th in yards allowed and 28th in opponent passer rating.

So yes, the Falcons injury report compared to the Cowboys' may raise some eyebrows. But in terms of who has most of their key guys, Dallas is arguably still better off.



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