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 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.
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 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!