In the first three seasons of Ezekiel Elliott’s career, there was little to no doubt that he was the best running back in the NFL. He won two rushing titles (2016, 2018) and led the league in yards per game (98.3) in the year he didn’t despite missing six games due to a suspension. However, over the last two seasons, the rumblings that Elliott isn’t the same player anymore have been running wild.
Despite finishing fourth in rushing yards (1,357), fourth in rushing touchdowns (12), second in all-purpose yards (1,777), and first in 100-yard games (7) in 2019 all anyone could talk about was Dak Prescott and his near franchise record of 4,902 passing yards. After Elliott produced career lows in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards per rush while also fumbling six times in 2020 his naysayers had all the ammunition they needed. He battled COVID and a calf strain in the latter part of the season plus his offensive line had its top-three players miss a total of 36 games. Yet still, people called Elliott a shell of himself, but he’s showing in 2021 that his demise was extremely premature.
Elliott started the 2021 season being dominant in an area of his game that doesn’t get enough credit, pass blocking. Prescott threw for 403 yards and three touchdowns in a narrow two-point loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 and it was due in large part to Elliott picking up blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.
Over the last three games, Elliott has shown that he’s still an elite runner with the football. In Week 2 against the Los Angeles Chargers, Elliott didn’t have a huge rushing performance with 71 yards but his burst and elusiveness were on display. When the Dallas Cowboys were driving for the game-winning field goal, Elliott touched the ball five times in 11 plays and converted two third downs, showing how much he’s trusted when it matters the most.
When the Cowboys hosted the Philadelphia Eagles a week later, Elliott continued his dominance against them. He gained 95 yards and 17 attempts which weren’t far off his 98.6 yards per game against the Eagles for his career and added 21 yards on three receptions. It was Elliott’s first game of over 100 all-purpose yards of the season and his first since Week 16 of 2020, ironically, against the Eagles.
Last Sunday when the Cowboys hosted the 3-0 Carolina Panthers and the NFL’s top-ranked rushing defense Elliott went bonkers. He gained 143 yards on 20 carries (7.2 yards per rush) which included a 47-yard run in the third quarter which was his longest since his rookie season in 2016. What was impressive about it was the patience Elliott used by utilizing a jump cut to set up cornerback Rashaan Melvin before hitting the hole with authority.
Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott rips off 47-yard carry. Longest rush since rookie year. Against a D that arrived allowing 45 rushing yards per game.pic.twitter.com/QrNH5Ksz4e
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) October 3, 2021
Elliott currently ranks fourth with 342 rushing yards and his four rushing touchdowns are second in the NFL so far this season. Albeit in just four games, Elliott is averaging a career-best 5.3 yards per rush. His hard work in the offseason with running back guru Josh Hicks is paying huge dividends for the Cowboys. His burst and agility look excellent and he’s also at his lowest playing weight since his freshman season at Ohio State.
Any player can have a bad stretch or even a bad season at some point during their career especially when they set a certain standard. In Elliott’s case, his performance in 2020 was a mere bump in the road. With his offensive line back healthy and Tony Pollard coming in as a change of pace runner to keep him fresh, Elliott is showing that he’s still one of the best running backs in the NFL even in year six and that he’s a vital part of the Cowboys offense.