[Ed. Note: Heavy GIFs coming, be patient while they load]
In my last piece, we attempted to identify possible areas for improvement in the Dallas run game. Given that the Cowboys were ranked ninth in the NFL, this was a pretty hard task. One thing that 2015 definitively showed was that the Dallas Cowboys offensive line meant more to DeMarco Murray than he meant to them. Another was that Darren McFadden is still a viable NFL back. But despite these things, there were still some issues.
Jason Garrett wanted to establish a smash-mouth running identity and did so with great success in 2014. For a variety of reasons, the 2015 Cowboys were less successful in their rushing attempts early in the game where they attempted to reforge that identity. They also suffered significantly on short-yardage situations and, particularly, in short-yardage scoring and run scoring in general.
Which leads to the third shortfall in the Cowboys run game. In the last five seasons, Dallas has ten touchdowns of ten yards or more. The average team has 16 in that time and Dallas is tied for third-lowest in the league. One touchdown belongs to Felix Jones. Five were DeMarco Murray. Four were scored by Joseph Randle. Murray had 934 carries to produce those five touchdowns. Randle had 181. In short, Dallas has not been a scoring threat when running the football in other than goal-to-go situations. The lack of a breakaway threat is significant.
So, when I want to look at what Ezekiel Elliott brings to the Dallas run game, I'm going to start with this:
This run shows a lot of what makes Ezekiel Elliot an ideal runner for the Dallas Cowboys. I have to confess the first time I saw this run, I noted "ok, he has speed" and moved on. After all, the hole is huge and "anyone" could do it, right? But the speed is impressive, as is the decisive, plant-and-go style that is so good for the Dallas run game.
But the more I looked at Elliott, the more I began to realize there was more to it than that. I'd like to briefly point out the subtle little angle away from the pursuing safety. He is very good at spatial relationships and I will come back to that, but it's also worth noting that many "bad angles" by safeties are actually good angles by ball carriers. If there's no one to prevent the ball carrier from veering away, the safety is probably out of luck.
After watching multiple runs of Elliott, however, I began to notice something. He has amazing vision. Yes, he has excellent speed. Yes, he has decent burst, (but again, we'll come back to that). But Elliott hit hole after hole with devastating timing and at full speed. I began to realize he was understanding the game at a level we rarely see from a running back.
You see, Elliott isn't actually all that explosive. Fourth-round defensive end Charles Tapper, at 271 pounds, had a better vertical and a better broad jump than Elliott. But Elliott seems to understand the play, understand the defense, and know where to be when to maximize the damage to the other team. For example, here's Elliott taking a hand off. I ask you, where's the hole?
Did you say "A gap, between the pulling tight end and the guard"?
Because that was the VERY right answer, to the tune of 33 yards and a touchdown.
How about this one, from the same game (a 246-yard effort in the National Championship against Oregon). Where's the hole?
Did you see the DT ready to swim inside and open up a big hole? Elliott seems to know it will happen.
And 25 yards later his team is well out of their own end zone.
These are not isolated examples. He does this over and over again against teams that are selling out to stop him. Call it vision if you like. I call it knowledge. Either way he shows an awesome understanding of how to get the most out of the run every time.
But the speed and knowledge are not all he brings. He has, as I mentioned earlier, outstanding spatial awareness. He makes little subtle changes to his route -- just enough to keep running free. Like this:
Yet he is not a waterbug getting by on pure elusiveness. He definitely has the ability to restore the power to Dallas's running game. He has excellent balance to recover from big shots: And, like Murray and Marion Barber III before him, he is not shy about contact:
With plenty of ability to move the pile:
and drag defenders:
In fact I have a set of four GIFs just of Elliott dragging top 10 draft pick DeForest Buckner around the field, just for those who wanted Buckner. Here are two of them.
Notice that in this last, Buckner wraps up Elliott two yards behind the line of scrimmage, yet Elliott still manages a first down on the play.
And no review of Elliott would be complete without an example of the famous blocking. Some running backs are helpful. Elliott, here, picks up an untouched Sheldon Day, himself a draft pick from last week. Bear in mind that Day has a 60-65 pound weight advantage.
My favorite part is the left tackle's brief "oh, well" look as he realizes he doesn't have to do anything about the stunting Day. But the point is that when people say Elliott is uniquely good at pass protection, they mean something a little more violent and active than you may be imagining.
Perhaps the biggest thing about this whole examination, however, is the sheer volume of great plays. Believe it or not, this is a significantly reduced sample. I started with over 30 GIFs of plays that I thought highlighted some special ability of Elliott's garnered from three games. And not just any three games, but major contests against top-ranked competition. If you didn't recognize them, that was Michigan State 2014, Oregon 2014 (national championship game), and Notre Dame 2015 (Fiesta Bowl). Those defenses featured multiple players that were drafted right alongside Elliott and represent the best the NCAA has to offer.
Would Paul Perkins or Jonathan Williams have been able to run behind the Dallas line? You betcha. I wanted to see it, and led the charge for Paul Perkins. Yet, in those three games against the most elite competition the NCAA could muster, with the defenses focused on stopping him, Elliott ran the ball 86 times for 549 yards and 10 touchdowns. 6.4 yards per carry, 183 yards and 3 touchdowns per game on average.
When people say Ezekiel Elliott is a special player, they are not imagining it. His consistency at the highest levels of performance is truly outstanding. These plays represent a little over a third of what I originally intended to show. A perfect marriage for the Dallas system, smart, coachable, and, perhaps most importantly, only 20 years old, he's absolutely a player which makes an immediate impact for Dallas and provides a massive assist for Tony Romo's successor. We've seen some good performances behind this line. There is every reason to believe we're going to start seeing great ones. It's premature to ordain him rookie of the year or talk about breaking the rookie rushing record, but it is easy to imagine either or both of those things.