I hear fans proclaiming, “the Cowboys can win without Zeke.” They’re right. Dallas can win games without their star running back, but it won’t be easy. In fact, it’s going to be harder than a lot of people realize.
Losing Ezekiel Elliott hurts the Dallas Cowboys. Over the next several weeks there are going to be attempts to calm everyone down by mentioning that the team has two former 1,000 yard rushers as backups on the team. The running attack is, by no means, in any sort of trouble. The great offensive line is still there, Dak Prescott is still there, and the Cowboys have an assortment of weapons on offense. And while the backup running backs should still help the team move the chains, it cannot be overstated that there is a noticeable talent loss without Zeke.
Dak Prescott had a great rookie season. He’s smart, he’s moves around well, and he’s got a strong arm to stretch the field. All those things were on display last year, but Prescott benefited immensely from the respect defenses had to give Elliott. What happens when defenses start focusing more attention on him?
Our own Cole Patterson recently discussed what the Elliott suspension means for the Cowboys. One thing that stood out to me was the Cowboys first three opponents: New York, Denver, and Arizona. All of them have some defensive strengths that could give a Zeke-less Cowboys some trouble.
There is no secret that the New York Giants caused the Cowboys a lot of problems last year. In two games, Dallas only found the end zone twice. Led by a defensive line that includes Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, and Damon Harrison, they have pressure coming at you from all directions. And if that’s not bad enough, they have a deep assortment of defensive backs. Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Landon Collins, and Eli Apple will all be manning the secondary.
The Denver Broncos have All World edge rusher Von Miller coming after the quarterback. They also have “No Fly Zone” members, Chris Harris and Aqib Talib in the secondary. All three are All Pro defenders.
The Arizona Cardinals led the NFL in sacks last year with 48. Led by Chandler Jones and Markus Golden (each with double digit sacks), they were constantly getting after the quarterback. They also have All Pros, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary.
With no Zeke around, this is going to make things that much harder on Prescott and the Cowboys offense. The question becomes - can the backups be good enough to take a little pressure off of Dak?
Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris are solid running backs, but they are severely lacking when it comes to all those little things Elliott does. The whole “anyone can run behind the Cowboys OL” is a nice complement to the great wall (or Dakota Dam as I will call it now), but such a statement fails to capture the greatness of Zeke. The rookie running back led the league in rushing with 1,631 yards, but how much of that was the offensive line and how much was Elliott? Well, here is your answer.
Yards After Contact
Elliott is a strong running back. The guy looks like he’s twenty pounds overweight, but wears a half shirt to remind people he’s got a six-pack. That core comes in handy as he just punishes defenders (ask Kam Chancellor). And it’s really impressive to watch him grind out an extra five yards while he’s falling down.
But the most crucial thing that will be missed is how Elliott was almost automatic when it came to short yardage situations. You could always count on him to blast through the smallest of holes and push his way for the first down.
Short Yardage Power
It should come as no surprise that Ezekiel Elliott was among the league's best in short yardage situations pic.twitter.com/QcgfkMVOYs— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 28, 2017
That is a very important element in keeping the chains moving. Any hesitation and the RB will be caught in the backfield. Any lack of strength and the RB will come up just short of the first down. Elliott gets the job done.
But as important as those short runs are, fans got such a great view of explosiveness when it came to Zeke’s ability to take off. His vision and shiftiness will get him into space, but it’s that next gear that helps him take it to the house.
Open Field Speed
The Cowboys were one of the best teams in the leagues in sustaining long drives, but every time they have to do that, it leaves them vulnerable for something to go wrong. Big plays are important and the team will be without one of their biggest playmakers.
The Cowboys offense has a lot of weapons. They will still have an effective running game without Zeke, but it’s important to understand that it won’t just be business as usual in Big D. The offense is going to have to get a little creative at times and it’s important that other players come through. And the weight of the world will be on Mr. Prescott. Elliott is a special running back and a team doesn’t just lose him and expect to not miss a beat. Scott Linehan and company know that and will now have to overcome that obstacle.