There is absolutely no secret what the Cowboys strive to do on offense. It’s faster than walking and rhymes with fun. That’s right, they are built to run the football, and everything they have done personnel wise over the last few years reflects just that.
The problem is, over the last month, that identity has failed them and it has cost them multiple games. At the start of the season, the consensus was that the Cowboys had one of the best, if not the best, running backs in the NFL, and one of the best, if not the best, offensive lines in the NFL. Heading into week 10, both of those things can’t be said anymore. This post is in no way meant to take shots at Ezekiel Elliott, he still is one of the best backs in the league, but to highlight that if the identity of this football team is going to be completely built around him, he needs to do more, much more.
Ezekiel Elliott’s rushing stats so far this season are still pretty good. He currently ranks fourth in rushing yards, fourth in attempts, fourth in yards per game, and fourth in first-down runs. Where his numbers take a dive is his yards per attempt where he is tied at 18th in the league at 4.6 YPA, and touchdowns where he is tied with many at 21st in the NFL with three. Where the concern starts to creep in is over the last month of the season. In the Cowboys last four games, Elliott has combined for 254 yards on 76 carries for an average of 3.2 yards per carry, and just one touchdown. Those numbers are unacceptable for a team that lives and dies by the production they get from their running game.
It is often said that the Cowboys struggle to run the football when defenses put focus on the running game and stack the box, but so far this season the stacked box percentages probably aren’t as high as you may have thought. According to Next Gen Stats, Ezekiel Elliott has faced a loaded box (8+ defenders) on just 26.35% of his rushing attempts, that ranks 17th in the NFL. Another stat that leaves one scratching their head is that the Cowboys running game leads the NFL in rushing yards before contact, which should correlate to a lot of big gains on the ground.
There are multiple reasons the Cowboys running game has struggled to match what it did in 2016, and the blame can be placed at multiple different people/positions. Let’s take a look at the film to see what needs to change in order to get the running game back on track.
Ezekiel Elliott is a special talent, and one of the best players at his position in the NFL. He runs with excellent burst, patience, vision, and balance and all of the traits together make him one of the best running backs in the NFL. But there are some things he needs to do better if he wants to put this team on his back, like the Cowboys coaching staff is expecting him to do.
Here on the second rush attempt for Elliott on Monday Night, he had an opportunity for a big run instead of a loss of one yard. If Elliott sticks his foot in the ground at the 41-yard line and cuts this run back at the numbers he had a chance for a huge gain. Even if he isn’t able to hit the homerun, it would have resulted in a positive play instead of a loss.
Here is another play where Elliott makes the wrong read. Here, Zeke decided to cut this one back and runs right into the Tennessee edge. If Elliott would have continued to take the football to the edge, it looks like it would have been a one-on-one matchup between 228-lb Ezekiel Elliott and 180-lb Malcolm Butler. I’m taking Zeke in that matchup to gain four yards every single time, instead they lose two, and Dak Prescott throws an interception on the very next play.
The blocking has been the #1 issue when it comes to lack of production from the running game. Whether it’s the offensive lineman, tight ends, or scheme, the blocking has not been good enough. The Cowboys are very stubborn with their confidence in their tight ends when it comes to run blocking. None of them are very good at it, but they continue to ask them to do it far too often.
It’s very hard to place blame on this play. Joe Looney is supposed to get to #55 here, while Dalton Schultz blocks the right man. Due to the way that #94 rushes on this play, Looney gets caught up and unable to reach the Titan linebacker who blows up the play before it can even get started.
As the Cowboys players learn here, leaving Harold Landry unblocked is never a good idea. This play was changed at the line of scrimmage and it’s hard to imagine that Dallas wanted to leave the backside defender unblocked this close to the goalline.
This is just a pitiful rep from rookie Dalton Schultz. Off the snap, Schultz gets some help from TE Rico Gathers before he heads to the second level, as soon as Gathers moves off of Kilgo, Schultz gets tossed lack a sack of potatoes. If the coaching staff is going to ask Schultz, Jarwin, and Gathers to block defensive lineman on a regular basis, the running game will continue to struggle to get going.
One of the biggest issues in the running game is also the predictability in what down and distances the Cowboys are going to run on. It is no secret that the Cowboys use the run to set up play-action, while the most of the NFL is using play-action to set up the run. This simple change in philosophy would open up the offense quite a bit and really allow Ezekiel Elliott to reach his full potential, and keeping defenses guessing on what will be a pass and what will be a run. The Cowboys need to figure this out fast, because the season is slipping away.