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BTB Mailbag: Getting Ezekiel Elliott more opportunities as a receiver

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The coaching staff keeps talking this up, but just how much more can they load on their workhorse?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Minicamp Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most notable aspects of the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp has been the varied ways they have been deploying receivers in the passing game. This is a real change from the rather predictable sets they used, to poor effect, last year. So this question from a reader who just gives his name as Landon seems a good one to dive into.

The coaching staff keeps saying the reason Zeke doesn’t get more catches out of the backfield is because he gets so many run touches and they have to make sure they are monitoring his work load, since it’s already so high. It looks like he is getting a lot more passes in training camp and I know they really like Rod Smith, so do you think they might increase Smith’s touches in the run game in order to utilize Zeke more in the pass? Rod seemed to do well last year and we know how good Zeke can be on screen plays.

Those remarks from the coaches seem like a reasonable explanation of what they were doing with Ezekiel Elliott in the past. But as we have seen so far in this camp, things are getting shaken up offensively. The early practices have involved Elliott quite a bit in the passing game, so that certainly appears to be the plan for the regular season.

One thing to take into consideration in all this is the much-discussed topic of how the team no longer has Jason Witten on the field for every play, or Dez Bryant to get so many balls thrown to him. In the first two seasons of his career, Elliott was the man in the running game, although they did usually spell him for a series or two in each half, depending on the game situation. It is somewhat speculative, but not having the two former workhorses around may make them more willing to rotate Rod Smith and maybe even Bo Scarbrough in more. (I don’t know that Elliott would complain if his workload was reduced, but at least now there is not another player he can point to and ask “What about them?”) That of course would help keep from loading Elliott down so much, as Landon suggests.

A lot is possible, but this seems like a very likely move. It is not a major adjustment or anything, and Smith and Scarbrough have also been on the receiving end of some pass plays. It really looks like the staff is working towards something along the lines Landon is thinking.

And there is another way to get Elliott off the field at times, and that is to go with an empty backfield. On Thursday, One Cool Customer put up one of my favorite posts so far this training camp, where he analyzed some notes taken by friend of BTB Landon McCool and put it into tabular form. This shows the personnel on the field for a couple of practices plus the walk-through in between. It showed that on Thursday, the empty backfield was a point of emphasis, as they ran seven of eleven plays during 11-on-11 work that way. And as OCC noted, there might have been other plays where Elliott started in the backfield but motioned out wide. However, the fact the staff was working on that high percentage of plays without 21 on the field at all is the real thing to look at.

On the following day, Elliott was back in as the back on almost every snap, but that indicates that there were other things to focus on in these particular practices. On a side note, one fun thing was a package that has been dubbed the “21 pony”, which has Elliott and Smith both out there, rather than put a fullback in the mix. Given that Smith is indeed a very good runner and receiver in his own right, that looks like a formation designed to throw a little confusion into the defense. (Maybe it’s just me, but that seems like a fun play to do a read-option on, faking the handoff to one back, then having Dak Prescott run it with the other back trailing for Prescott to option to, depending on how the defense plays it.)

The bottom line is that I think Landon is on to something here. Just as the plan is to spread the ball around to the receivers, there may be an intent to get the backups more involved in the running game. Elliott would up his targets as a receiver, but his total touches would be kept close to what he would have in the past.

It all is going to be driven by game situations, most likely. Sometimes the old “feed Zeke” approach may be what is working. But other games could see that running load shared. The staff certainly seems to be working on that.