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The key to righting the Cowboys offensive woes is more utilization of Ezekiel Elliott

It’s time to actually run this offense through it’s best player, Ezekiel Elliott.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone around the NFL knows that the Dallas Cowboys go as Ezekiel Elliott goes. This coaching staff has very strong convictions that their game plan of a juggernaut rushing attack with Elliott leading the way is the best key to victory. They have every reason to believe that but in the NFL you have to establish more than one way to win. Since last November, the Cowboys have regressed to a team that can’t execute unless ‘Plan A’ succeeds.

In the last nine regular season games, dating back to the meltdown in Atlanta, this offense has experienced five troubling trends (in no particular order):

  1. Scoring only eight points in Carolina, the Cowboys have now scored less than 10 points in five of their last nine games. In those five games, here were the NFL ranks for the opposing defenses: Eagles (4th in NFL), the Falcons (9th), the Panthers (7th), and the Chargers (15th). The Cowboys split their games with the Eagles but were held under 10 points in both contests.
  2. Dak Prescott went 19 of 29 for 170 yards, no touchdowns, and an 81.1 passer rating in week one’s loss. That marks his seventh time in the past nine games that he didn’t reach 200 passing yards. It’s his sixth time in those nine games that he hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass. Dak has been downright awful at times trying desperately to boost the offense. His timing, placement, and accuracy have all suffered because of it but see our next point for details.
  3. The Cowboys offensive line have given up 28 sacks in the past nine games, that’s three sacks per game for Dak Prescott. In the nine games prior to this sack fest, this offensive line only allowed 10. The Panthers sacked Prescott six times last week, some were his own fault but there is a lack of communication and trust there. Where Prescott used to feel comfortable, now his inner clock is ticking rapidly. Without question, these things have really affected Dak’s ability to be successful.
  4. In the 17 games the Cowboys have played since the start of last season, they have outscored their opponents 28.5 to 23.3 points per game in 11 contests. In the other six, they have been outscored 21.5 to 8 points per game. Such disparity causes anxiety because we’re not sure which team is going to show up.
  5. It’s so hard to win games when you’re constantly behind the chains. In Carolina, the Cowboys only converted 2 of 11 third down attempts (18%). Their average distance to convert on third down was 11 yards. That’s only going to result in losing football.

When things are going poorly for the Cowboys, we’re always looking for a spot to place blame. However, all of these five trends are related and add up to create these offensive failures. With that said, this all comes down to a lack of execution from coaches and players alike. It may seem like a cop-out answer but execution is everything in the NFL and the Cowboys must execute better. That brings us back around to Ezekiel Elliott, arguably the Cowboys best offensive player. Elliott has only played in three of these last nine games where the offense has been lackluster.

Those three were this past week’s loss to the Panthers, last season’s week 17 win at Philadelphia (27 attempts, 103 yards, 3.8 YPC, 0 TD’s), and last season’s week 16 loss to the Seahawks (24 attempts, 94 yards, 4.06 YPC, 0 TD’s). Elliott had 15 rushing attempts, 69 yards, one touchdown, and averaged 4.6 yards per carry against the Panthers. It’s not a great performance by any stretch but his YPC continues to be really solid and it’s something to build upon.

Ezekiel Elliott is by far the most explosive player they have on offense and it would benefit these coaches to embrace everything that Zeke brings to the table. The Cowboys coaches often talk up the importance of Zeke but they need to understand that he can serve more purposes than just lining it up and running the football.

The Cowboys have to get Ezekiel Elliott more involved in their passing game if they want it to improve. Passing to a running back like Elliott will allow Prescott to get into a more comfortable rhythm. It also will help them stay on schedule in managing down and distance. When looking around the league, it was actually quite shocking to see how little the Cowboys pass to Elliott versus other teams and their backs. Here’s the Top-10 running backs in receptions for 2017:

Player Targets Rec. Rec. Yards Yards Per Catch Avg. RPG Rec. YPG Rec. TD
Le'Veon Bell, PIT 106 85 655 7.7 5.7 43.7 2
Alvin Kamara, NO 100 81 826 10.2 5.1 51.6 5
Christian McCaffrey, CAR 113 80 651 8.1 5 40.7 5
Todd Gurley, LAR 87 64 788 12.3 4.3 52.5 6
LeSean McCoy, BUF 77 59 448 7.6 3.7 28 2
Carlos Hyde, SF 88 59 350 5.9 3.7 21.9 0
Melvin Gordon, LAC 83 58 476 8.2 3.6 29.8 4
Mark Ingram, NO 71 58 416 7.2 3.6 26 0
James White, NE 72 56 429 7.7 4 30.6 3
Kareem Hunt, KC 63 53 455 8.6 3.3 28.4 3

Elliott had 38 targets and 26 receptions last season, which ranked 32nd in the league. Sure, he missed six games to suspension but even as a rookie in 2016, he was 24th in the league in receptions. In two seasons, he has less targets and receptions than the leading running backs have in just one season.

Ezekiel Elliott Targets Rec. Rec. Yards Yards Per Catch Avg. RPG Rec. YPG Rec. TD
2016 39 32 363 11.3 2.1 24.2 1
2017 38 26 269 10.3 2.6 26.9 2
Total 77 58 632 10.8 2.35 25.55 1.5

For as integral of a player that Elliott is, he’s been placed in a box by his coaches. This must change or the Cowboys will lose more games like they did this past week. If you’re going to spend the fourth overall pick on a running back, it’s for guys like Zeke who can do everything. There’s no conceivable way to sell the idea that Zeke is strictly a runner. The coaches have to find more ways to utilize him or this offense is cooked. Zeke has the ability to put the ball in the end zone on any given snap, here is a quick reminder:

Opposing teams simply do not fear a single receiver on this roster and until they prove otherwise, it’s going to stay that way. Every opponent has to account for Ezekiel Elliott because they know what he can do to them, it was evident less than halfway through his rookie season. It’s even more evident now, you either block them or you don’t as week one showed:

That’s nothing new for Elliott, he’s used to the attention and has actually thrived in it before:

“No running back produced more big plays against stacked fronts than the 2016 fourth-overall pick. He led all running backs in runs of 10-plus yards (12), 15-plus yards (eight) and 20-plus yards (five) when facing eight men in the box.”

The difference now is that without Dak Prescott and the receiving group working in tandem to ease the pressure, it’s going to get worse as shown in week one.

The Cowboys offensive struggles are not because teams have “figured Dak Prescott out” or are constantly “teeing off on Elliott”. They struggle on offense because they haven’t done a good enough job of executing and adapting to circumstances within a game. There’s not just one path to success in the NFL, you have to make edits along the way. The only way this offense is going to get out of this slump is by using the full capabilities of the talents that are on it. That starts and ends with finding more ways to get the only proven playmaker more involved.

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