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How the Cowboys should game plan without Zeke

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We still hope his extension gets done, but the team has to be ready.

NFL: AUG 24 Preseason - Texans at Cowboys
No pressure, Kellen. No pressure at all.
Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Few fans of the Dallas Cowboys thought that Ezekiel Elliott would still be holding out just days before the season opener against the New York Giants. But here we are, with wildly divergent rumors and reports swirling about the progress. or lack thereof. towards finalizing his extension. There is now a very real chance he will not be available for the game. And since the NFL schedule waits for no man, Dallas still has to play the game. That means the offense has to game plan around his absence.

New offensive coordinator Kellen Moore already had a ton of pressure on him, but losing the most productive running back in the league for the past three years takes it to a whole new level. We don’t have a lot of significant data on what his offense will be like, since he probably didn’t tip much of his hand during preseason. But training camp practices, and even the OTAs way back when, have given us some really strong hints.

Here are some things that we should see:

Everybody move now

OK, maybe just the skills players, and no illegal procedures, but if there is a patented Moore feature, based on what has been reported, it is motion. Lots of motion. Changes in alignment, moving players around before the snap, and having the allowed one player on the move at the snap. We only saw hints of that in preseason, but every practice with Moore in his new job has been loaded with motion.

The idea is to disguise the play call, determine what the coverage is, and confuse the defense. It is just about exactly opposite of what we saw last season, when even casual viewers were able to predict some plays based on who was on the field and how they lined up. Opposing defenders claimed to know on many plays exactly what was coming. As you would expect, defenses made a lot of stops in those cases. Now, needing a strong start despite missing one of the team’s biggest stars, deception and disguise are even more important.

Morris will be the starter

The idea of Tony Pollard filling the starting role creates a lot of excitement. Temper that, because he won’t. Alfred Morris will be the starter. He is a quality back with his own skills. But the most important thing he brings to the table is that he’s been there, done that. He knows all about starting in this league. He even has experience filling in for Elliott when he was absent during his 2017 suspension. Steadiness is needed.

That doesn’t mean Pollard will not have a big role. It may well be increased with Elliott out. Morris will just be the first guy out there to start the season in that case.

Olawale’s role

One of the pluses Pollard brings to the table is that he can be used more flexibly than most running backs. Jamize Olawale brings a similar element to fullback. He is going to get a look or two in the passing game, but something else to watch for is on short-yardage situations. Elliott is a power back as well as being fast, and is the guy to go to on short yardage runs. Without him, Olawale should be an option. A two back set would probably be best for this, where he could either fill the traditional lead back role, or take the quick handoff to crash the line.

The safety blanket is back

Last year, Elliott was often the target for Prescott when he had to dump the ball out due to good coverage deeper down the field. Jason Witten is back, and he has long been excellent at giving his QB a way to make a positive play out of one that is not going so well. He will handle that along with his normal blocking and receiving assignments.

The big three receivers

Many were surprised that the Cowboys only went with five wide receivers on the 53. It seems to make clear that Tavon Austin and Devin Smith will mostly be concerned with return duties and some spot relief, while the trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Randall Cobb will shoulder the load.

And why shouldn’t they? You have a savvy veteran in Cobb who showed he still has a lot in the tank during camp. Cooper is one of the great route technicians in the league, and knows exactly how to maximize things after he catches the ball. And Gallup is poised for a breakout year. It is one of the better 1-2-3 combos in the league.

One particular stamp that Moore is likely to put on this unit is switching them around. Cobb is nominally the slot, but don’t be surprised to see Cooper fill that role and Cobb kick outside. Gallup can also be mixed in.

When the Cowboys go to four wide receivers, expect one of them to be Pollard, probably motioning out of a one-back set. In terms of usage, the rookie is probably your real WR4.

Dak will drive this train

To keep things going, Dak Prescott has to take another step forward. Fortunately, that is exactly what all signs pointed to during camp. But in the past, he and Elliott shared the load of making the offense work. Now, most of that is going to be squarely on the quarterback’s shoulders.

The mental part of that is one thing that no one should be at all concerned about, however. Remember, this is the player that went from fourth-string backup to starter for the most watched and dissected team in the NFL - in a matter of weeks. And he was simply magnificent. That was with Elliott and the offensive line just about at its peak over the past decade, but he still never flinched and repeatedly led his team to victory. Now he has three years of experience, a resurgent line, and an offensive coordinator who frankly seems far better prepared to maximize his strengths than that last guy.

Pass all the time

No, that doesn’t mean abandon the run. It means pass on first down, on short yardage, and most importantly, when the other team may not be expecting it. Moore appears to have that in his DNA.

The whole run/pass argument for the NFL is often seen, falsely, as a dichotomy. It really is about using both facets of the offense correctly. There is always a place for the run, if for no other reason to keep defenses honest. Situations will dictate times when you want to keep it on the ground. What teams can’t do is lock in on “establishing the run” and trying to prove an ability to grind it out. Frankly, that was an issue a year ago.

Moore just seems mentally built to look first to the pass. There is a concern that Jason Garrett will try to force more reliance on the running game, because identity ‘n stuff. Fortunately, there was no real evidence of that in preseason. If Elliott is indeed out, it should just reduce any leanings in that direction. If the Cowboys are to succeed in his absence, the offense has to go to the air.

Of course, we still want to get the holdout over and done

There’s still time, and Garrett has said there is no real deadline for Elliott to suit up and play, as long as he is back with the squad on Sunday. He is too valuable a resource to not use him. So that leads to the question of how the team should adjust back if things do get resolved shortly.

The answer is simple.

Don’t. Change. Anything.