The Dallas Cowboys weren’t able to pull off the victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, but they sure made a run at it. Speaking of running, the Cowboys offense had their best rushing output of the season with 144 yards on the ground. It was a collective effort between Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, and even 28 yards from the scampering Garrett Gilbert. While the Cowboys leaned more heavily on Zeke’s 18 rushing attempts, it was actually Pollard who led the team in rushing with the most yards.
The efficiency of Pollard vs. Zeke brings us to a question that we hope to answer in today’s edition of After Further Review, which is...
Should Pollard be getting more touches than Zeke?
One of the more interesting things about re-watching this game is that some type of explanation had to be revealed as to the efficiency disparity between the rushing of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Zeke ran the ball 18 times for 51 yards for a 2.8 yard average whereas Pollard had nine carries for 57 yards for a 6.3 average. Sure, we knew Elliott was ailing with a hamstring injury that threatened to sideline him for the first time in his career, but this rushing (in)efficiency has been going on for a while now. Elliott has shown a decline in production in every year since coming in the league. Granted, he set the bar high as a fresh-legged rookie, but in year number five it’s almost as if he’s running on fumes.
Those big games from Zeke appear to be gone. Excluding the year Zeke missed six games from suspension, he has rushed for at least 100 yards exactly seven times in every other season. He won’t be getting to seven this year as he’s yet to eclipsed the 100-yard mark in any game this season, nor has he averaged five yards per carry in any contest so far. Whether it’s lower volume or efficiency, Elliott’s numbers are suffering.
Meanwhile, Pollard has rushed for 5+ yards a carry in five different games this year. However, despite his efficiency, he’s just not getting the looks. Pollard has never gotten more than double-digit carries this year (he had four games with 10+ carries last season).
Is Pollard the better runner or are there underlying circumstances that are leading to this disparity? Going through every carry from Sunday’s game, it seems evident that Pollard was the better running back.
Now, we want to be clear. Not every running play is created equal. Both running backs were tackled behind the line of scrimmage or for no gain multiple times. When there was no hole, there was no hole. And it certainly looked like the blocking was better for Pollard than it was for Zeke, but we have to point out that the second-year running back just did a better job with what he had to work with than the team’s $90 million running back.
Exhibit A - the cut slows you down
One of the things that jumped out quickly in this comparison was how Elliott lost his take off speed whenever he plants that foot to cut in the direction he wants to go. Zeke has great vision and uses a stutter step that helps him be ready to change direction quickly. The down side with this is that it can slow him up hitting the hole.
Pollard, on the other hand, builds his speed a little slower with more of a left and right wobble to help guide his direction, but without breaking stride he’s able to just accelerate through the hole. This difference in style gives Pollard an advantage in getting through the running lanes faster.
Exhibit B - speed kills
Even when both of them have a clear path to run through, Pollard’s ability to reach top speed sooner enables him to get out into the open field. That quick burst can be the difference in whether or not the Cowboys are able to keep the chains moving. Here are two sneaky plays on third and long where the offense tried to run the ball. Both were good runs, but that little extra velocity matters.
Exhibit C - running away trouble
When the offensive line breaks down and defenders come busting into the backfield, there is very little the running backs can do to escape. Sometimes they’re just dead in the water. But other times, there are things they can do, and Pollard shows more of an ability to escape from those sticky situations when it comes to trying to run away from trouble. Not only are his chances of outrunning the defender better, but once he does get around him, he’s got some built up speed that is ready for the open field.
This isn’t a piece to advocate for a new starting running back in Dallas. There is a lot more in depth film analysis that goes into play to make a decision like that. Elliott’s value to this team is often undersold as many are fixated solely on stats and price tags. What he brings to the team in short-yardage situations, pass protection, and wearing down defenses aren’t considered here.
But what we can deduce is that from what we saw in the Steelers game, Pollard was easily the more efficient runner, and the Cowboys coaching staff should find more ways to put the ball in his hands. Elliott not being at full health is even more a reason. When you consider that this season offers nothing in the form of a deep playoff run, there is no time like the present to give the young running back more touches and take some of wear off of a running back who already has a lot of mileage.
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