Thousands upon thousands of words have been written about the millions and millions of dollars the Cowboys are paying Ezekiel Elliott. About how, despite declining stats over the past two seasons, the team is contractually stuck with him and his exorbitant payday. About how owner Jerry Jones has continued to support feeding the running back on gameday, even if it’s only in an attempt to get his money’s worth before a supposedly inevitable parting of ways after 2022.
Yet in a high-profile season opener when Elliott was the only Cowboy turning in good numbers, the team inexplicably forgot about him. It’s a trend that can’t continue this Sunday, especially with a backup quarterback making just his second pro start taking over the reins and a wide-receiving corps that barely made a blip last Sunday.
Elliott and the Cowboys run game will look to get back on track- and go considerably farther this time- when the AFC champion Bengals come to town in Week 2.
“I think it’s important, period, to establish the run game and run the football and get that going,” the two-time rushing champ told reporters Wednesday. “I think just overall as an offense, we’re a better football team when we run the ball. I think we ran the ball efficiently last Sunday. I’m looking forward to committing to it this week.”
They certainly didn’t against Tampa Bay, even though Elliott was chewing up yardage early on. His first carry went for seven yards. His next gained six. Then five. By halftime, he had 32 yards on just six attempts, a per-clip carry of 5.3 yards against a notoriously stingy Bucs run defense.
Coordinator Kellen Moore’s gameplan came back to Elliott after intermission, handing him the ball three times in the team’s first four plays of the third quarter. Six, seven, and five yards.
Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott gained between 5 and 7 yards on eight of his 10 carries Sunday vs. Buccaneers. Last year, when limited by knee injury, he went 11 straight games (Weeks 6 to 17) without recording that many gains of 5 or more yards in same outing. Good sign for run game. pic.twitter.com/YlroD18lFP
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) September 12, 2022
“I really liked the run game,” Moore would say later. “I thought Zeke ran really hard, Tony as well. I thought we came off the ball really, really well. We had, I think, 11 five-plus-yard runs against that defense which historically stops the run really well. I thought we had some really, really good stuff there.”
But midway through the third quarter, the Bucs went up by a 19-3 score, and it was “Zeke Who?” Part Two after that. He saw just one more carry the rest of the game as the Cowboys abandoned the ground game in an attempt to catch up through the air.
The former No. 4 draft pick finished the night with 52 yards on 10 carries. Of 93 career games (playoffs included) where he’s been active, that per-carry average put Elliott’s performance Sunday in his Top 25.
What’s more telling, it was only his eighth game logging 10 rushes or fewer.
When asked if that was a sufficient number, Elliott had a one-word answer.
I get it. You don't pay a RB $90 million to block.
… but you're seeing why Ezekiel Elliott's pass pro is part of his value tonight.
— David Helman (@davidhelman_) September 12, 2022
But inside the Cowboys locker room, the players know it was more than just the score that dictated taking the ball out of Elliott’s effective hands.
“I think we did some decent things in the run game,” guard Zack Martin said. “Obviously, No. 1, we’ve got to cut the penalties, right? And then No. 2, we’ve got to convert on our third-and-manageables. That was something we took away from that game. Everyone wants to know why we didn’t run it enough; well, we didn’t convert on third down, so we really didn’t have a lot of opportunities to. So get us into those manageable third-down situations, convert them, and keep drives alive.”
That’s something the Cowboys will have to try to correct against a Bengals defense that performed similarly to Tampa Bay in Week 1. Cincinnati allowed 75 rushing yards on 22 carries to the Steelers, a 3.4-yards-per-carry average. (Dallas gained 71 yards on 18 rushes, averaging 3.9 per carry.)
And now with a second-string quarterback and a mostly-inexperienced group of receivers comprising the passing attack, the Bengals are expected to load the box against the Dallas ground game.
“Yeah, it’s gonna happen,” Elliott admitted regarding the Bengals’ likely strategy, “and yeah, we’re going have to run the ball. We’re going to have to go run the ball against those heavy fronts. We’re going to have to establish that run game, and I think we’ve got the guys to do it.”
Martin also spoke to the mood in the building, hinting at a renewed sense of purpose as the Cowboys look to turn things around, even with several top-tier playmakers on the sideline.
“We’ve got to stay positive, man,” the nine-year veteran explained. “After the game, and even the last couple of days when you see a couple guys walking around, it’s like, ‘I get it; we don’t have 4 [Dak Prescott] for a little bit, we got our butts kicked in Week 1.’ But like I said earlier, this is a long season. A lot of stuff happens. You’ve got to stay positive. You’ve got to keep moving forward. You can’t look back, so that’s been the messaging. We’ve got a long way to go, and we’ve got a big opportunity to get better this week.”
Secondary running back Tony Pollard will need to do some getting better, too. After a pair of ill-advised gadget plays on the Cowboys’ first drive that combined to lose nine yards, Pollard ended the night with just six positive yards on eight total carries Sunday night. His 1.33 yards-per-rush average was tied for his third-worst in 43 games as a Cowboy where he recorded a carry.
Still, head coach Mike McCarthy said he felt Elliott and Pollard both did “a nice job running the ball” with the chances they did have. Moore blamed a lack of “rhythm and flow” as for why he was unable to “give those guys more opportunities” versus the Bucs.
“We’re going to have to adjust,” the coordinator said Monday, looking ahead to Cincinnati. “I feel really good, and hopefully we’ll have things progressing.”
There’s a far more urgent vibe coming from the fans. An 0-2 start would have Cowboys Nation fully hitting the panic button. Elliott acknowledges that the team isn’t quite there yet.
“There’s definitely some urgency. But there’s definitely no panic. We know we have a great team. We’ve got to go through some adversity to really figure out how good of a team we are.”
Actually sticking with an aspect of the gameplan that’s averaging five-plus yards a pop seems like it would help.