The Cowboys bonus for an awful season was the No. 4 pick overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. They felt they got the guy they wanted in Ezekiel Elliott, and a number of people in DFW nodded in agreement.
I was, and still am one of those people.
After missing a chunk of training camp, and only really running the ball a handful of times in the preseason, my expectations are that he is going to need some time to get his legs under him still.
That being said, we’re all waiting for the moment when Elliott shows he’s more than just a guy who can run behind a good offensive line. When will he break loose for the big play at the second level? Will he be able to overcome a missed block to make a defender miss and turn out more 5-yard gains than 2-yard gains? So far 11 runs for 5-plus yards, 29 runs for under 5-yards.
As for his fumbles against Washington, I am going to chalk that up to fatigue. He missed a portion of training camp and those were in the fourth quarter. Looking at his college numbers, he was one of the best at holding onto the ball, I’m not worried about that right now, he’ll learn.
But let’s take a look at some of the things that have been successful and that haven’t quite worked out for him.
Against the Redskins, we knew the left side was the side to go after going back to my preview heading into the game.
Elliott finished 5.8 ypc to the left side with a bug 21 yarder aiding his number there. Take that away, he was averaging 4.3 ypc to the left.
To the right (2.7 ypc) and the middle (1.25 ypc), not so good.
Let’s start with the good.
We’ll skip ahead to the third quarter. The Redskins drove down the field to scored a touchdown to make the score 17-13.
On the first play, you see 6 in the box, and this is perfect for Elliott. He works his way slowly out to the left Jesse Holley told me last year this running scheme is slow to, fast through. Joseph Randle couldn’t figure that out. Looks like Elliott is starting to.
You can see with only six in the box that leaves one of the three offensive linemen between Travis Frederick, La’el Collins and Tyron Smith open to clear a lane. Collins takes on the defensive end, which leaves Smith to push up to the second level and take the linebacker on. Beasley and Dez essentially seal off the edge giving a good running lane for Elliott to run through.
This is a pickup for 9 yards to the left side, again where Elliott had all of his success against Washington.
Two plays later, he had his biggest gain to date (21-yards), and you’ll notice two things that made a huge difference. A) he ran to left AGAIN B) he was running behind a pulling Zack Martin and Collins. This is the Cowboys bread and butter run play, whether it’s to the left or right side, the pulling guards is how they open the running game wide open. The first thing is to seal off the edge at the tackle position and Smith does just that, plus it’s a little heavy on the strong side so Elliott is running away from the defense.
The two guards form enough of a crease for him to patiently run through, and he does just that. As you can see once he breaks through to the scond level, there is plenty of room to run. Now, the difference is going to be when he can go from turning this into a 21-yard gain, to a 45-yard TD. That’s when you will reap the rewards of a No. 4 overall pick.
Here’s another angle.
Let’s also look at the bad real quickly though.
On the first run of the game, an safe and almost predictable run after Dak play action bootleg to Beasley for a first down, his line doesn’t do too great.
Doug Free gets beat and that’s where Elliott is running to, he tries to cut back left, but Smith lost his guy too and there is really nowhere to turn.
A few plays later, he slips on a cutback because he was too far in before the hole opened up. The next run, the same thing happens, but Smith was beaten badly forcing closing a running lane, when he tries to cut back the wave hasn’t moved past yet, and he slips again.
And finally, later in the second quarter a play that could have opened up big time was stifled behind the line of scrimmage. Elliott is facing a 8 man front. When the ball is snapped, Witten who moved over to the right in motion is pushed back into the backfield. If he blocks down the line of scrimmage or even pushes the LB out of the picture, it opens up more running room for Elliott. Instead Zeke has to hop step back left before attempting to burst right, and he lost the half-second he needed, getting clipped by the defensive line.
We saw this last year with this Cowboys offensive line. The holes weren’t quite there, the speed between the RB and the line wasn’t quite figured out yet, and the ideal of how to best wash a linebacker or lineman out of a play had to be retaught from the 2014 season.
That being said, despite no Romo, and Randle becoming a headcase, McFadden was able to figure it out.
I think Elliott will eventually become patient enough to really start to see the holes available to him, and the offensive line will have better technique going forward. We’re going to see this offensive line and their RB pop for bigger gains in the future, and it won’t be too late.
Here are some numbers to keep in mind though moving forward
Against the Giants Runs Yards YPC
RUNNING LEFT 7 6 .9
RUNNING MIDDLE 4 10 2.5
RUNNING RIGHT 9 33 3.7
Against the Redskins
RUNNING LEFT 11 64 5.8
RUNNING MIDDLE 4 5 1.25
RUNNING RIGHT 6 16 2.7
Cory Mageors is co-host of The K&C Masterpiece nights 7-11 on 105.3 The Fan. Follow him on twitter @inthemageors