Dallas Cowboys

Elliott, Cowboys’ run game will test Packers’ No. 1 rush defense

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) is currently on pace to finish with 1,747 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns for the season, which would be the second only to Eric Dickerson.
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) is currently on pace to finish with 1,747 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns for the season, which would be the second only to Eric Dickerson. Special to the Star-Telegram

Ezekiel Elliott finally flashed his home-run ability last week against Cincinnati. He’d already shown his receiving skills and pass-blocking talent in the previous weeks.

The biggest asset, though, might be the physical presence Elliott has brought on a weekly basis. He is not afraid to lower his shoulder and impose his toughness on opponents.

That, more than anything, might be his best trait.

“You can tell he’s a physical runner,” center Travis Frederick said. “He runs downhill and gets great yards after contact. We like to be seen as an offensive line and blocking unit as being physical and moving downhill. They [Elliott and backup Alfred Morris] fit very well into the system.”

Elliott impressed his teammates in the preseason when he took Seattle’s hard-hitting safety Kam Chancellor head-on, a statement he later said showed he belonged in the NFL.

Now, Elliott will have another chance to impress against the league’s top-ranked run defense in Green Bay on Sunday. The Packers haven’t faced a great running team yet, but their numbers don’t lie.

No team has topped the 50-yard mark against the Packers this season. In Elliott’s worst game, the season-opening loss against the New York Giants, he rushed for 51 yards.

“Always excited for a challenge,” Elliott said. “That’s what players love — to go out there and be challenged. Another week, another challenge. Going to approach it like any other game. I’m going to work hard this week and hopefully reap the benefits on Sunday.”

That means bringing his punishing running style to Lambeau Field. Elliott prides himself in being a physical back.

The reason is quite simple, too.

“I feel like the most physical team wins the game, you know?” Elliott said. “In this game, you want to take your opponents’ will. When you can set that physical tone early in the game and carry it out throughout the game, you find guys not wanting to play in the fourth quarter.”

Elliott and the offensive line has done that the past three weeks.

After a sluggish opening two games, Elliott has rushed for 130 or more yards in three consecutive weeks and is close to being on pace to reach Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards in a season.

Elliott has a league-leading 546 rushing yards and five touchdowns through five games. If he averages 115 yards per game the rest of the way, he’ll break Dickerson’s mark set in 1983.

Wide receiver Dez Bryant threw out an even loftier goal for Elliott — 2,000 yards. That has been accomplished only seven times in NFL history, and Elliott would have to average more than 132 yards a game the rest of the season to reach that.

For his part, Elliott brushes off any talk about setting records.

“Honestly, I never started talking about Eric Dickerson’s record, you guys did,” Elliott said. “So you guys made that a story, but it’s honestly not something I’m very focused on. I’m focused on going out and winning ballgames. Focused on getting better with the team every week.”

But does Elliott know Dickerson’s record is within reach?

“I don’t know,” Elliott said.

For now, Elliott is on pace for 1,747 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, which would be the second-best numbers by a rookie running back behind Dickerson.

In that ’83 season, Dickerson carried the ball 390 times. Elliott is on pace for 349 carries this season.

That is roughly 22 carries a game for Elliott, the same number he averaged in his final season at Ohio State when he had 1,821 rushing yards on 289 carries in 13 games.

“We feel like he’s a sturdy back,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We don’t think there’s any issue with giving Zeke the football. He’s been very productive. Think he only had 15 carries in the game the other day, so he’s handling the workload well.”

Similar questions were asked two years ago when DeMarco Murray carried the ball a league-leading 392 times. Murray had 670 rushing yards on 130 carries through the first five games, but he never strung together three consecutive 130-yard-plus games as Elliott has.

If Elliott is able to make it four consecutive against the league’s top-ranked run defense, the record storylines will evolve much like the quarterback controversy has between Dak Prescott and Tony Romo.

But that’s easier said than done this week.

Yes, Green Bay hasn’t faced a rushing attack better than 23rd this season. Similarly,Dallas — which leads the league with 155.2 rushing yards a game — has faced two of the worst run defenses in the league in Washington (30th) and San Francisco (31st).

So Garrett and the Cowboys aren’t taking anything for granted.

“They’re really good in their base defense when they play their 3-4 and they’re awfully good when they play their nickel personnel,” Garrett said. “They have really active defensive linemen. They’re active on the edges. The linebackers are around the football. They’re just a very good defensive team and they stop the run really, really well.”

The Cowboys have also run the ball well behind Elliott.

As right guard Zack Martin said, “To see what Zeke’s doing, no matter what age, has been fun to watch and block for.”

Drew Davison: 817-390-7760, @drewdavison

Cowboys at Packers

3:25 p.m. today, KDFW/4

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