Through the first three games, the Dallas Cowboys were undefeated, and star running back Ezekiel Elliott’s 289 rushing yards were the most after three games in his career.
Optimism abounded about what Elliott would do once he truly broke out, considering he had sat out the fourth quarter of two games and has traditionally hit stride after the third game.
But Elliott had just 30 carries for 97 yards in the following two games, both losses, and now the two-time leading rusher is at career lows in yards (386) and attempts (85) through five games.
Have the suddenly pass-happy Cowboys have gone away too much from Elliott and their identity of being a physical team founded on the running game?
“I just think it’s how the season has unfolded,” Elliott said. “I’m not really concerned at all. We’re still the same offense. To start the season out they were kind of easing me in, then we got ahead in a couple of games and I didn’t play that much, so I mean, I’m not really concerned about the touches. I’m just concerned about figuring out how to get things right in this offense.”
Elliott’s limited usage has been understandable considering he missed camp and the preseason in a contract holdout. He signed a six-year, $90 million extension four days before the season opener against the New York Giants. In that game he had just 13 carries on 37 snaps.
The blowout win allowed the Cowboys to use rookie fourth-round pick Tony Pollard in the fourth quarter.
Elliott had a season-high 23 carries for 111 yards in the Game 2 victory against the Redskins, followed by 19 for 125 in a 31-6 win against the Miami Dolphins, when he again sat out the fourth quarter.
In the 12-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints, the running game was completely shut down as Elliott rushed for 35 yards on 18 carries.
After falling behind 31-3 against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, the Cowboys abandoned the run. As a result, Elliott had 62 yards on 12 carries.
Elliott said it’s not as simple as saying the offense needs to just start feeding him again.
“I don’t know if I can say that,” Elliott said. “I think you’ve got to look at the situation. Two weeks ago we had trouble getting the run going. Last week we got behind. So you’re not going to be able to run the ball when you’re down 21. I think it was just like situational. If we can just come out and play our football, if we come out and start fast, we’ll be able to establish the run game. And we won’t have to play catch up.”
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett agreed.
“We want to give him consistency good opportunities throughout the game,” Garrett said. “And in regards to the game the other day, we had a lot of production on offense but we were behind in the game and a lot of that production was through the air. And Zeke was a big part of that at different times and he certainly someone who is very impactful for us when we hand it to him and throw it to him. When we play our best offensive football he’s a big part of it.”
Elliott said there is no panic in the Cowboys. Their focus is on cleaning up the self-inflicted wounds that have contributed to the losses, including three interceptions, two fumbles and a host of drive-killing penalties.
“The biggest thing is we’re moving the ball,” Elliott said. “We’re just shooting ourselves in the foot doing a lot of dumb penalties, things we can’t have, killing our momentum. If we eliminate those things, we’re a well-oiled machine.”
That well-oiled machine includes a newfound passing game behind Dak Prescott and receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Elliott said he doesn’t want the Cowboys to get away from that.
But they do need to get their edge back and get back to their true identity against the Jets on Sunday, Elliott said.
“We’ve got to go out there and play like us,” Elliott said. “We’ve got to go out there and play fast, we’ve got to run, we’ve got to play physical football, we’ve got to hit those guys and just get back to our identity.”
Of course, it’s also not lost on Elliott that since he came into the league in 2016, the Cowboys’ identity has been Elliott and the offensive line setting the tone on the ground with a physical running game.
That’s the edge they need to get back to, which means they need to feed Elliott.