Dallas Cowboys: Do other teams still fear Ezekiel Elliott?

Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images) /

Do teams still fear Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott like they used to?

When Ezekiel Elliott entered the NFL he struck fear in the hearts of opponents. The Dallas Cowboys top pick in the infamous 2016 draft was pick-your-poison kinda guy. He could beat you with power in between the tackles, he could beat you with speed around the edge, he could navigate the second level by following his blockers, and he could even beat you downfield as a pass-catcher. Zeke could just plain beat you.

Factor in his homerun ability, elite pass-protection skills, and short yardage ability and you had the Everything Bagel of NFL running backs. With the exception of some poor off-field decisions, he was a man with no weaknesses. But is he the same man?

From a numbers perspective Ezekiel Elliott had a historically great rookie season. Not only did he post career bests in total yardage and yards per carry, but he helped a rookie quarterback lead the Dallas Cowboys to 13-3 record and a top seed in the playoffs.

But since his rookie season, Ezekiel Elliott has noticeably changed. He’s gained weight and lost that spark to his game. And opponents have taken notice…

26 running backs faced 8-man boxes more often than Zeke last year. It’s clear other teams see something.

Last season he faced the fewest number of eight-man boxes than any previous season.  He faced them 28.88 percent of the time in his dazzling rookie season but only ran against them 19.27 percent of the time last season.

According to Next Gen Stats, 26 running backs faced eight-man boxes more often than Zeke last year. It’s clear other teams see something.

According to SIS Data, in 2019, Zeke’s 14.6 broken tackle percentage ranked 28th in the NFL (among those with 100+ carries). That’s down from the 17.7 percent he had as a rookie when he ranked 13th. In 2019 Zeke only averaged 2.6 yards after contact which was 20th in the NFL. As a rookie he averaged 3.0 yards (4th in the league).

Perhaps one of the most respected skills a running back can have is his ability to elude and break free of tacklers. I mean, anyone can run through a hole created by a good offensive line but what they do with that opportunity is what sets them apart right? Last season Zeke slipped to below the NFL average in elusiveness while his backup, Tony Pollard, took top honors in the NFL. Yikes.

According to Player Profiler, Zeke last ranked 39th in breakaway run rate (15+ yards) and 27th in juke rate. He’s basically been the least likely Dallas Cowboy to deliver a big yardage play.

Don’t fall for volume stats

It’s important to point out, volume stats like yardage totals and touchdowns don’t tell us how good a player is. It just shows how many attempts that player received. If you hand the ball off to Joe Looney enough times he too could lead the league in yards and touchdowns (ok, a bit of a stretch but you get the point). They are quantitative stats – not qualitative stats.

Stats like yards per carry are nice from a team perspective but show nothing about context or individual ability either. Good offensive lines lead to high ypc averages but it says nothing about elusiveness or yards after contact.

In the same vein context is missing from this stat. There’s a reason 3rd down backs get more ypc than short yardage backs – the yards mean less. Not all yards are created equal and a 2-yard run on 4th-and-1 is considerably more valuable than a 7-yard run on 3rd-and-10. That’s why tracking EPA (expected points added) is so important. It adds actual value. So working in Zeke’s favor is the quality of the yards he gets in those short-yardage situations.

That’s why qualitative stats are so important and that’s why there’s no substitute for good ol fashioned film study. They offer a more nuanced view of things.

Looking at his college highlights is hard to believe 2020 Zeke is the same man. It’s common for an NFL player to change the longer he’s in the game. Some of that is on purpose and some of that just comes with age. Many players find adding extra mass helps their durability and extends their careers. It’s worth it to many players, even if it steals away big play ability.

Now whether this transformation is a willful strategy employed by Elliott or if it’s just an accidental outcome of age and his inability to adjust to it, is unknown.  What’s clear is he’s physically changed and is not the lean game-breaker we saw in his standout rookie season.

Ezekiel Elliott is still a major asset for the Dallas Cowboys

But just because he’s lost the juice doesn’t mean he’s no longer a valuable back for the Dallas Cowboys. Ezekiel Elliott may not be avoiding tackles or breaking big runs at the same frequency as before but he’s regarded as one of the most durable backs in the league and consistently gains yards after contact.

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Durability is important when your back is as well-rounded as Zeke. I’ve often said Zeke’s best trait is that he can do everything and doesn’t tip the hand of the offensive play-caller. Teams that roll out a pass-protection specialist for one play, a receiving back for the next, a thumper guy for another, tell the defense exactly what they plan to do. A guy like Zeke keeps the mystery alive.

We’ve seen Zeke run screens, wheel routes, flex out as a receiver, run up the middle, run wide zone, etc… He may not strike fear in the heart of his opponents like he once did but he’s keeping everyone on tilt and that has plenty of hidden value.

Note: While the offense is more successful in expected points without Zeke on the field it’s largely because the Cowboys pass more without Zeke and we all know passing is more effective than running

It’s also noteworthy to point out Zeke is elite in short-yardage situations. Overall he has a success rate of 55.8% rushing the ball (which is a 7.3% success rate over average) but in short yardage he’s even better: In 2-yards-to-go situations, Zeke is 8.9% above average and in 1-yard-to-go situations he’s 13.3% above average (per Sharp Football).

If you can’t see it on the film or see it in the numbers (although both are quite clear) you should be able to see how opponents treat him. Defenses aren’t paying him as much attention as they used to and are showing far fewer eight-man boxes game to game.

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No, Ezekiel Elliott is not as feared as he once was but he’s still a valuable weapon for the Dallas Cowboys. It’s up to the new coaching staff to recognize all of this and use him accordingly (more on that in upcoming days and week).

  • Published on 06/10/2020 at 11:01 AM
  • Last updated at 06/10/2020 at 12:01 PM