By Nick Shook
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Ezekiel Elliott was a near-consensus pick for Rookie of the Year at the start of the season. When considering the offensive line he’d run behind and the collection of talent around him in Dallas, it’s tough to disagree. But no one saw this — a league-leading 546 yards and five touchdowns on 109 carries — coming.
So how is Dallas, beyond its stellar offensive line, helping Elliott eat up so many yards? Well, against Cincinnati, personnel groupings and formation strength didn’t exactly help tip whether Elliott was due for a carry. Of his 15 carries, seven came in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers), and seven came in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers), according to Next Gen Stats. On his touchdown runs, one was a run up the middle in a formation with a strength to the left. The other was a 60-yard scamper off the right guard, coming out of a balanced formation.
What makes the difference for Elliott is the small creases — created by both long blocks from tight ends and receivers in motion, and second-level seals from his linemen — and the running back’s rare acceleration. Give Elliott a small amount of room to work and he darts through it like the finest sports car off the line. That 60-yard score was a prime example of this.
This play was a beautiful combination of a great matchup, effective execution and top-end speed. And it’s exactly why Dallas spent its top pick on Elliott.
As they did for much of the afternoon, Dallas came out in a formation with a defined strength, but motioned a target — in this case, tight end Geoff Swaim, lined up in the wing — across the field to balance out the formation, causing Cincinnati to shift from a 4-3 under front (with safety George Iloka creeping into the box) to a base 4-3.
This turned defensive end Carlos Dunlap into the outermost edge defender on the first level, and set him up with a big bullseye on his chest for Swaim, who sprinted back across the formation upon the snap to kick out Dunlap after right tackle Doug Free purposely stepped past Dunlap and up toward the second level. Tight end Jason Witten sprinted into the flats as if he were running a route, forcing Vontaze Burfict to vacate the box in coverage. Combined with Swain’s block and a zone scheme that flowed left (capped by Free’s seal of middle backer Rey Maualuga), Elliott immediately had himself an alley.
From there, it was a foot race. Elliott, a former state champion sprinter, burst through the lane, hitting a top speed of 21.5 mph just after he split two converging defenders. One of the defenders, Iloka, had 15.65 yards of space between he and Elliott when the back hit the line of scrimmage, and still couldn’t close in on him.
It’s a common theme this season: Once Elliott gets a head of steam going, he’s difficult to catch. It was evident in a sprint that saw him hit 17.61 mph and come just a yard short of a touchdown in Week 4 against Washington, and again on his 13-yard score in the first quarter against Cincinnati, in which he simply burst up the middle, accelerating from 9.51 mph at the handoff to a top mark of 14.56 mph and splitting two defenders at the goal line for the touchdown.
It also helps that Dallas has incorporated a few basic zone plays out of the shotgun that Elliott ran with great effectiveness as a star at Ohio State. It’s evident from the snap that he’s most comfortable, and often, most effective on these calls.
As long as Dallas keeps creating these small creases, which weren’t limited to these two plays — an early toss sweep with a crackback from a motioning Lucky Whitehead gave Elliott a small alley through which he sprinted for 15 yards — and Elliott continues to mature as a back who is learning how to run effectively in the NFL in real time, right before our eyes, he’ll only continue to break off big runs and post big numbers.
Other notes from Next Gen Stats in Week 5:
1. Tom Brady absolutely carved up the Browns in his return, completing 28 of 40 passes for 406 yards and three touchdowns. He had the fourth quickest release time (2.37 seconds) of quarterbacks in Week 5, and put together a passing chart that is definitely worth your click.
2. We have to check in on Arizona’s blitzing frequency again. Surprisingly, they didn’t finish among the top five in blitz usage in Week 5, a stark contrast from their previous three weeks in which they led the league. Meanwhile, the Rams led the league in Week 5, blitzing on 52 percent of downs and recording just one sack while blitzing.
3. Try to pressure Philip Rivers. Go ahead. On the 10 blitzes Rivers faced, he posted a 145.8 passer rating. (We’re also aware of his two interceptions, thrown in other situations).
4. Miami was trying almost anything to slow down Tennessee’s rushing attack on Sunday, to no avail. DeMarco Murray gained 60 yards on 15 carries (4.0 YPC) against eight or more Dolphins defenders in the box.
5. Relative to Brady making Cleveland’s defense look foolish is Joe Haden‘s average distance traveled per tackle, which was an astounding 30 yards per takedown, of which he had seven.
6. Vic — or as Charley Casserly prefers to call him, Victor — Beasley had a breakout game in a huge win over the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos. He was also the second fastest to the quarterback in Week 5, taking just 2.2 seconds to get to Paxton Lynch on one of his 3.5 sacks.
7. This week’s fastest man on earth (with a football in his hands) honor goes to Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman, who hit 22.25 mph against Denver. Pittsburgh’s Sammie Coates was the fastest touchdown-scoring man on earth, topping out at 21.78 mph on his 72-yard reception.