New O-line pieces, slower Elliott hurting Cowboys’ running game

By Nick Shook
NFL.com
Read full post on NFL.com

Ezekiel Elliott hasn’t broken 100 yards rushing since Week 1. Dallas is 2-2 and hasn’t looked anything near the run-first offensive machine it was in 2016. So what’s going wrong in Big D?

Let’s take a look at Elliott’s carries in his first four games of 2017.

In Dallas’ win over the Giants, the Cowboys‘ offensive line was often just one block from springing the big play. Frequently, that one block that didn’t come usually fell on the responsibility of right tackle La’El Collins.

It’s nitpicking here in Week 2 against Denver, but if Collins can keep control of Derek Wolfe inside his own frame — something difficult to do when following a zone path upfield, especially when the defender has his grasp on your facemask — this run goes for a big gain.

Something similar happens in Week 4 against the Rams, when Elliott takes a handoff left and Jonathan Cooper swings and misses on a block of Alex Ogletree, allowing the linebacker to stop Elliott for a 5-yard gain with only one unblocked defender beyond him. And get this: Los Angeles only had 10 players on the field on that play. It should have been a romp to the end zone, had it been blocked properly.

That speaks to the new pieces in Dallas’ line. Gone are Ronald Leary, who left for Denver in free agency, and tackle Doug Free, who retired. The Cowboys have since shifted Collins from left guard to right tackle to replace Free, and have filled the hole at left guard with Jonathan Cooper and Chaz Green. The results have been a bit less than expected.

On other plays, though, it was Elliott who was missing the burst from last season that made six-yard gains turn into 50-plus-yard gains and touchdowns. His slight hesitation didn’t help, but a well-blocked play was a faster Elliott — who hit a top speed of just 11.66 mph on the carry, per Next Gen Stats — away from making this a sprint to the end zone, with only Landon Collins and Darian Thompson standing between them.

Of course, a play later, it was Elliott making the unit look good, spinning through a small opening to gain extra yards on a play that required tailback tricks to make something out of nothing. He’s still as powerful as ever, as evidenced by his multiple broken tackles, but he seems a step slow.

That’s the basis of the relationship between Elliott and his blockers so far this season. He’s a step slower, but they’re also not as effective.

Credit is also due to the defenses that Dallas has faced. Led by Damon HarrisonJason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon, New York’s defense jammed up the box and filled run lanes extremely effectively, forcing the Cowboys to explore different ways to get Elliott the ball. Dallas employed screens, swing passes and even split Elliott wide to run a quick receiver screen to him. None of it did much damage. Denver was similarly effective in Week 2, with plenty of credit due to defensive end Adam Gotsis, who was there to plug holes with quickness.

Denver dominated Dallas’ offensive line in the Broncos‘ 42-17 win, and Elliott bore the brunt of the punishment. His other three games (with carry charts that you can view by clicking here) have been a mixed bag at best, but this carry chart shows just how little room with which he had to work.

Dallas also isn’t helping itself with some rough matchups. On the first of Elliott’s five third-quarter runs against Denver, the Cowboys lined up tight end James Hanna over outside linebacker Von Miller, immediately creating a difficult block to execute. Miller rushed right through Hanna’s inside shoulder, blowing up the play and allowing Wolfe to crash down from the backside through an unsustained block from Collins to clean up the play. In Collins’ defense, a backside zone block is never supposed to last very long, but it was another example of Denver’s defense dominating Dallas’ run blocking.

These units have kept Dallas from getting any noticeable surge off the snap, which was a signature characteristic of last year’s unit. This season’s edition just isn’t getting much of the movement it enjoyed in 2016. It was again evident on Elliott’s first carry of Week 3 against Arizona, a play that was stonewalled between the tackles (Collins gave an odd pause while standing straight up before seemingly being jolted back into action during the play) and resulted in a loss of 1.

In conclusion, it’s only four weeks, but the concern surrouding Dallas’ run game with Elliott is validated. He hasn’t shown the same burst and top-end speed he did in his rookie season, but he also isn’t getting the same gaping holes he did in 2016. As this unit, which is still getting familiar with a couple new/shifted pieces, continues to jell, and Elliott gets more reps on the field, we could look back at this in two months and laugh. But for right now, this element of the Cowboys is one to definitely watch.

Blocks of the Week

 

On Austin Ekeler‘s breakaway sprint for a touchdown in the Los Angeles Chargers‘ loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, credit goes to left tackle Russell Okung for closing down on defensive end Vinny Curry, and Hunter Henry for blocking way downfield, springing Ekeler on the 35-yard romp.

Keeping it in the same game, we turn to the opposite squad for an even better run from LeGarrette Blount, aided by a trio of excellent blocks. First, it was left tackle Jason Peters‘ down block, closely followed by tight end Zach Ertz‘s cut of defensive end Joey Bosa, and finally, it was Alshon Jefferyblocking down field to help Blount finish off a 68-yard rumble.

And finally, we have Elijah McGuire‘s 69-yard touchdown run against Jacksonville. The Jets running back makes one solid cutback on a well-blocked zone play, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins seals the backside with a prolonged block, allowing McGuire to sprint past safety Barry Church (who took a bad angle of pursuit) and the rest of the Jaguars‘ defense for a touchdown.

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