Ezekiel Elliott's punishing style 'brings life and energy' to Cowboys

FRISCO, Texas -- Play 7 against the Philadelphia Eagles showed what Ezekiel Elliott means to the Dallas Cowboys.

Lined up 8 yards deep in the backfield, Elliott took a handoff from Dak Prescott and immediately saw Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins in his path 5 yards downfield. So focused was Elliott that he knew the fast-charging linebacker to his right would not be an issue.

As Elliott ran, Jenkins braced for the collision, ducking low. Elliott lowered his shoulder, bowling over Jenkins on his way to the end zone. Replay negated Elliott's 14-yard touchdown run, but he scored on the next play anyway to give the Cowboys a commanding 14-0 lead on their way to a 37-10 win.

If the Cowboys (5-3) are going to make it back to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2006 and 2007, they will do so on the legs of Elliott. As effective as Prescott and the passing game have been this season, Elliott remains the focal point of the Cowboys' plan.

'Attitude run'

There is no way to measure what Elliott's 13-yard run against the Eagles meant, but to the Cowboys it was so much more.

"It's an attitude run," Cowboys right guard Zack Martin said. "It brings life to the whole team. The defense sees that on the sidelines. We see that. It brings life and energy to our group."

In Monday's 37-18 win against the New York Giants, it was more of the same. Elliott ran for a season-high 139 yards on 23 carries. It was his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season and third straight.

"I mean that was the easiest 140 yards I ever gained," Elliott said. "I don't really know if I broke a tackle. I just ran inside the scheme and those guys just mauled them up front. Thanks to them for making it easy on me today. Gotta love the big fellas."

Elliott, 24, is sixth in the NFL in rushing with 741 yards on 158 carries, putting him 153 yards behind league-leader Dalvin Cook, whom the Cowboys will play Sunday when they take on the Minnesota Vikings at AT&T Stadium (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).

Cook has played one more game than Elliott. So have Jacksonville's Leonard Fournette, who is third in the league in rushing (831 yards), and Chris Carson of the Seattle Seahawks, who is fifth. Carolina's Christian McCaffrey (second, 881 yards) and Cleveland's Nick Chubb (fourth, 803) have played eight games, like Elliott.

It's difficult to remember that Elliott missed all of training camp in a contract holdout.

"Zeke has played well from the outset of his career. He's played well from the outset of the season," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Sometimes, people like to say, 'This is a trend,' or 'That is a trend.' He's a guy we give a lot of responsibility to and typically responds and plays very well, handles it at a high level, he's certainly done that for us."

Elliott 'has to work his way in'

Before the Giants' game, Elliott described his season as "solid."

"I could definitely pick it up some more," he said.

If there is one area Elliott could "pick it up" in, it is in the explosive runs.

Elliott has only one carry of 20 yards or more this season, a 27-yarder against the Green Bay Packers. He has gone 189 carries without a 20-yarder. As a rookie in 2016, he had 14 carries of at least 20 yards. In 2017, he had five but missed six games because of a suspension. Last season, he had 11.

He has only one carry of 40 yards since his rookie season when he had three.

"They haven't come this year yet because Zeke's still getting into football, not shape, but he didn't have all camp and it's different," Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown said. "People have to understand he missed all of that, you know what I mean? For you to think or anybody to think he's going to be the same Zeke is not fair. He has to work his way in. It's taken a little longer, but trust me, it will happen. It will happen."

Play 4 against the New York Jets in Week 6 was one of those "inches away," runs Brown was talking about. In the gamebook, it's a 12-yard run, but if Elliott showed just a little more patience in allowing a pulling Travis Frederick to get to safety Marcus Maye, he could have had a 75-yard first-quarter touchdown run, perhaps changing the tone of what turned into a stunning loss for the Cowboys.

"If he lets Travis do his job and get on the DB, he could've went outside or inside, it wouldn't have made a difference," Brown said. "What happened was he got impatient and the DB is always going to be more athletic than the center and all he did was fall inside and get him. Now if Zeke stays with him and lets Travis get on the DB, we're talking touchdown. ... If you don't know what you're looking at, you'll say, 'Well, he doesn't have the same burst.' Well, no. He didn't give it a chance to develop."

Against the Giants, he was alone against a safety and unable to break a long run on multiple occasions.

But, is this splitting hairs on his overall effectiveness? Elliott has 22 rushes of 10 yards or more so far and since he entered the league in 2016, leads all rushers with 132 such runs.

"It's hard to just look at the numbers when you talk about what we do," Frederick said. "There is no way to quantify the wear you put on a defense when you run physically. Zeke continually hits you and drives you back, that's a lot of force hitting you and it makes you not want to tackle. It makes you not want to be involved in that quite so much. Those are the type of things the run game can help support and it helps set the tone for the physicality."

Garrett believes a running back's worth is measured not in the big runs but by the "dirty" yards, the tough carries against unfavorable defensive looks when games matter. Elliott is fourth in third-down conversions (76.9%). Among running backs, he is second in first downs per rush (27.2%). His 43 rushing first downs are tied for second in the league.

"He's playing really good football," Garrett said. "Anybody who watched the game (Monday night) would say: 'Wow, that guy's a football player.' Again, I think it starts up front. Our guys did a really good job blocking them. But when 21 got the ball, he was stretching the defense and then putting his foot in the ground and going north and south and finishing runs. He's a hard guy to tackle. I don't know how many explosive runs he had, how many plus-20-yard runs he had, but I know he had a huge impact on the ballgame."