FRISCO, Texas — Ezekiel Elliott is surprised some believe he should be frustrated by the lack of success the Dallas Cowboys‘ running game has had the past two games, including last weekend’s victory against the Detroit Lions when the offense scored 35 points and piled up 509 yards.
“That’s what a good teammate does,” Elliott said of remaining positive. “You guys kind of make me feel awkward, like I’m supposed to be pissed because I had 40 yards (he rushed for 45) and we won a football game. I don’t know.”
Outside the Cowboys’ organization there is a growing “What’s wrong with Elliott?” crowd. Inside the organization, the belief remains he is the straw that stirs the drink, as Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said in the offseason.
In the past two games, against the Minnesota Vikings and Lions, Elliott has run for 92 yards on 36 carries. It is the second-lowest two-game total of his four-year career with the Cowboys. His worst rushing game came in 2017, when he had 8 yards on nine carries in a Week 2 loss to the Denver Broncos that threw his statistics out of whack.
But he has two of his four lowest two-game outputs for his career this season. In losses in Weeks 4 and 5 to the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers, respectively, he ran 30 times for 97 yards. Against the Packers, he averaged better than 5 yards per carry (62 yards on 12 attempts).
On Sunday, Elliott will see the NFL’s 10th-best run defense when the Cowboys (6-4) take on the New England Patriots (9-1).
“Minnesota, we didn’t run it great. That was on us,” Cowboys right guard Zack Martin said. “[Against Detroit], they came out and they ran that 6-1 look, which is a run-stopping defense, so pretty early on we knew that’s what they wanted to do.”
Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has put the struggles on a “combination of everything.”
“At the end of the day, we’ve got the highest paid runner and a really, really good offensive line, that draws attention,” Moore said. “Whether it eventually flips or impacts in other ways as we continue to throw it, we’ll keep doing what we do. I think for myself, hey, I’ve got to find different ways. Maybe we need to approach it a little bit differently from a run game perspective, have to find other ways, but we’ve got plenty of stuff going that is a real positive.”
Four days before the season opener, Elliott became the highest paid running back in NFL history (six years, $90 million, $50.5 million guaranteed) after spending training camp working out in Cabo, Mexico, waiting out the contract dispute.
The struggles have not been seasonlong, but he has gone 158 carries since his most recent run of 20 yards, and in his past two games, he has not had a rush of more than 8 yards. He has five 100-yard rushing games, and three weeks ago he was lauded for his 139-yard effort against the New York Giants.
He remains on pace for 1,333 yards, which would be his lowest in a full season, but 12th-best in a franchise history that includes the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, and Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett.
Elliott is eighth in the league in rushing, trailing Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey by 226 yards, which means it is likely he will not win a rushing title for the first time when he plays a full season.
“I don’t really keep up with those statistics about rushing titles, [but] I know we’ve got a really good football player,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “We love giving him the ball. Even a game like [Detroit], when the running game is a little bit more challenging, you look at all those really good 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-yard runs that he made throughout the game. He’s just a damn good player and obviously a big play on the screen for us to cash in on that third-down situation down in the red zone. We think a lot of him. He’s a big part of what we’re doing.”
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“When someone has the hot hand, keep giving them the ball,” Elliott said.
It’s what the Cowboys did when Elliott was chewing up defenses just a few weeks ago when he had three consecutive 100-yard games.
“You do have to be patient. You can’t get too worried about it,” Elliott said. “You can’t play outside of your game. You can’t play outside of this scheme, trying to force something. You have to let the game come to you. That is most important.”
Which is why frustration does not enter Elliott’s mind.
“He cares about winning,” Martin said. “As great as it is to go out and rush for 120 yards every week, he wants to win as much as anyone in this locker room. So, if that’s what it takes to win sometimes, then he’s all for it.”