Ezekiel Elliott’s second NFL season was shaping up to be a disappointment, until he ran all over the 49ers on Sunday.
It came at the perfect time for the Cowboys. Dallas was coming off a two-game skid and needed to bounce back against the winless 49ers. The Cowboys were able to get the offense going again thanks to Elliott’s 219-yard, three-touchdown game.
Elliott ran for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns in his rookie season, and he added 363 yards and a touchdown through the air. It was also a primary reason the Cowboys finished 13-3 and locked up the top seed in the NFC for the postseason.
This year, the Cowboys are 3-3 after their 40-10 win over the 49ers. They’re ranked third in the NFC East, behind the Eagles and Washington. Off the field, Elliott is in the middle of an ongoing legal battle with the NFL over his six-game suspension stemming from domestic violence allegations by a former girlfriend. It has left his playing status in doubt from week to week.
On Sunday, he looked much more like the rookie version of himself than the guy who ran for a total of 8 yards against the Broncos earlier this season. Here’s what made it happen.
The Cowboys’ blocking was better against the 49ers
Elliott’s first score on Sunday came on a pretty basic 1-yard run. The Cowboys capitalized on a 49ers fumble on their own 25-yard line, and Elliott punched it in.
Textbook blocking sprung Elliott for his second touchdown of the game:
The Cowboys had the best offensive line in the league last season, but they lost two starters this offseason: Ronald Leary signed with the Broncos in free agency, and Doug Free retired. La’el Collins took over for Free at right tackle. Jonathan Cooper is starting at left guard, Leary’s old spot.
It takes time for the line to develop the chemistry it needs after offseason changes. The play has been inconsistent this year as a result. That wasn’t the case on Sunday. On Elliott’s second touchdown, Cooper and Collins in particular — as well as tight end Jason Witten — blocked aggressively to create a clear lane for Elliott right up the middle.
While the bulk of the yards on the ground came from Elliott, blocking helped the run game as a whole absolutely kill it against the Niners. The team ended up with 265 yards total on the ground.
Elliott came into the week averaging just 3.7 yards per carry this season, well below the 5.1 yards he averaged per touch last year. On Sunday, he managed a whopping 5.7 yards per carry. And he recognized the offensive line’s role in that:
Ezekiel Elliott on the O-line imposing their will: "That's what they should do. They're the best in the game and they played like it today."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) October 23, 2017
The line was solid in the passing game, too. It didn’t allow a sack all game, and Prescott was hit just once. But its impact was seen most in the run game.
Pro Football Focus gave Elliott the highest grade for this game for his dominant play. Right guard Zack Martin and Cooper stood out among the linemen. Martin has played well in general this season, earning PFF’s highest grade along the Cowboys offensive line. But Cooper’s play against the 49ers showed dramatic improvement. He’s averaged a grade of 46.8 for his play this season. On Sunday, he earned an above-average grade of 78.1.
It’s the most effective this unit has looked all year. It showed in Elliott’s stat line.
Elliott’s success on the ground opened up the passing game
Elliott also helped out through the air. His 72 receiving yards all came on this single beautiful touchdown play.
It’s a simple screen pass, and Elliott finds a lane thanks to a well-timed block from Martin and a little help from receiver Brice Butler. Then, he’s gone:
Dez Bryant and Witten were both able to pull off some big plays against the 49ers. Bryant finished with seven catches for 63 yards and a touchdown, and Witten had four catches for 54 yards and this incredible one-handed touchdown catch. Prescott finished with 234 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 134.
The way Elliott dismantled the 49ers defense on the ground kept them honest. They had to adjust to try to limit the damage Elliott was doing in the run game. That opened things up for other players, and it helped Dallas control the clock and wear down the 49ers. The Cowboys had the ball for 32:50 of the game.
It was exactly what the Cowboys failed to do in their 42-17 loss to the Broncos. Denver’s game plan was to force Dak Prescott to pass, and the Broncos were able to lock in on that because they completely shut Elliott down. It’s much more difficult for defenses to contain this balanced Dallas offense.
It was the best game of Elliott’s career so far
Elliott’s 219 combined yards — 147 rushing, 72 receiving — and three touchdowns were the most he’d had in a single game as a pro. His stat sheet doesn’t tell the whole story, though:
Ezekiel Elliott's resurgence didn't begin w/ this game. Cowboys RB has rushed for 232 yds in last 5 quarters after 308 yds in first 15.— David Moore (@DavidMooreDMN) October 23, 2017
Before Sunday, his best game so far this season was against the Giants in Week 1, when he had 140 rushing and receiving yards combined. He has exceeded 147 rushing yards only twice in his career, with 157 yards against the Packers and 159 against the Buccaneers last season.
It’s tempting to take this performance with a grain of salt because it came against the 0-7 49ers. But San Francisco is more competitive than its record suggests. This was the first game since Week 1 that the 49ers have lost by a margin larger than three points. The run defense went into Week 7 ranked No. 18 in the league for rushing yards allowed per game. After Elliott’s performance, the Niners run defense dropped to 29th in the league.
"I felt ready to go out there and play ball," Elliott said after the game, via David Moore of the Dallas Morning News. "I'm not going to say I didn't feel ready earlier in the season. I felt the same.
"But I think all together this team we had a different mentality coming into today and I think we're at the right place in the season."
The Cowboys need this version of Elliott on the field each week
The dip in Elliott’s production through the first five weeks of the season is part of the reason Dallas finds itself third in the NFC East, looking up at Washington and first-place Philadelphia. If this game wasn’t an anomaly for Elliott and he returns to his 2016 season form, Dallas still has a shot at the division.
Of course, that’s contingent upon Elliott’s availability to play. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 30 on the NFLPA’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would delay his six-game suspension until Elliott’s court case against the NFL is complete.
The 3-3 Cowboys were favored to win the division before the season started. Dallas hasn’t looked like the same team that went 13-3 last year, but losses to the Rams and Packers were close. This team could easily be 5-1. If Elliott keeps running like this and if the court lets him keep playing, it could be enough to turn this Cowboys season around.