The Dallas Cowboys have invested heavily in their offensive line over the years, slowly building the most dominant run-blocking line in the NFL. They probably didn’t need to spend the fourth overall pick on running back Ezekiel Elliott this year — it’s almost a luxury move given the production they can get out of just about any back behind that line.
But if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing, and after some early struggles, Elliott has found his stride. All credit to the former Ohio State running back: he has great vision, he’s hard to tackle, and when he makes a cut, it’s rarely the wrong one. But in his best game yet as a pro — Sunday’s win over the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara — the Dallas offensive line was the real MVP.
Don’t take anything away from Elliott: the rookie has certainly arrived. His 412 rushing yards not only leads the league, but he's single-handedly rushed for more yards than 19 teams. The NFL is on notice. All signs point to him being a force in the league for years to come. But if the Cowboys can keep together that offensive line for years to come, he’ll be even better.
Below is a look at each of those linemen and where they stand.
|LT Tyron Smith
|8 year, $97.6 million contract through 2023
|1st rounder, 2011; Made past 3 Pro Bowls
|LG La'el Collins
|Restricted free agent after 2017
|Went on IR this week
|C Travis Frederick
|6 year, $56.4 million contract through 2023
|1st rounder, 2013; Made past 2 Pro Bowls
|RG Zack Martin
|Rookie contract through 2017 w/ 5th-year option
|1st rounder 2014; Made past 2 Pro Bowls
|RT Doug Free
|3 year, $15 million contract through 2017
|7th straight season as starter
|LG Ron Leary
|UFA after 2016
|Dallas denied trade request, now starting
The Cowboys have a line made up of three first-round picks with seven Pro Bowls between them. Collins has been playing well since the Cowboys landed him as an undrafted free agent. A pre-draft off-the-field concern saw him drop from a probable first rounder to undrafted and the Cowboys are now benefiting. Unfortunately, he went down with an injury and they will have to turn to Ron Leary, a player they really like and who requested a trade because he wanted a starting opportunity.
Now he's getting one, and the Cowboys' offensive line shouldn't miss a beat. Now let's look at their performance against the 49ers.
3:40 in 2nd, Elliott runs for 10 yards
Once again, Elliott shows good vision and decisiveness in making his cut. He runs up through the hole and Frederick is there making a huge block on 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Frederick tosses Bowman to the side and instead of picking up 4 or 5 yards, Elliott manages to get 10 and a first down.
Zack Martin is also key on this play. Martin is initially pushed back by the 49ers rusher, but he sets his feet and pushes back out, re-opening the hole just before it closed for Elliott. Nobody on the other side of Martin can do anything. Everybody else holds their man just fine, but Martin and Frederick are definitely the stars of that play.
5:32 in 3rd, Elliott runs for 23 yards
The 49ers sniff out this run and look like they might earn a big stop. But Elliott calmly follows his linemen, who get out there in space and make some big blocks. Martin again is the guy who makes the hole possible. He connects with the defender in a big way and opens up the hole after Frederick effectively seals off the other side.
Free and Smith are doing what they need to on the outside: just push dudes around as violently as possible. They aren't creating the running lanes, they're just occupying defenders and they do their jobs well. Martin and Frederick shine.
Elliott, of course, earns all the credit for making his one cut and suddenly entering another gear. The offensive line facilitates a run of around 10 yards, but Elliott goes fast enough to pick up 23 before he's finally brought down. It's worth noting that this big run came right after the 49ers lost Bowman to injury.
1:53 in 3rd, Elliott runs for 17 yards
What a hole in this run! Look at the three 49ers players on the left side of the line at the start of the play. By the time they're even looking at Elliott with the ball in his hands, the lane is open and there is nothing they can do. Three players are instantly taken out of the play just like that. On the right side, Martin and Free effectively seal off and who is left? Nobody. You can see the exact moment when Elliott has the ball and decides where to run:
That's a lot of open field in front of Elliott. Four 49ers on the left are out of the play. Two 49ers on the right are out of the play. Elliott doesn't even have to think about where to go on this play. He just goes, and he puts himself down at the 1-yard line at a crucial part of the game.
10:00 in 4th, Elliott runs for 26 yards
This is a play where the Cowboys seal off one side as expected and Elliott bursts through the hole -- a hole that is not sealed on the other side. They don't create the best running lane here, but the players on the right side of Dallas' line do enough to slow down the 49ers that when Elliott kicks into his second gear, he's gone.
For Elliott, this was probably his best run of the day. The Cowboys managed to neutralize five different 49ers on the left side of the field, and slow down just enough players on the right side for Elliott to make his cut and scamper ahead for 26 yards. It's unclear if that's where Elliott's hole initially is supposed to be -- the way the Cowboys pull make it seem like he's supposed to bounce outside.
But he's decisive, he's fast, and he's got just enough help from his guys to where, even when they're not at their best, they're still incredibly disruptive.
Elliott has improved every game this season, going from a disappointing debut where he averaged just 2.6 yards per carry to his 138-yard performance against the 49ers, where he averaged 6.0 yards per carry. As long as the Cowboys can hold everyone together, they're going to field one of the league's top rushing attacks.