FRISCO — While everyone has been wringing their hands and lamenting the state of the passing game, a troubling development has gone under the radar.
The run game has slipped to the point where it now needs fixing.
This isn’t uncommon. When a team puts so much attention and focus into an area that’s broken, it often causes erosion somewhere else.
What’s surprising here is that Ezekiel Elliott and the run game defines the Cowboys offensive identity. This group no longer imposes its will on the ground, which helps explain the 3-5 record it carries into Sunday night’s matchup with Philadelphia.
“It’s been inconsistent,” Elliott conceded. “I think we made some good strides last week early in the game, but it’s still not where it needs to be. Still not at the level that it should be.
“We’ve got to get this run game going, point blank, period.”
Opposing defenses held Elliott to less than 80 yards on the ground only twice in his first two years in the league.
That’s already happened five times this season. Elliott has been held to 61 yards or less in two straight and three of the last four games.
The loss of center Travis Frederick before the season began and an erratic performance across the offensive line is partly to blame. So is an ineffective passing game that only now begins to show signs of hope.
“I think we’re in a reset mode there with our run game,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “We want to be able to get our passing game, which I think has trended good the last couple of games, in a position where we can create big plays and still have the run game that we can lean on throughout the game.”
Elliott rushed for 31 yards and caught two passes for 44 yards in the first quarter of the team’s loss to Tennessee on Monday night. He thought he was headed for a big game.
He managed just 37 yards from scrimmage the remainder of the evening in the Cowboys’ 28-14 loss.
“Definitely frustrating,” Elliott said. “It just gets back to the conversations we had earlier this season. If you’re down two touchdowns, there’s no running the ball. If you’re down two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, you’ve got go with the passing game, score quick.
“I think it’s a casualty of the situation.”
There’s validity to that point. Deficits have taken the ball out of Elliott’s hands at key moments this season. But that’s not the only explanation.
The score was tied entering the second half of the Cowboys loss to Washington. The same goes for the game against the Titans. What did Elliott do in the second half of those two games?
He had a total of 10 carries for 37 yards.
Here’s another number to keep in mind: The Cowboys were close to automatic the last two seasons when handing the ball to Elliott on third-and-1.
This season he’s converted eight of 12 attempts. There are 33 players in the league who have converted at a higher percentage.
“Sometimes it will be harder based on what the defense is trying to do, what they’re trying to take away,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “Sometimes they load up the box and say, ‘We ain’t letting you run.’ So you have to beat them other ways.
“You have to be able to attack through the passing game and run them out of those fronts, run them out of those defenses.”
It won’t be easy Sunday night. Philadelphia has the league’s No. 2 run defenses, allowing an average of 83.8 yards on the ground.
“They have great personnel on that front, a lot of great players,” Elliott said. “It’s important for us to come out there and be crisp, be ready to go out there and start fast.”
And get back to imposing their will on the ground.
“We’ve got to get it going,” Elliott said. “We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to do that.”
Catch David Moore on The Ticket (KTCK-AM 1310 and 96.7 FM) with The Musers at 9:35 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and The Hardline at 4:15 p.m. every Tuesday and Friday during the regular season.
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