Ezekiel Elliott vs. Tony Pollard
The Dallas Cowboys' running back room has sparked an all-out war. One side believes Ezekiel Elliott is still the top dog in Dallas and deserves all the work he gets. The other side wants Tony Pollard to be pushed into a bigger role as the Cowboys' explosive-play machine. The right answer lies somewhere in the middle, but the starting point of the discussion has to begin with why the Cowboys favor Elliott over Pollard the way they do. Dallas is not keeping their more explosive runner off the field as a bit.
There are a number of reasons Elliott remains the top back in Dallas, the simplest of which is that he is better between the tackles. He just is. That gives Elliott value within the context of an individual run play, but also in that most rushing plays are going to hit between the tackles anyway. The situation in which Elliott is best is the one that is more likely to occur. Additionally, all those inside zone, outside zone, and duo looks are what Dallas wants to use to get into its play-action game, and consistency in personnel/formations/etc. between the run game and play-action is how you get defenses to hesitate when it is time for play-action.
When all of that is the case, the Cowboys, or any team, should probably feel inclined to give their best back that workload. You want the guy who keeps you on schedule while you set up play-action, and you want to have that guy on the field when you do go to play-action to keep the defense on their toes. That is especially true in Elliott's case given his excellent work in pass protection, a trait that only adds to the many hats he can wear for the Dallas offense. Last week's game against the Chargers provided plenty of examples to highlight Elliott's work between the tackles and why the Cowboys still give him the volume they do.
Elliott's touchdown highlights how well he can run tight to his blockers in order to maximize space for himself through the line of scrimmage. Compared to Pollard, who we will get to in this regard later, it's night and day. For starters, Elliott's path to and through the line of scrimmage is so smooth. There is no stutter as he gains width with his first small step to redirect himself up the field, which helps keep the safety honest on the outside half of that gap. Elliott's next step is a violent one that presses him right up to the right guard, getting every last inch out of that rushing lane to avoid the safety entirely and barrel in for the touchdown. That efficiency of movement at 225 pounds is why Elliott at his best is a menace to deal with on these zone looks.
Elliott shows something similar on this weak zone play. Chargers edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu (42) sets the edge well right off the bat and pushes this play inside. That should be a good look for the Chargers defense to corral this one. As Elliott gets upfield, though, he neither hesitates to get vertical nor does he slam his foot in the ground and get up the field too fast. Elliott works to get even with his right guard (blocking Linval Joseph, 98) and gives a light feint inside to keep Joseph honest. He finally hits the gas through the guard's inside shoulder while staying as tight to the block as possible so as to not give Derwin James (33) a clean tackle angle for the stop. Finish that off with some muscle through an arm tackle attempt and, voilà.
On this play, Elliott needs to hit the gas immediately. It's third-and-1 inside the two-minute warning—get that foot in the ground and go. Chargers edge rusher Chris Rumph II (94) comes in from the offense's left and squeezes this rushing lane real tight and starts to get body presence as Elliott approaches the line of scrimmage. Some backs (Pollard included perhaps) might hesitate and either not hit this with the force they need to or try to bounce it outside of the edge player. Elliott does not care about that and plows through anyway.
That may not be the toughest short-yardage run Elliott has ever converted, but the early third-and-1 conversion against Tampa Bay in the opener, where Elliott lined up as the fullback, was pretty darn difficult, and he made that one work. There's a reason he is still their guy when they need a yard or two.
Pollard is not as comfortable between the tackles. The efficient footwork, vision, and toughness through contact is not there the way it is for Elliott. Pollard has other wonderful traits—some that Elliott can not match—but his ability to work between the tackles on anything other than a perfectly clean look is a few notches below Elliott.
Elliott's first clip above showed the value of getting vertical even while trying to change paths and sticking tight to the right blockers. This rep from Pollard is the opposite of that. Pollard has to understand the right guard (Zack Martin, 70) and center (Tyler Biadasz, 63) have a double-team on the 0-technique. That's usually a good aiming point to run behind as a running back anyway, but those two blockers get such insane push on this play that any runner with decent vision should be pedal to the metal right through the guard's backside. Alas, Pollard pitter-patters behind the right tackle (Ty Nsekhe, 79) before continuing on a path that sticks tight to him, the opposite side of this gap he should be hitting. Pollard cannot predict that his tackle will stick his inside leg halfway into the rushing lane and trip him up, but this was an unpolished rep from Pollard start to finish.
Pollard's other issue is that he is not as willing to take the reliable gain. His inclination is to do anything but get downhill whenever possible. That can pay dividends, as it did at different points in this game, but it's also going to lead to some duds, and that can be frustrating as a playcaller when you are calling the run to get an efficient gain.
In this clip, Pollard should take the play behind the left guard and try to flex some muscle at the second level. Doing so would have been a guaranteed 3 yards, at least, with room to muscle out a few more depending on how well the guard engages with the linebacker. Pollard decides that is not enough, tries to cut it back, and runs himself directly into a wall of bodies, both friend and foe. Too many of Pollard's carries end with less-than-expected gains like this.
All of that being said, Pollard is still someone who needs touches in this offense. People have been clamoring for it for years and it's true. As frustrating as his work between the tackles can be, especially on zone concepts, Pollard is electric when he does find the angle to bounce a play outside. There is a shiftiness and degree of raw speed that Elliott doesn't have at this point. That's valuable, even if just as the change-up.
Truth be told, Elliott probably takes this one right behind the pulling guard and tries to trudge forward for a few yards. He is more equipped to grind out an extra yard or 2 that way than bounce outside and risk losing anything. Pollard, on the other hand, is eager to bounce plays like this. Once he gets outside the edge defender, it's off to the races against a corner. Pollard is able to sprint past for about 12 yards before forcing a poor tackle attempt and stumbling around for another few yards.
An offense probably does not always want to live in this world all the time. This play style is bound to end in some busts, whether that be the edge defender peeling off quicker, the safety not getting cracked by the wide receiver, the cornerback not taking the wide receiver so far inside on his path to the safety, and so on and so forth. Even still, calling plays for Pollard that can potentially bounce to the perimeter like this and betting on his athletic traits is Dallas' best avenue to finding explosive plays on the ground, and they need those in some capacity to complement Elliott.
More good news for Pollard truthers: Dallas tries to force-feed the ball to him on the perimeter in other ways than from a traditional running back alignment. Pollard may only be hovering around a 30% snap share, but when he's on the field, they want to get him his touches out in space. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore pulled out a couple tricks in this game to make that happen.
Plays like this sort of highlight the value of both players. Elliott in the backfield with the action going to a tight end and a wide receiver in a close split is a convincing run look. The cornerback at the bottom of the screen, Michael Davis (43), keeps his eyes inside towards Elliott for quite a while, presumably under the assumption the ball was going away from him. By the time he comes to and realizes Pollard has taken the ball on a fly sweep and is right in front of him, it's too late to help the safety behind him, allowing Pollard to get the edge and dive in for the touchdown. And now Dallas can use this look to play-action, boot, or actually hand off to Elliott in the future to keep teams guessing. (Also, shoutout to wide receiver CeeDee Lamb holding a nice block. We see you.)
Later in the game, Dallas went fast out of the huddle to get into this funky look with Pollard and a cavalry of blockers on the perimeter. With this kind of alignment against a two-high defensive structure, which Los Angeles was in for most of the game, the defense has to be short a man somewhere. They have to either be down a man in the box or somewhere outside. In this case, the Chargers kept four players in the box to remain gapped-out (one defender for each gap). That's probably necessary versus that interior offensive line and Elliott.
However, that means they surrendered a potential body to the bottom of the screen. Perhaps the thinking was that the defense could rally and tackle with this ball being to the short side of the field, but they were wrong and Pollard gashed them for double-digit yardage on a free reception. It's also possible that Dallas' approach to snap the ball early in the play clock (13 seconds left) after barely getting lined up scrambled the Chargers' brains and left them with no time to make an adjustment, which is just a further testament to what the Cowboys can get away with between these two backs.
All of this has been said only to arrive right back at square one: both players are valuable, the fun player should keep getting specialized touches, and the do-it-all bellcow back should continue to be just that. It's true that Pollard can be a scarier threat than Elliott on a given play, but the offense's foundation is much sturdier with Elliott handling the majority of snaps and carries.
Until Elliott stops being able to do everything efficiently or Pollard proves capable of supporting the foundation of the offense, this is going to continue to be the relationship between these two players. That is not a spicy conclusion to this backfield conundrum, but the Cowboys are lucky to find themselves in such a position with two talented, complementary backs. The more ways an offense can win, the better—and both Elliott and Pollard provide different ways for Dallas to win.
7 comments, Last at 25 Sep 2021, 10:15am
#1 by Bazz // Sep 23, 2021 - 12:55pm
Honestly, Pollard's propensity for high-octane carries fills a gap in Cowboys' fans hearts left by the ghost of rookie Zeke. Although he had an statistically impressive year as recently as 2019, it's a common narrative amongst the Dallas faithful that he's "lost a step" -- and his performance in 2020 definitely didn't help. I think Elliot still has the ability to pad highlight reels with his vision, power, and consistency, but he's certainly no longer the focal point of the offense like he was before Dak blossomed into the quarterback that he is now.
Pollard has always needed more touches since he got drafted two years ago, and I think Kellen Moore has shown that he's an intelligent coordinator who will continue to get him involved. It's just a shame that Elliot catches as much flak from fans as he does considering the important dirty work in pass protection he puts in, as well as his ability to run between the tackles (as documented in the article). I know that some of that is the lucrative contract he was given, and I disagreed with it now and then, but we might as well appreciate what he can do well while he's with us.
I also like how you brought up the way that Zeke's presence in the backfield can divert attention from Pollard, and likely vice versa. It goes to show the positive impact players can have even when they don't get the ball.
#2 by BlueStarDude // Sep 23, 2021 - 1:30pm
Pollard has had that exciting boom-bust potential all along, but he seems physically more impressive this season—a sturdier, more confident runner. I don't close one eye anymore.
And nice to see some good things about Elliott. It's easy to forget that when Dallas drafted him they already had a great O line but also had had a stable of RBs who could do little to nothing with it.
#4 by ralphp04 // Sep 23, 2021 - 6:17pm
I enjoyed the read but I'm not sure it's completely accurate. It feels like the writer cherry picked plays to support his conclusions while ignoring plays that contradict his position.
I also think that while it's easy to use eight plays to try and paint a narrative, the numbers both on the season and over the last season to not necessarily support these conclusions.
On Sunday, 9 of Pollard's 13 runs came inside the tackles for 73 yards. You wouldn't know it from the tenor of the article but almost 75% of his yards were gained running inside the tackles. Pollard also showed an ability to the find the cutback lane on several runs including his run at 3:09 in the 1Q.
While we have small sample size for the season, Pollard's ability to gain yards after contact is pretty impressive. On the season Pollard is gaining 4.3 yac/att compared to Zeke's 1.3.
Some might suggest that this is because the Cowboys use Zeke and Pollard differently but both backs see about 70% of their runs coming from traditional single back 12 personnel sets with Dak under center.
Some might also suggest that the disparity is due to the way the defense plays them, but on Sunday, both Zeke and Pollard saw an overall average of 7 men in the box when they ran the ball.
While I don't think that the Cowboys should change their starter, I do think that they should continue to split carries between the two with Pollard getting more carries in the second half of the season should the numbers continue to trend in his direction. I think the idea that Pollard is not as effect as Zeke running inside the tackles is an argument that is just not supported by the stats.