Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

Most Recent FO Features


» 2017 Offensive Personnel Analysis

It's a three-receiver league, but for the first time since 2010, the frequency of 11 personnel actually went down last year. Was it a blip, or sign of things to come?

03 Nov 2016

Film Room: Ezekiel Elliott

by Cian Fahey

Dak Prescott got a signature win last weekend. He beat the Philadelphia Eagles with a touchdown pass to Jason Witten in overtime on Sunday Night Football. It was the second signature win of Prescott's short career so far, after he beat the Green Bay Packers in Green Bay two weeks previous. With the Cowboys leading the NFC East at 6-1, there is no reason for Jason Garrett and/or Jerry Jones to disrupt the team's chemistry by putting Tony Romo back in.

Except for the minor detail of Prescott's performances.

Over the last two weeks, Prescott has been bad. He had two fumbles that were his own fault and threw a bad interception deep in his own territory while playing with a lead against the Packers. If Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense not been so ineffective on the day, Prescott's mistakes would have received more coverage afterwards. On Sunday, Prescott missed throws throughout the first four quarters and showed off the kind of panicked footwork that hadn't previously existed. It wasn't a case of the Eagles defense forcing him into bad situations, it was a case of him repeatedly missing an open Dez Bryant from clean pockets. He had one interception early in the game, should have had another when Terrance Williams suplexed a defender in the end zone to save him, and even threw another game-ending interception that was dropped just before his game-tying touchdown.

Prescott didn't just make the plays when his team needed him most, he made the plays that kept the game close in the first place and then made the plays to lose the game -- he was just fortunate that the Eagles defenders let him off the hook.

In truth, if you want to call these past two games signature wins for an individual player on the Cowboys roster, you should be looking at Ezekiel Elliott.

We have a tendency to look back and judge draft picks with hindsight, overlooking how the moves were actually perceived at the time. Ezekiel Elliott was a popular pick in the first round of the draft and a highly-touted option for the Cowboys. There was a debate though. One side thought the franchise couldn't afford to pass on Jalen Ramsey, a potential superstar defensive back who could play multiple positions for more than a decade. That was an easy argument to make. The Cowboys had needs in the secondary, and Alfred Morris was more than capable of rushing for 1,200-plus yards behind an excellent offensive line. The other side saw Elliott as a special talent. That side envisioned the impact a superstar running back could have behind the most dominant offensive line in the league. Elliott alone would have a big impact, but that impact would be multiplied by his situation. At this point, it looks like both sides were right in their evaluation of the individual players, but it's hard to argue that the Cowboys would be 6-1 with Ramsey on the roster instead of Elliott.

The former Ohio State prospect had a slow start to the season. He was slow to get to 100 percent through training camp, so the Cowboys eased him into a featured role (he still carried the ball 20 times in Week 1). For the full season, Elliott has 159 carries for 799 yards and five touchdowns, with 15 receptions for 150 yards. He is averaging 25 touches for 136 yards per game, 4.9 yards per touch. Over the past two games, Elliott is averaging 5.8 yards per touch. He has 253 rushing yards on 50 attempts. Only 96 of those came against the Eagles on Sunday, but he added 52 yards on four receptions too.

Elliott's play hasn't just been about taking advantage of a favorable situation. He has elevated his offensive line and alleviated the pressure on his quarterback just as much as his line and quarterback have helped set him up for success.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

In the Cowboys offense, you will be given space in which to work, and often you will be given a running lane to attack. The most crucial responsibility you have is to avoid leaving yards on the field. That means when space presents itself in front of you, and you don't have reason to doubt that it will be there by the time you reach it, you must attack it. In the above GIF, we can see Elliott take the ball from his quarterback and waste no time in pushing his lead foot into the ground so he can accelerate upfield. His decisiveness leaves the arriving safety grasping at fresh air while the linebacker coming across the field isn't strong enough to pull him down with an arm tackle. The rookie then finishes the run moving forward despite initially being contacted at an unfavorable angle.

That's a relatively simple play that Elliott makes every time he is given the opportunity. He gets a significant number of those plays, but with Tony Romo out of the lineup, teams have been more aggressive crowding the line of scrimmage. That has put Elliott in a position where he has had to work for his production.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

With four first-round talents on their offensive line and one of the better right tackles in the league to go with them, the Cowboys are capable of executing any kind of running play. The diversity they have shown in their running game this year has been spectacular, even if that is often lost on the limiting angle through which games are broadcast. The foundation of their success is still outside zone. You can't play running back for the Cowboys if you can't execute outside zone runs. Outside zone essentially means that the offensive linemen move laterally and account for defenders based on where they lined up at the snap. There is no specific hole that the linemen are trying to create; the concept requires the running back to read the blocking in front of him and adjust based on what the defenders do in response to the lateral action. It typically comes down to pushing the run to the outside, or cutting back when the defense is too aggressive or penetrates past the wall of moving offensive linemen.

Left guard Ronald Leary (65) is the key blocker in the above GIF. Green Bay right inside linebacker Blake Martinez (50) attempts to jump through the left A-Gap (the gap between the center and guard) at the snap. Unfortunately for him, this plays perfectly into the play that the Cowboys have called. The linebacker takes himself out of the play as Leary, left tackle Tyron Smith (77), and tight end Jason Witten (82) advance outside to account for the three defenders left in their zones. Center Travis Frederick (72) ignores the linebacker and continues downfield to engage a different defender.

Elliott saw Martinez break into the backfield. He knew immediately that he was going to press the hole outside of Leary. Leary does a good job to reach outside of his responsibility (the right defensive end) so Elliott has an opportunity to get to the line of scrimmage.

Leary then begins to lose his block just as Elliott is crossing the line of scrimmage. This puts Elliott in position to be tackled. Elliott's speed getting through the hole and his strength allow him to shed the attempted tackle before continuing downfield for a huge play.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Containing these runs is very difficult for the defense. You have to maintain gap integrity while your gap is literally moving sideways. Every defender needs to move with the running back. You can't be a fraction too aggressive or a fraction too passive in how you track him across the field. If one defender is out of sync with the rest of his teammates, a gap will appear for the running back to exploit. Your best case scenario is typically to force the running back to stop his feet and attempt to cut back. Even then you need to have a backside defender in position who can make the tackle. It's hard to find an example of Elliott unnecessarily cutting back into the waiting arms of a backside defender. He simply doesn't make those decisions because he understands the concept of the play design and has the awareness to diagnose what happens in front of him instantly.

Over the past two weeks, many of Elliott's best plays have been created by cutbacks. Click the above GIF to pause it before the ball is snapped. Now count the defenders in the box and count the blockers available to Elliott. Elliott knows that his receiver is going to run a route, so he can discount that receiver and the defender who is lined up over him. Elliott also knows that the play is going left. On the left side of the line, the right defensive end is lined up not just on the tackle's outside shoulder but even further out that that. He can line up that far outside because he has a linebacker just inside of him lined up directly across from the left tackle.

Start the GIF, then try and pause it at the point when Elliott receives the ball. If you can't, just watch the left tackle and left guard as the play develops. When Elliott gets the ball, both his left tackle and left guard are being beaten on their outside shoulders. Elliott's running lanes are gone. He recognizes this on his first step after taking the ball from his quarterback.

You typically don't want your running back to stop his feet, but if his feet are fast enough to get moving again in a hurry it's OK. Elliott's feet are lightning-quick here. He shuffles his weight and turns his shoulders so fast that he can accelerate upfield before the unblocked edge defender on the backside crashes down to kill the play. Elliott has to break an attempted arm tackle before getting to the second level. He does that with ease before evading the safety and dragging two defenders with him for 4 yards.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Whenever the Eagles won on the front side of the play on Sunday, Elliott was quick to exploit them on the backside.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Against the Packers, Elliott had one notable cutback run close to his own goal line. The Packers came out with nine defenders in the box because the Cowboys had two tight ends and a fullback in front of Elliott. In this area of the field you typically want your running back to pick a hole and hit it so he doesn't risk moving you closer to the end zone. Leary forces Elliott to cut back as soon as the runner gets the ball. Elliott can see Leary getting beaten, and he understands the leverage the defender has. If he continues in the direction that the handoff guides him, he will run right into the outside shoulder of the defensive lineman. Elliott counters this penetration by cutting back. He never stops his feet, though, and he never moves laterally. Elliott plants his left foot and pushes forward quickly. He jumps slightly to avoid Leary's feet and pushes directly upfield from there. With the tight end to that side accounting for the defensive end instead of continuing downfield to pick up the safety, Elliott was able to do this without risking being caught behind the line of scrimmage. If that defensive end had been left unblocked he could have crashed down on Elliott at speed.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

At Ohio State, Elliott often had a lot of space in which to work. One of the concerns about him coming out was how he would react to penetration that destroyed the design of his runs. To this point in his career, those concerns have been invalidated. The above play is supposed to work with the right guard (Zack Martin, 70) and right tackle (Doug Free, 68) pulling outside while the two tight ends to that side of the field (Witten and Geoff Swaim, 87) block down inside. The tight ends are given tougher tasks against bigger defensive linemen, but they naturally have a leverage advantage as they trap the defenders out of the play. That's the way it's supposed to work, at least.

The Packers have a talented defensive front, so it's no surprise that Witten isn't able to contain one of their defensive ends (Datone Jones, 95). Jones is immediately on top of Elliott as the back moves laterally by design. Elliott shows off his fluid upper body to bend away from the arriving defender while widening his trajectory around the corner to evade his tackle attempt. His quick instincts and athleticism allowed him to erase the penetration and keep the timing of the play with his blockers outside. He slid to stay in bounds at the end of the play because the Cowboys were trying to run clock at this point of the game.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Here is a similar play from the same game. This time it is executed well enough to put Elliott in a one-on-one situation in space against safety Morgan Burnett (42). Elliott shows off his elusiveness and athleticism to easily skip past the sliding Burnett before accelerating downfield without hesitation.

Elliott's physical prowess allows him to cover for his teammates' mistakes by evading penetrating defenders. He is also able to extend second-level runs further than they should theoretically go.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

This play is a designed cutback. You can tell based on how the right side of his line is trying to push their assignments towards the middle of the field. Witten is supposed to be the pulling lead blocker on this play, but he is easily taken out by defensive end Julius Peppers (56). Peppers anticipated Witten coming at him, so was able to take away his angle before pushing him upfield. That action left Peppers unblocked in position to close on Elliott. Unfortunately for Peppers, that action also gave Elliott the split-second he needed to escape past him outside.

Elliott could have fallen into one of two potholes here. If he were a slower back, he would have been caught by the first defender, a linebacker (Jake Ryan, 47) who was left unaccounted for up the middle, before he could even reach the second defender, Peppers. Peppers got his hands to Elliott's upper body, but Elliott showed a combination of speed and a strong stiff-arm. Elliott, a running back, brushed aside the mammoth Peppers as easily as Peppers had brushed aside Witten, a renowned blocking tight end. The rookie wasn't done though. From there he smoothly hurdled a safety before being hit in the air. A teammate kept him upright after that hit, but it was the running back's balance and core strength that allowed him to continue moving downfield for 5 more yards with defenders clinging to his back.

Elevating teammates by erasing their mistakes on outside runs can often be done through athleticism. Working between the tackles to elevate teammates requires footwork and patience.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

The above GIFs show two plays in which Elliott doesn't immediately have a hole to attack. He has to let his blocking develop for a moment. While doing that, he uses his subtle feet to manipulate second-level defenders before attacking space. He never predetermines where he wants to go, he waits and puts his opponents in positions where they have to declare where they are going so he can find space elsewhere.

The first GIF pauses when Elliott is reading the edge defender (Malcolm Jenkins, 27) and corner (Leodis McKelvin, 21) on the backside of the field. He has both feet in the air when he makes his decision, so he is in position to cut upfield or accelerate outside depending on what he sees. Elliott trusts his speed and turns the corner for a big gain.

In the second GIF, Elliott's center, Frederick, is being stood up in his block. When a lineman is stood up like that, it's easier for the defender to penetrate past either side of him to get to the running back. Elliott doesn't panic. Instead he chops his feet and tempts the defender into overcommitting inside before he pushes outside.

Elliott has every trait you need to be a great runner. His athleticism and vision are obvious, as is his violent running style, the type of which we haven't seen in a back this talented since Adrian Peterson entered the league. In today's NFL you can't just be a runner though. You have to be able to pass protect and offer more than just a sure pair of hands as a receiver. If Elliott didn't have those traits, he wouldn't have gone top-five in the draft.

In truth, Elliott hasn't been used enough as a receiver so far. The Cowboys need to split him wide more often and feature him on more screen passes to take advantage of his whole skill set. The success of Cole Beasley as a slot/possession receiver has likely lessened the need for the Cowboys to go to Elliott as often.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

The Cowboys offense is built to dictate to defenses. If you come out with two linebackers and a nickel corner, they will run the ball with Jason Witten as a sixth blocker with their dominant offensive line. If you come out with seven linemen and linebackers, they will probably still run on you but they'll also have the opportunity to use Elliott as a mismatch receiver. Over the past two weeks, the Cowboys have had Elliott escape the backfield after play-action against heavy fronts. The front seven sells out to stop the run, giving Elliott a head start as he runs into the flat. He doesn't need a head start to beat a linebacker, so when he gets it the linebacker has no chance of recovering before Elliott sprints downfield for a first down.

While Prescott has shown great intelligence and versatility for a rookie, he still isn't on Romo's level when it comes to mastering the playbook. He won't have a chance to until he gains the years of experience that Romo has. With Romo on the field instead of Prescott, the Cowboys would lose the running threat in the red zone, but gain a quarterback who could put Elliott in more positions to take advantage of favorable matchups whether out wide, in the slot, or just from the backfield. That's not a slight against Prescott, who has consistently put the Cowboys in good plays with audibles and adjustments at the line, but Romo eclipses the majority of quarterbacks in the league when it comes to this type of thing. With Peyton Manning retired, it's between Romo, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady when it comes to the smartest starter in the NFL.

Regardless of what the Cowboys do at the quarterback position moving forward, Elliott should continue to thrive. He's on course for 1,826 rushing yards this season, and that's with the slow start he endured over the first two weeks. For a rookie who won't turn 22 until next August, that's pretty impressive.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 03 Nov 2016

8 comments, Last at 04 Nov 2016, 1:40pm by Hang50


by Will Allen :: Thu, 11/03/2016 - 1:23pm

This is a better offensive line than Adrian Peterson has ever run behind, with a more functional passing game than Peterson was ever paired with, except for one year, and certainly a better coached defense than Peterson has ever been paired with, except for one year. Peterson probably had a better defense overall paired with him in 4 years.

I really want to see the conventional wisdom challenged that a team focused on running the ball can't be a good bet to win a chmapionship, especially absent a terrific defense. This team could be , by the end of the regular season, the right bunch to do that. Yes, you have to be able to pass, and the Cowboys can. Their defensive personnel is below average, although they are well coached. The great offensive line, and the great Elliott, are the ones that are going to carry this team as far as it goes. I'll put aside my distaste for the owner, and root for this bunch, except when they play the Vikings.

by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Thu, 11/03/2016 - 3:31pm

I'd love to see it too - I just don't think we will (without major rules changes).

The biggest impediment that a real run-first team faces in my opinion is that the better your running game gets, the more you reduce the overall number of drives in the game - which means that fluky plays have more of an affect on your win-loss record.

I think great run offenses would be comparatively more likely to lose games they've outplayed the opponent than a comparatively good pass offense.

by Will Allen :: Thu, 11/03/2016 - 6:16pm

I think your last sentence is certainly accurate, especially when paired with a defense with below average talent. The margin for error gets skinnier. On the other hand, few teams will ever have a Romo caliber qb to come in for a relief save, in a tight spot. I could really see that happening in the playoffs.

Also, when you don't have good personnel on defense, reducing the number of drives isn't a complete negative. The key, or course, is to get into the lead, or at least don't get down two scores.

In any case, I really like when a wide variety of types of roster construction can contend for championships, so I'm happy to see the Cowboys contend as long as they can, despite the fun I have when the t.v. guys in the truck put up a shot of Jerry's sad face as the Cowboys lose. It helps that it is widely known that he had to be physically restrained from drafting Manziel, instead of one of his starting o-linemen.

by Astutefootball :: Thu, 11/03/2016 - 2:43pm

Thank you for this excellent analysis!

You could use comparisons between Elliott and McFadden to give examples of what "vision" looks like. McFadden was so frustrating in that he had the speed to get free out there last year, but no vision to hit the right hole, or make the hole himself with patience. Elliott really is just a fantastic example of what a RB should be.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 11/03/2016 - 2:59pm

Stopping that 3rd gif at the moment of handoff, as per instructions, it's incredible to think that play goes for about 15yds. There is just no hole in sight for Elliott and yet somehow he cuts back and it all opens up.

I've watched football over 30 years but never seen it in this way. Great breakdown Cian.

by Raiderfan :: Thu, 11/03/2016 - 6:28pm

"With Peyton Manning retired, it's between Romo, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady when it comes to the smartest starter in the NFL."
well, I think they are the four oldest starters, as well. So, perhaps what you are addressing as "smart" is really just experience.

by Hang50 :: Fri, 11/04/2016 - 1:40pm

It's survival bias. They're the four oldest starters because they've all been good enough to have long careers. Replacement-level QBs typically aren't in the league in their mid- to late-30s.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 11/04/2016 - 8:44am

In the perennial Sanders-Smith debates, consider what Sanders could have done on these same plays.