The Dallas Cowboys’ lead running back Ezekiel Elliott will be suspended for six games by the NFL – he will not play against the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, LA Rams, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers, but he should be ready for the game against the Washington Redskins in Week 8. His absence will definitely affect the Cowboys, and without him, we might see Dallas struggle.
It would take only one or two poor performances from the Cowboys, and the other teams from their division could surpass them. However, Elliott’s suspension might be reduced, but if that doesn’t happen, Dallas could be facing real issues. Darren McFadden is a good substitute for Elliott, plus there are Alfred Morris and veteran Ronnie Hillman whom the Cowboys signed this offseason. McFadden has proved himself with two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, while Morris also had one 1,000-yard rushing season as well with the Redskins. But what happens if someone gets hurt? Also, none of the three players could do what Elliott does on the field.
Last year, Elliott rushed for 1,631 yards, recorded 15 touchdowns and caught 32/39 targets for 363 yards and a TD in the passing game. When we look at the rushing attempts with the score close only, Elliott’s 1,264 rushing yards rank fourth behind Chris Johnson’s 1,372 in 2009 and Adrian Peterson’s successful 2008 and 2012 seasons with 1,285 and 1,276 rushing yards respectively. Also, Elliott converted the most first down last season – a total of 72.
We need to give credit where the credit is due. The Dallas Cowboys have the best offensive line in the league and part of Elliott’s success lies in there. However, the O-Line and the RB work together and just like the O-Line cleared a path for Elliott, Elliott also helped the O-Line look better than it actually is. He had some amazing moments where he managed to win yards even though most other running backs would be stopped.
Ezekiel Elliott averaged 2.91 yards per carry after contact last season which put him to the seventh place in the NFL, while he also had 4.2 yards per carry against eight or more defenders in the box. Morris had 2.7 yards in these situations, while McFadden was not tracked because of the limited number of carries. Because of Elliott, the Cowboys finished the season 10th overall in percentage of plays which resulted in a first down or TD and 1st overall when we look at the rushing plays only.
With Elliott out for six games, the Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will have to throw the ball more, and the passing game is not Dallas’ first option. Speaking of passing downs, last season, Prescott was sacked once every 16 drop backs compared with once every 21 drop backs on rushing downs – this number could go higher against tough opponents which the Cowboys are facing in a first few games. The Broncos, Cardinals, and Packers were the top 10 sack teams last season, which is bad news for the young QB.
Another thing we have to take into consideration is that Prescott has worked hard this offseason and he has probably improved his passing game which was solid in 2016. However, more defenders will be freed up to put pressure on him in the backfield since the running game will be less potent, no matter which running back starts instead of Elliott. Without Elliott, there is a possibility that the Cowboys will lose the Division crown. Some also speculate that Elliott’s absence could cost Dallas a playoff spot altogether, but this will probably not happen. Even if Dallas struggles the first few games, they will most likely win some of those, and once Elliott returns to the team, they will dominate the season once again.