FRISCO, Texas — For those counting at home — and also those counting in the offices of Cowboys headquarters at the Star — Kellen Moore called 28 run plays in Dallas’ season opener.
The Cowboys offensive coordinator knows what you’re thinking: His team sure didn’t run the ball 28 times in the 31-29 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So how’d they end up attempting 58 passes to 18 carries?
Quarterback Dak Prescott checked out of 12 run calls, Moore said.
“Those opportunities presented itself. I love that Dak took them,” Moore said Monday. “As the season goes, it’s a long season. Different matchups, different defensive schemes.
“We’re going to need Zeke to pound it.”
Cowboys fans, and those looking at the six-year, $90 million extension Ezekiel Elliott signed in 2019, can relax.
Dallas entered its matchup with Tampa Bay, the league’s top run defense in 2020, with an open mind to a balanced offensive attack. But Moore and his players were intent on adjusting as needed, and short passes to the perimeter proved more effective than threats up the middle against a loaded box.
Prescott completed 42-of-58 pass attempts (72%) for 403 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
The Cowboys amassed 451 yards of offense, third most in the league.
“That was a unique game,” Moore said. “If we need to throw it 60 times, if we need to run it 60 times, I really don’t care. That was the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL. We could bang our head against the wall if we want.
“But at the end of the day, I thought they did a good job stopping the run.”
Since the Cowboys selected Elliott fourth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, he’s amassed 6,417 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns. Elliott has also caught 243 passes for 1,963 yards and 10 more scores.
Across his first three professional seasons, he led the league in rushing yards per game. His 2019 production dipped slightly to 84.8 yards per contest, but Elliott’s 12 rushing touchdowns were his most since his rookie year.
Then came 2020.
Elliott was playing for a head coach in Mike McCarthy who emphasizes the run game far less than his predecessor Jason Garrett. Quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5, prompting a four-quarterbacks-in-five-games cycle. And as important: The Cowboys offensive line was a certified disaster. Starting right tackle La’el Collins missed the entire season to undergo hip surgery, Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith underwent season-ending neck surgery after two games and Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin missed six games due to a concussion and calf strain.
“Zack’s our best player on our offense,” Elliott said last week, when a positive COVID-19 test kept Martin from competing in Tampa. “I mean most runs, they come back behind him.”
Elliott totaled 1,317 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns in 2020. But his aggregate production plummeted 19 yards to 65.3 rushing yards per game, his yards per carry a career-low 4.0. So when Elliott posted a mere 33 yards and 3 yards per carry last week in the Cowboys’ season opener, criticism abounded.
But the box score neither captured his impact nor foreshadows the team’s expectation for his season involvement.
Prescott’s 5-yard touchdown to receiver Amari Cooper in the second quarter? Game tape features Elliott fencing in his quarterback from the oncoming attack of safety Antoine Winfield Jr., the extra moment allowing Prescott to execute the touchdown pass despite a botched snap exchange.
Prescott’s 6-yard completion to Dalton Schultz, facing third-and-1 with 2:43 to play in the third quarter and a drive extension needed to stay competitive? Prescott faked to Elliott, drawing defensive attention, before rolling out to find Schultz hugging the right sideline just beyond the chains.
Zeke helped out in pass protection tonight making dirty blocks. Dak heard CeeDee, Amari telling each other on sideline they’d thrive at different moments and pick each other up. Dak: That’s the unselfish nature of this team. Setting aside ego for success. pic.twitter.com/T38VIrymDg
Sure, Elliott’s runs weren’t as productive as he nor the team wanted. And he failed to take home a carry from Tampa’s 2-yard line (coaches point to tight end Blake Jarwin’s blocking whiff). But McCarthy praised Elliott after the game as a “complete football player.” Teammates doth not protest.
“We’re on the same page of how we’re going to protect it,” Prescott said. “[Elliott was] getting dirty, making a lot of blocks that he had to because they were bringing a lot of people to him.
“That’s the unselfish type attitude we have on this team. … When we don’t have egos, that just is a great recipe for success.”
The Cowboys, to be clear, are not expecting Elliott to rest on his laurels through 2021 and channel his most intentional offseason of conditioning merely into exemplifying unselfishness. The Buccaneers keyed in on a stolid run defense, Elliott facing a loaded box with at least eight defenders on 54.5% of carries (six of 11). No other player in the NFL faced eight-plus defenders on more than 50% of runs, only two encountering such resistance on more than 40% in Week 1 of season play.
“The game goes however it goes,” Elliott said from the postgame tunnel after midnight. “I’m out there to play and do my best every play.”
The Cowboys now travel to Los Angeles to face the Chargers and first-year head coach Brandon Staley. The Chargers’ pass defense is anchored by key cogs in pass-rush nightmare Joey Bosa and standout safety Derwin James. The Chargers opened the season ceding 126 rushing yards (4.6 per carry) to a Washington Football Team that lost starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The personnel no doubt differs, but against a Staley-coordinated Rams defense last September, Elliott compiled 127 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage at SoFi Stadium.
Ezekiel Elliott’s 12 rushing yards in first half perhaps not what you want from your star RB.
But his 4 carries, facing this defensive front without Pro Bowl RG Zack Martin, might be.
Cowboys not trying to force run game when Dak + WRs are in groove. Using weapons to strength. https://t.co/OtuPYvAVHW
Enter a whole new game plan.
“We want to have diversity in our approach,” Moore said. “We want to attack people in a balanced (way), utilizing all of our personnel, making sure all the guys get touches, spread the defense horizontally so we can attack them.
“We got to be ready to adjust.”
Elliott will be. The pass-heavy attack didn’t keep him from heavy usage in Week 1, Elliott still taking the field for 70 (83%) snaps. Elliott’s instincts, understanding and communication of Prescott’s message drew notice from teammates; McCarthy noted how his lead back maintained energy as he morphed between weapon and chip man.
“Zeke’s a big-picture guy. He sees it,” Moore said. “He did a phenomenal job in pass protection for us. There was a lot of guys in the box, and we’re going to have other games where people are going to play two-high shell and give us an opportunity to run the football.
“Zeke’s going to be ready to rock and roll there.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein