Long before he was leading the NFL in rushing yards and being selected as a First-team All-Pro running back in his rookie season, the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott was a weekly highlight at Ohio State.
In just three seasons as a Buckeye, he left his mark on the record books with the second-most rushing yards in school history, as well as second and third-most rushing yards in a single season. It was one of the many reasons why the tailback was taken so early in the 2016 NFL Draft — more specifically, as the fourth overall pick.
What do you get when you take Elliott and give him the unanimous best run-blocking offensive line out of 32 teams? 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns all on the ground as well as a nod in the Most Valuable Player conversation. While it's unlikely Elliott walks away with the award for two reasons: the first being that his Cowboys may have a game to prepare for the next day. (The NFL Honors fall on the night before the Super Bowl.) The second reason is simply because there have been others that define the concept of "valuable" and have filled their stat sheets with ungodly numbers. Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, the candidates spearheading the race for the award.
His season nonetheless, has been nothing short of impressive. A lot of his success has been attributed to the Dallas offensive line, and while they were a key contributor to the 72 "big rushing plays" or in other words, runs that go further than 10 yards, it's a tough task to understate what Elliott has accomplished.
The Cowboys rushing attack as a whole — consisting of Elliott, Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden and for a brief stint, Lance Dunbar — accounted for the most rushing attempts of any team in the league. Yet, they had one of the lowest percentages of stuffed runs with just 8.0. They had the sixth-fewest amount of runs bottled up by the opposing defense.
When he went up against one of the top run defenses in football in week six, being contained was far from the theme of the evening.
Elliott brutalized the Packers defensive front on a day that former team quarterback and renowned Gunslinger Brett Favre was in town to receive his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring. The 157 rushing yards he encompassed on the ground was the most he had recorded against any team until week 15 where he galloped his way to 159 against the Buccaneers on Sunday Night Football.
Head coach Mike McCarthy is no slouch. He and his coaching staff all know that hefty preparation has to be in full-effect in preparation for the second meeting with Elliott and co. However, history isn't exactly on his side.
Since taking over as the Packers head coach in 2006, McCarthy is 4-8 in the playoffs against teams he's faced in the regular season. That includes the most recent victory over the Giants on Sunday, whom the Packers faced back in October.
"It always starts up front," McCarthy said on Monday. "The running back is special. He's proven that time and time again and he's been very consistent, especially for a first-year player."
The Cowboys are ranked second in rushing first downs per game, and the margin between them and the third-placed team isn't close. They average 8.9 first downs per game, accumulating in success with their 142 total first downs via the ground game. The next-closest team is the 49ers with 116.
"That really jumps off of film to me," McCarthy continued in clear admiration. "They've been running the ball there very well for a number of years. They have that to build off of. I just think Scott Linehan does an incredible job."
The Dallas thundering ground assault doesn't falter regardless of the statistic. They're second in the league in rushing yards per game, averaging 149.8. In accordance with Elliott's individual dominance, he helped bolster the 4.60 rushing yards per attempt the Cowboys were averaging in 2015 to 4.80 this season. A clear testament to the stellar play of their offensive line above all else.
With every consistently sensational running game comes the threat of play action, which meshes perfectly into fellow rookie quarterback Dak Prescott's abilities as well.
"(Linehan) is one of the best coordinators in this league. He utilizes people very well. Not only do they run very well, but the action passing game first into movements coming off of that. The quarterback is athletic and can throw on the run — he can make all of the throws."
"When you look into the offense and how they play and especially where they're playing this week, they hit all the quadrants and that's what you have to do."
The Cowboys are 15-0 this season when Elliott rushes for more than 80 yards, so the Packers front seven pinning their ears back and finding a way to contain the dynamic force of a tailback in Jerry's World will be a tall task.
"They're an outstanding football team, they've put together a great regular season. But, this is about the playoffs. We're fully focused to do everything we need to do to go to Dallas and win the game."
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