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Ezekiel Elliott's value as receiver starting to show up in Cowboys' offense

FRISCO, Texas -- No running back in the NFL has more carries or yards than rookie Ezekiel Elliott.

Now, the Dallas Cowboys are starting to incorporate him more into their passing game.

Uh oh.

That has to be troubling for defensive coordinators, because Elliott is starting to make the same big plays in the passing game that he's been making all season in the Cowboys’ running game.

And that makes the offense even better, impressive considering the Cowboys average 407.6 yards (fourth in the league) and 28.7 points (third in the league) per game.

Elliott has caught 24 passes for 303 yards, a 12.6 average. Only four of the NFL's top 10 rushers have more than 300 yards receiving, and Arizona’s David Johnson is the only one of those runners averaging more than 10 yards a catch.

Johnson is a vital part of Arizona’s passing game, which is why he’s caught 55 passes for 613 yards and has seven receptions of 20 yards or more. Elliott isn’t making that kind of impact, because the Cowboys don’t need him to do that, but he’s making the most of his opportunities. He has at least one 15-yard reception in eight of the past nine games.

“I just like the ball in my hands,” Elliott said recently, “whether I’m running it or catching it.”

Elliott’s 19-yard catch-and-run against Washington in the fourth quarter was a key play on a scoring drive that gave Dallas a 24-12 fourth-quarter lead on Thanksgiving Day.

Four days earlier, against Baltimore, his 17-yard catch-and-run was a big play in a 13-play, 88-yard drive that gave the Cowboys a 24-10 lead in the fourth quarter.

And his 83-yard screen pass for a touchdown against Pittsburgh helped the Cowboys overcome a first-and-20 and a 12-3 deficit.

Three consecutive games, he’s been a difference-maker as a receiver.

"One of the things we like to do as an offense is: What's the result?" Garrett said. "When we give this guy the ball or throw this guy the ball, do good things happen? If so, we should do that more and look for chances to give that player the ball."

In general, it doesn't matter whether Garrett is talking about Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Cole Beasley or Elliott. What makes this offense so effective is that it has a variety of playmakers.

That said, the Cowboys don’t generate as many big plays as you might expect. The Cowboys lead the league in time of possession and they're the NFL's most efficient offense with 56 scoring drives on 109 possessions (51.3 pct).

But they're only tied for 11th with 41 plays of 20 yards or more, and Elliott has produced a team-high 13 (10 runs, three receptions), which is nearly twice as many as any of his teammates.

The Cowboys drafted Elliott because they viewed him as a complete running back who could make an impact as a runner or receiver. He's such a good blocker they can use him on third downs.

Play-caller Scott Linehan has been using him more on screen passes in recent weeks and quarterback Dak Prescott has made it a point to get him the ball quickly when receivers are covered downfield.

The Cowboys want him to get the ball in space because that's when his combination of speed, power and strength is at its best. Elliott is strong enough to run through the arm tackles of defensive backs and fast enough to run away from linebackers.

“I like Zeke in every aspect of the game. He's a true football player,” Prescott said. “He does a good job in protection, and when he's able to get out and catch the ball he can make things happen like jump over people and cool things like that.”

Not bad for a dude headed toward his first rushing title.