FRISCO, Texas -- On Sunday morning, Ezekiel Elliott stretched with his teammates, as he does in every practice, but once the work began, the Dallas Cowboys running back disappeared into the side entrance to the locker room at Ford Center.
Was he getting some extra stretching? Working on the stationary bike? Putting on different cleats? It wasn’t until the portion of practice open to the media ended and Elliott did not return that word came that he was just getting some rest.
That made sense. During the Cowboys’ three-game winning streak against the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins, he had 68 carries for 394 yards and three touchdowns. He caught 20 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown.
“I mean these past three games, heavy workload,” Elliott said. “Three games in 12 days. We’re just making sure we are taking care of my body so I’m fresh going into this game on Thursday.”
But on Monday, coach Jason Garrett said Elliott has been dealing with some hip soreness. Coaches are almost always secretive when it comes to discussing the health of their players. Garrett always considers a player “day-to-day,” even if the player had surgery the previous day.
“I’d like to think we monitor all of our players and you do what is best for the team in general and then for specific guys,” Garrett said. “That’s why we kept him out of practice. He looks better.”
Elliott isn’t just any guy on the Dallas roster.
He is the guy.
If the Cowboys are to beat the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night, Elliott needs to have a big game. If the Cowboys are to make the playoffs for the second time in three years, Elliott will play the central role.
“I feel like I’m in a good place right now,” Elliott said. “I feel like I’m very comfortable with these schemes that they’ve been calling. Coaches have been doing a great job of putting me in runs where I’m comfortable and just getting me going early and letting me get that momentum and being able to carry it through the game.”
A year ago at this time, Elliott was serving a suspension and working out in Mexico, trying to stay in shape. Elliott’s absence was a major reason the Cowboys missed the playoffs last year with a 9-7 record.
As the Cowboys make a push to the postseason, Elliott is again the central figure. As much as wide receiver Amari Cooper has helped quarterback Dak Prescott and the passing game, Elliott is the focal point of the Cowboys' offense, especially against a team like New Orleans.
“We know what they have on the other side,” right guard Zack Martin said. “It’ll be a huge test for us and we look forward to it.”
Martin was talking about the Saints’ high-powered offense, but their defense is No. 1 against the run, giving up 73.2 yards a game. The defense is helped by playing with a lead on 69 percent of its snaps, but last month it held the Los Angeles Rams' Todd Gurley, the leading rusher in the league at the time, to 68 yards rushing.
The Saints have not had an opposing rusher gain more than 75 yards against them this season.
Elliott enters the game with three straight 100-yard games and has 1,074 yards on 217 carries in 11 games. He is currently in position to win his second NFL rushing title in three years. He is on pace for 1,562 yards and nine rushing touchdowns on 316 carries. He already has set his career high with 47 receptions and matched his career high in receiving yards with 363.
“He has carried a big burden for us from the start. We like to give him the ball. We like to throw him the ball. He has always responded well to it,” Garrett said. “He, too, is one of those [players] where teams come into the game saying, 'We’ve got to make sure we control No. 21.' He consistently comes up with plays and a performance that allows us to have success.”
In their past three games, the Cowboys have had 203 offensive snaps. Elliott has played on 183 of them (90 percent) and touched the ball 88 times (48 percent).
While there have been times he has run out of bounds and not been hit, Elliott has absorbed a lot of contact in touching the ball in nearly half of the Cowboys' snaps in the three-game winning streak.
Being young -- Elliott is 23 -- helps in the recovery, but so does time in the ice tub and hot tub before and after practices. He gets massages to keep his body loose. The Cowboys have cryotherapy available to the players, as well as compression therapy that helps increase blood flow and reduce pain and soreness.
Elliott said dropping weight has helped, although he is listed at 228 pounds, the same as he was last season. He checked in at 225 pounds as a rookie.
“It just kind of naturally happened,” Elliott said. “I hadn’t really been trying to lose weight, but I think I have thinned up a little bit. I’ve lost a little bit of weight. I think it’s helped. I think it’s helped just being quicker and getting in and out of space and just with my conditioning also.”
Instead of getting every snap in practice, the coaches will cut his workload in various 11-on-11 periods to make sure he is ready for games.
“His workload has been what we expect it to be,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “He’s one of the kind of rare guys who can do that week in and week out and we’ve got to continue with that. He’s doing a great job of honing in all three downs. He plays a lot of snaps for us. It’s obviously a testament to him getting himself physically and mentally ready to do that. I think when we hand the ball to him, good things happen. We always seem to stay in front of the chains with him. Some of his best runs are 2- and 3-yard carries. I think he’s just being Zeke.”
Elliott doesn’t mind the extra work.
“I mean, if that’s what it has to be, then that’s what it’s going to be,” Elliott said. “I’m definitely not afraid of that.”