FRISCO, Texas -- There are many reasons why the Dallas Cowboys want Ezekiel Elliott to continue to play and why they were happy the running back received a temporary restraining order that will prevent the NFL’s suspension from taking effect. Without question, their chances of getting out of their early-season funk are better with their best player on the field.
"His mentality is huge,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “Just the way he carries himself and his focus during the game ... and the way he is outside of the football game and in the locker room and hanging out. He definitely brings a certain mentality to this team."
But another reason the Cowboys want Elliott on the field is how he closed out the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers in Week 5.
Yes, the Cowboys suffered a disheartening loss, but in the final quarter Dallas found something it had been missing for most of the first four-plus games of 2017: its running game.
"I think we did," Elliott said. "I think we were definitely in a groove. That's the closest we looked like to last year. I think it's good that we finally kind of hit that stride."
Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing in 2016 with 1,631 yards, carried 13 times in the final quarter and gained 85 yards. That came after he ran 16 times for 31 yards in the first three quarters, during which the Cowboys beat their running-game heads mostly against the wall, hoping the Packers would eventually crack.
On those 13 fourth-quarter runs, the Cowboys used four different personnel groups. They used two backs and one tight end. They used two backs and two tight ends. They used one back and three tight ends. They went with one back, one tight end and three wide receivers.
Eight of the 13 runs went for 4 yards or better. Only one run was outside the tackles, the 25-yarder on Elliott’s first carry of the fourth quarter. The Cowboys mixed in tight zone runs, misdirection runs and power runs.
“I think we were just executing as an offense,” All-Pro right guard Zack Martin said. “When you watch the tape, it takes all 11 guys, and one guy here or there, that can break down a play. I think we were just on the same page and executing the way we’re capable of, so we’ve got to keep that up.”
The Cowboys (2-3) used the bye week to examine their running game, according to Martin and All-Pro center Travis Frederick, who said they went back a few years to see what worked well then and to compare it to what has not worked so far.
There is no secret. On one play, an offensive lineman would miss an assignment. On another, a tight end would not get enough displacement. Same with a wide receiver. On another, Elliott would miss his landmark.
The result has been a slower-than-expected start to 2017 for Elliott, who has 393 yards on 105 carries.
“The running game is not just the offensive line,” right tackle La'el Collins said. “It’s everybody. It’s everybody on the offense. So when you have everybody working together, that’s what puts you in good position to move the football.”
In the fourth quarter versus the Packers, the combination blocks up front were pulled off better. The tight ends won on the edge. The receivers sealed off the back side. Elliott was decisive with his cuts and broke tackles when he needed to, such as on a misdirection run when the Packers used a run blitz.
“We just finally came out there and executed,” Elliott said. “We played to our ability. That’s all that it came down to.”
Now the goal is to carry over the success of that quarter to a full game Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners (0-6) have the NFL's 18th-ranked run defense, giving up 112.8 yards per game. In last season's game against San Francisco, Elliott ran 23 times for 138 yards and a touchdown. The 49ers' coaching change has led to a scheme change, but they have many of the same players.
“You have to earn it every week,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Certainly, we feel good about how we ran the ball late in that game. That is a positive thing for our team. [But] you have to go back to work. You have to go back in the practice field and earn it, and earn it with your performance on Sunday.”