FRISCO, Texas -- Coming out of the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter last Sunday, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore knew one more first down would win the game against the Carolina Panthers.
Panthers defenders crashed toward Elliott as he took the Dak Prescott handoff to his right and pitched the ball to Pollard on the option, leading to a 5-yard gain. The Cowboys had their first down and their third straight win.
“I don’t know if we’ve been practicing it since camp or the first couple weeks of the season, but it’s a play that we’ve had it in there for the last three weeks at least,” Elliott said. “At the end we needed that first down, they had everyone up on the line and it was a perfect look.”
Ezekiel Elliott & Tony Pollard have both been on the field together for 23 plays through four games this season, including the Cowboys game-winning play on an option-toss from Elliott to Pollard.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 3, 2021
The two were on the field for 21 plays in all of 2020.#CARvsDAL | #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/ylOMBVB0ne
Perhaps it was fitting the Elliott-Pollard duo iced the game for the Cowboys. In the three-game winning streak, they have combined for 545 yards, the best by a duo in the NFL. Since Week 2, Elliott is second in the NFL with 309 yards; Pollard is fifth with 236 yards.
While the Cowboys’ identity on offense is its multiplicity, the running game has been the engine for success.
“We’re very competitive, but we’re two different styles of running back,” Pollard said. “It’s big and it’s important, especially when you can have both of those guys on the same team. [We] just feed off each other. Nobody is competing against the next guy. We’re both going out there, doing our own thing.”
Much has been made about Elliott’s offseason work with personal running back coach Josh Hicks and Elliot's drop in weight to 218 pounds, which is what he weighed as a freshman at Ohio State. But Pollard was right there for most of those sessions, too.
“We got a good brotherhood,” Elliott said. “... We keep each other fresh. I mean, I think just all together, we want to see the best for each other. So we’re going to do everything we can to push each other, to challenge each other, to make each other better. To maybe, if there’s something I can help to help his game or something he can help me that's going to help my game, we just push each other to become better players.”
The Cowboys have had solid tandem running back situations in the recent past. Julius Jones and Marion Barber come to mind in the mid-2000s, which was followed by Barber and Felix Jones. Since Elliott’s arrival in 2016, however, the Cowboys have almost always been solely dependent on him.
Only twice in Elliott’s time in Dallas (2017, 2020) has the Cowboys’ second-leading ball carrier topped 100 carries for a season, and in 2017 it was because Elliott missed six games while serving a suspension. Last year, Pollard had 101 carries, compared to Elliott’s 244.
Before this year, Pollard had double-digit carries in consecutive games once. In the past three games he had 13, 11 and 10 carries.
But don’t think the Cowboys are phasing out Elliott. He has the fewest carries (64) through four games he has ever had, but his third-most yards (342) and most touchdowns (four). His 47-yard run against the Panthers was his longest since his rookie year.
Ezekiel Elliott (342) and Tony Pollard (250) are the first pair of Cowboys running backs with 250+ rushing yards in first four games of a season.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) October 4, 2021
Prescott is the biggest beneficiary of the duo’s success.
“Just because the defense doesn’t know what’s coming,” Prescott said. “Being able to have the package of those guys, the duo of everything Tony does and then Zeke’s strengths, Kellen does a great job of putting those two guys in position to show their strengths off.”
Moore has studied other running back tandems in recent years, like when the New Orleans Saints had Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Ingram was the more powerful back, like Elliott. Kamara was the speedier back, like Pollard.
“You’re always trying to find different ways people are utilizing personnel to see if we’re missing something or if you can use something from a different team,” Moore said.
The calf strain suffered by receiver Michael Gallup might have contributed to the uptick in use of Pollard and Elliott on the field together, but Saints coach Sean Payton said the ability to use two runners at the same time stretches a defense.
It could also stretch the shelf life of the main running back.
“It’s hard -- 16, 17 now regular-season games -- I think it’s hard for that position to stay healthy,” Payton said. “So I think all along I’ve been taught to have depth at that position.”
Moore said there is a balance to how the Cowboys use both running backs. Sometimes it’s part of the game’s flow. Sometimes it’s part of a change of pace for a particular series. Sometimes it’s if one runner is hot.
“We have different run styles so we’re going to run different runs differently and the defense is going to have to fit those runs differently,” Elliott said. “So if they get used to me pounding them for 10 plays and then TP comes in there, they’re used to fitting the runs that way. But TP is a faster, more shifty back so he might fit a run a little bit different. It keeps a defense guessing.”
A lot of running backs say they get better with more work. Pollard has never had more than 14 carries in a game in his three seasons. Elliott has 38 games with more than 20 carries, but four of 20 or more in his past 19.
“I don't think you have met a perimeter player in the NFL that was any good if he didn’t want the ball,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “They are all wired that way. They better be. That is the makeup of all perimeter guys. We understand that. Since I got here, I told you clearly this offense is built around making the quarterback successful. Dak's ball distribution ... has been excellent. We got to keep getting the ball distributed whether in the run game or the pass game. With that we will be the best that we can be on offense.”
“The sky’s the limit,” Elliott said. “I think we definitely got some potential to be one of the best duos in the league.”
ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter Mike Triplett contributed.