FRISCO, Texas -- Ezekiel Elliott wasn't exactly breaking news when he talked about what makes the Dallas Cowboys' offense successful.
“Running the football has to be important to us,” the running back said. “I think it helps this offense. I think we’re a better football team when we can run it well.”
Elliott's assessment came before the Thanksgiving Day game against the Las Vegas Raiders where the Cowboys gained 64 yards on 20 carries in the 36-33 overtime loss. That's fewer yards than Elliott had by himself five times in the Cowboys’ six-game winning streak earlier this season.
The drop-off is stark from the winning streak to the Cowboys’ last four games.
Maybe some of it has to do with Elliott’s knee injury that could be more severe than he is letting on and has the Cowboys at least considering resting him a source told ESPN, although that suggestion has not reached the running back yet.
Elliott has totaled 149 rushing yards in the last four games, the lowest four-game total of his career, and it is the first time he has gone four straight games without topping 51 yards.
But it’s not like Tony Pollard's running has been that much different. Take away a 31-yard run against the Kansas City Chiefs out of a Wildcat formation, and he is averaging the same 3.5 yards per carry. A 30-yard run against the Raiders by Pollard was wiped out by penalty.
“Obviously something that we certainly would hope that would be better right now,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “Something we got to look at in many different ways, schematically first, personnel wise.”
The Cowboys are entering Week 13 with Thursday’s game at the New Orleans Saints (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox) -- without several coaches due to COVID-19, including head coach Mike McCarthy -- so there is no reinvention at this point.
“We’re not going to run the triple option all of sudden or anything like that,” Moore joked, “but I think it’s something that you find what kind of little tweaks and adjustments we can make. They may be subtle but I think they can be very effective if we find the right pieces and make our adjustments necessary to progress this thing the right way.”
Opposing defenses have adjusted to the Cowboys’ scheme. In the loss to the Raiders, McCarthy said it “was more about some individual breakdowns. I think it was almost across the board. We need to take a hard look at that.”
“When you have the success -- we’ve obviously been very successful running the football in the first part of the season -- people are gearing up for it,” McCarthy said. “We need to stay on top of our self-scout because I think just like anything at this point in the year people are locked in to your formations and your run tendencies and when we run and how we run. That’s all part of the chess match.”
McCarthy believes offensive line continuity plays a huge part in a team’s success. Left tackle Tyron Smith missed three games with an ankle injury, which moved Terence Steele to left tackle. Connor McGovern replaced Connor Williams at left guard two games ago after the coaches had enough with Williams’ penalties (13). Upon Smith’s return, the Cowboys went with Steele over La’el Collins.
Against the Raiders, the Cowboys used Collins and Williams for one series for Steele and McGovern. The Cowboys went three and out.
This week, Collins will go back to right tackle with Steele on the COVID list. And the Cowboys won’t have either offensive line coach with Joe Philbin and Jeff Blasko in COVID protocols.
“I think you’ve got to look first and foremost at our room,” Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin said. “We take a lot of pride in that run game and over the last few weeks it hasn’t been what we want it to be, so we’ve just got to get back to basics.”
Elliott said defensive line movement and run blitzing have caused issues, but Martin said the line has seen it all in the past.
“That’s the first thing a defense will do if it’s in there getting blown off the ball,” Martin said. “They’re going to start moving the line and you just have to be on top of it to react and kind of change some of your combination blocks on the fly.”
The rub this week is the Saints’ run defense uses a lot of line movement and is stellar whenever it doesn’t face the Philadelphia Eagles. In their last 72 games, New Orleans has allowed two 100-yard rushers -- both Eagles (quarterback Jalen Hurts and running back Miles Sanders last year). Two games ago, the Eagles ran 50 times for 242 yards with three scores from Hurts in a 40-29 win against the Saints.
This might not be the week to try to pound it out.
“We’ve got to make sure we stay within the plan of what we need to do to be successful against these guys,” McCarthy said. “But I think there are fundamental situations we can learn from and do a better job.”