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Ezekiel Elliott shows versatility, but Dallas Cowboys need better run game

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Does Zeke Elliott still hold a large role in the Cowboys' offense? (1:05)

Domonique Foxworth points out that the Cowboys' offense has transitioned to be more focused around Dak Prescott rather than Ezekiel Elliott. (1:05)

FRISCO, Texas -- The easy thing to do is to look at Ezekiel Elliott's rushing numbers in the season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- 11 carries, 33 yards -- and believe the Dallas Cowboys running back had one of the worst games of his career.

To hear the Cowboys coaches talk about Elliott's night, it was one of his better overall games because of his pass protection. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Elliott had five pass-block wins, stoning linebacker Devin White a few times and walling off defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. on a Dak Prescott touchdown pass to Amari Cooper.

"Zeke's a complete football player," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. "I clearly understand the amount of success he had rushing the football early in his career."

But let's be clear: The Cowboys signed Elliott to a $90 million contract extension in 2019 because of his ability to run the ball, not pass protect.

Let's also be clear: One game does not make a season.

"Zeke's a big-picture guy," Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said.

This is supposed to be a redemption season for Elliott, who ran for a career-low 979 yards in 2020. He was done in by an ever-changing offensive line, the loss of Prescott after five games and his own ineffectiveness.

In the offseason, he changed his body, dropping 10 pounds, which required him to retailor all of his suits. In training camp, he looked fast and elusive, a sign the offseason work he did with his personal running backs coach, Josh Hicks, was going to pay off.

And then 11 carries for 33 yards happened in Week 1. It became magnified on a goal-line run that looked like a walk-in touchdown at the snap, but tight end Blake Jarwin missed a block and Elliott could not break a tackle to get into the end zone.

Elliott's 33 yards against the Buccaneers tied the third-lowest rushing total of his career. He had 8 yards on nine carries in the second game of the 2017 season against the Denver Broncos. He had 32 yards on 10 carries against the Washington Football Team last Thanksgiving and 33 yards against Washington in 2018.

But Elliott isn't disheartened as Week 2 against the Los Angeles Chargers (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS) approaches.

"It's the same mindset I went into the Bucs game with," Elliott said. "I don't think really much will change. Just go out there and do my job."

It's not that Moore didn't want to run the ball against the Buccaneers, but he also did not want the offense to keep stalling against what was the best run defense in 2020. He called 28 run plays in the game and Prescott checked out of 12 of them with short passes because of what the Tampa Bay defense presented. That's why Prescott tied his career high with 58 pass attempts, but even he knows the Cowboys can't throw that much for 17 games.

Moore does, too.

"That was a unique game. If we need to throw it 60 times, if we need to run it 60 times, I really don't care," Moore said. "I thought they did a good job stopping the run. They were going to create that opportunity on us and Dak coming off the injury probably played a little bit of a role, not knowing what his circumstance would be, so we felt very comfortable with the game plan."

Of Elliott's 11 carries, six came against at least eight-man boxes and gained 20 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Info research. Thirteen of those yards came on one run. He had a 2-yard gain for a first down in the first half. The Cowboys need to be better when a defense presents more defenders than they have to block.

They have done it numerous times in Elliott's career. It's why he had two rushing titles in his first three seasons. Many of those yards were "dirty" because of unfavorable looks to the offense, but the Cowboys succeeded anyway.

"It wears the defense down," Elliott said of having success against stacked boxes. "Playing the run is tough. It's more physical. It's hard to play the run for four quarters. But last week, just, their whole plan was around not letting us run the football and making us throw the ball. I mean, it showed."

Considering Prescott's success, does Elliott expect the looks to be different?

"Hopefully," he said.

The Cowboys hope so, too.

In the first 40 games of his career, Elliott had eight games in which he was held to fewer than 80 yards, and the Cowboys were 23-17. In the past 32 games of his career, he has been held to fewer than 80 yards 18 times, and they are 14-18.

"It's a long season -- different matchups, different defensive schemes -- we're going to need Zeke to pound it," Moore said. "Could be this week. Could be the following week. He's always ready, but he does a great job and he handles all these different circumstances so well. That's the exciting thing about him."