Ezekiel Elliott is still elite, but he’s having trouble with some of McCarthy’s scheme in Dallas

Yes, the Dallas offensive line was missing Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, and La’el Collins. Yes, the Cowboys also lost Dak Prescott in week 5. The excuses are there. The Cowboys had a new system in a unique offseason, injuries at key spots, but Ezekiel Elliott was not his usually dominant self. He had his lowest yards per carry average in his career, had six fumbles, and had trouble reading one of the most common run plays that Dallas ran: duo.

Despite the volume stats going down, Zeke’s yards after contact have stayed stable over the last three seasons. Physically, Ezekiel Elliott still has it. He’s producing and breaking tackles at a similar clip as he has been the last few years despite less help around him. The issue is a lack of cohesion in Mike McCarthy’s new offense. McCarthy didn’t add any wild new schemes, yet Zeke’s ability to read one of the more popular plays right now left a lot to be desired.

Great Zone Runner

The zone running scheme creates flow from the defense and gives Zeke angles to use his power and burst to break tackles and get chunks of yardage. While the name outside zone makes you think that the ball is going outside, the likelihood of outside zone hitting outside the play-side tackle is actually very low. Usually, it hits inside and against the flow of the defense. The Bengals are in a tite front with five players at the line of scrimmage. That front is designed to keep offensive linemen from getting up to the second level on zone plays which lets the linebackers plug and fill.

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Outside Zone

However, Joe Looney, the Cowboys center does a great job of beating the alignment to get onto the second level. The right guard, Connor McGovern also does a good job of getting in front of the nose and preventing them from chasing down the play. That enables the center to get onto the only linebacker that’s to the play-side. Zeke is reading the leverage of the first level defenders from the outside-in.  As the end walls off the outside, Zeke shifts his track and vision one gap inside. That’s where the center being able to climb comes into play. Looney is able to wash the scraping linebacker and Zeke is able to use efficient footwork to cut inside and then burst back out away from chasing defenders.

ezekiel elliott
Ezekiel Elliott shows his burst and decisiveness

When the outside gets sealed, Zeke still has the burst and speed to make defenses pay. As soon as he reads that he has leverage outside, he puts his foot in the ground and gets the corner.

You have to have good quickness and decisiveness in zone running. When defenses flow to stop the play-side, that’s when cutbacks begin to open up. Here, as Baltimore over pursues to the right, that opens up a lane to the backside. Within three steps, Zeke reads the leverage and is able to run off his backside tackle and get up-field.

Ezekiel Elliott reads the cutback lane on outside zone

Issues with Duo

Zeke still has elite running traits, there’s no doubt about it. Where the issues started popping up was with the Cowboys’ Duo play. Duo is all about double teams and getting vertical movement. Linemen are double teaming directly to the linebacker in front of them. Instead of like power schemes where the double team works to the backside linebacker, this play is all about putting the play-side linebacker in conflict. That linebacker may end up blocked, but the scheme does not emphasize coming off to block that player with urgency. Instead, the running back is responsible for making the linebacker’s decision incorrect and removing them from the play.

ezekiel elliott

At its core, Duo has a pretty simple blocking scheme for the offensive linemen up front. If the backside gap is filled, the lineman will down-block that player. If it is unfilled, they will look to build a double team play-side. The running back’s track is directly at the play-side linebacker. If he fits inside the double team, the running back will go outside. If they fit outside, the back will continue on their track up the middle or work to the cutback.

duo concept
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Duo Concept

Here, there is a double team from the left guard and center and the left tackle and tight end to the play-side. The aiming point is the linebacker, #59. As soon as that linebacker fills outside the double team, the ball should immediately go inside off of that second double team.

Ezekiel Elliott bounces outside instead of staying with the play

Duo is made to punish fast-filling linebackers at the second level. If they quickly plug, the back will run off of their movement. The timing just wasn’t there for Zeke or the entire offense on Duo. Before Dalton is even two steps into his track to hand the ball off, Zeke should know where this ball is going. The play-side linebacker is immediately filling inside of the double team. Dallas takes a big loss at the tight end spot and #85 Noah Brown takes a little too long to get across the formation and onto his block. Zeke is waiting too long, and he’s tackled in the backfield for what should have been a nice gain.

Bad Tracks on Power Schemes

There were also a number of times on gap-scheme runs where Zeke is taking tracks that don’t make sense. On this power play with a pulling guard, Zeke is aiming right down the center as he gets the ball. That’s not where the play is designed to go. It should hit outside the tackle and inside the end man on the line of scrimmage. Instead, Zeke is aiming right into a pile of down-blocks and a hinge from the tackle. Unsurprisingly, he runs into a wall and the play goes for a minimal gain.

Zeke is good, so sometimes he overcame bad tracks or bad reads, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the run game just didn’t look very polished for the 2020 Cowboys. What’s more, is it’s not all because the offensive line was a patchwork group. The running back is just as much of a part of the blocking scheme up front as the guards and tackles. Their track plays a huge role in setting up blocks and being in position to exploit the holes the offensive line is working to open.

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Final Thoughts

The zone blocking in Dallas was great. Zeke fit the scheme perfectly. He showed he still has all the ability in the world and routinely broke off big chunks despite not having much personnel around him. Something was missing in the scheme and execution in the backfield, though. The timing was off, the reads were inconsistent, and the gap scheme run game has to be a concern going forward. Zeke is still elite and if the scheme starts coming back together in year two of the McCarthy offense, the sky is the limit for the Cowboy run game.