FRISCO, Texas – Running back Ezekiel Elliott has literally and figuratively carried the Dallas Cowboys (5-5) back into the thick of the NFC East title chase.
It’s what was expected considering the Cowboys made no secret of their plans to give their best player an even bigger load as a runner and receiver in 2018.
And it’s come to fruition as the league’s second-leading rusher with 953 yards. He already has a career-high 42 catches for 341 yards punctuated by 187 and 201 scrimmage yards rushing and receiving in back-to-back wins over the Philadelphia Eagles (27-20) and the Atlanta Falcons (22-19), respectively.
As the games grow more important, starting with Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day showdown against the Washington Redskins (6-4), he knows the load is not going to get lighter. He is just focused on taking care of his body in a short week so he can continue to put the team on his back.
“I mean, if that’s what it has to be then that’s what it’s going to be,” Elliott said. “I’m definitely not afraid of that. You know it’s one of those challenging weeks because it’s going to be a week where you don’t get a lot of physical reps. You just physically can’t go out there and get those physical reps one and two, your body is beat up from playing two days ago.
“You’ve just got to make sure you get those good mental reps and you get in that film room and just really like paying attention to those plays we’ve got cued up for this week and make sure I’m cued in on everything and ready to go.”
Elliott is ready to go because he is lighter and fresher. He admittedly came into the season in the best shape of his career, trimmer than he was in 2017, because of the expectations of having to carry a bigger load and the motivation to make up last year when he missed six games due to NFL suspension for violating the personal conduct policy.
But he has lost what he estimates as “three or four” more pounds from his listed playing weight of 228 pounds since the start of the season which he believes has helped his conditioning during his increased workload of late.
“I think it just kind of naturally happened,” Elliott said. “I hadn’t really been trying to lose weight, but I think I have thinned up a little bit. I’ve lost a little bit of weight. I think it’s helped. I think it’s helped just being quicker and getting in and out of space and just with my conditioning also.”
Coach Jason Garrett said the Cowboys have made a point to try to get backup Rod Smith into the game to give Elliott a breather at times. But they are not worried about putting much on Elliott. He has been a work-horse back dating back to high school and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Well he’s such a competitor, and he loves to play, he wants to be out there on every play and every situation,” Garrett said. We have to have a plan for him and we try to spot him throughout the game either by series or play or if he’s got the ball a few times in a row, just to give him a chance to get a breath.”
Nothing is more critical than Thursday against the Redskins because of what’s at stake and the challenge of facing the league’s sixth-ranked defense. Elliott was held to a season-low 33 yards on 15 carries in a 20-17 loss earlier this year.
He and the Cowboys expect things to be different Thursday because of his increased role in the passing game, the addition of receiver Amari Cooper in a bye week trade that loosened up opposing defenses and the improved blocking from the offensive line following the firing of position coach Paul Alexander and the promotion of top assistant Marc Colombo.
Since rushing for 61 yards on 17 carries in a 28-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans, Elliott has 273 yards rushing the past two games.
“I just feel like we got back to our old selves,” Elliott said. “We got back to our old calls, old plays that we were good at. Those guys, those offensive linemen, they’ve been good for the past five, six years. I think we kind of got away from ourselves at the beginning of this year, and we’ve done a good job getting back to what we’re comfortable doing and what we do best.”
Quarterback Dak Prescott agrees, saying the improved play up front and addition of Cooper has allowed Elliott space to get loose and hit his stride the past couple of weeks. He pointed to Elliott’s increased conditioning as a reason he has gotten stronger in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously, they’re going to try to load the box and do as much as they can from a scheme part but it’s part of what this offense is about,” Prescott said. “It starts with the offensive line and them imposing their will and being physical from play 1, quarter 1 so when the fourth quarter comes we’re prepared for that.
“That’s something we’ve done over the years of wearing down defenses. Zeke can take those carries and that’s when he starts breaking those tackles into the secondary and turning those six-yard runs into touchdowns. It just puts a lot of pressure on those guys.”
Elliott plans keep the pressure on against the Redskins. He is doing whatever he can do with massages and the cold tub to recover faster from last Sunday and have his body fresh and ready to go.
“I think we’ve definitely put ourselves in this situation,” Elliott said. “This game is for getting to that No. 1 spot in the division. I think it’s definitely a big game for us and really important for us to go out there and do whatever we can to win this game so it can set us up for the rest of the season.”
And even bigger load for a lighter Elliott.
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