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Ezekiel Elliot, Dak Prescott, and the Cowboys Scoring Machine By: Dan Dankert

The Cowboys have been one of the biggest surprises of the year. They currently boast two of the best young offensive players in the NFL: Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot. Originally a team with a plethora of question marks, how did this team get this good this fast? If we analyze the offense as a whole it’s pretty easy to see why they are so great. But let’s take a look at the two young superstars and just what they have accomplished before answering that question.

Dak Prescott was a star at Mississippi State. A Heisman candidate in 2014, Prescott was tearing up defenses and leading his Bulldogs to the best season that I can remember in a long time for a Mississippi State team. Prescott was a one man wrecking crew. Without a lot of talent surrounding him, Prescott did what he could to keep the Bulldogs relevant in a powerful conference, the SEC. Despite his stellar performances, Prescott was unable to keep his production up and keep the Bulldogs winning. Prescott started the year off as the Heisman trophy favorite, but ended up finishing 8th in the voting.

Prescott reminded me much of Cam Newton in both stature and play style. Though Prescott was shorter, weighed less, and was slower than Newton, he had a powerful arm, great athletic skills, and knack for making plays with his legs, similar to Newton. Today Prescott does not run the ball much but rather focuses on using his strong arm to sling the ball around the field, and for a rookie quarterback he is doing a great job at that.

Prescott is currently the 6th highest scoring quarterback in fantasy football this season. Let’s take a look at this closer. Prescott is currently the 6th ranked quarterback but he has very few receiving targets to throw to. His highest fantasy scoring receiver thus far this year, Cole Beasley, is the 27th highest scoring receiver in the league. Dez Bryant, by far his most skilled receiving target, has been on and off the field with lingering injury issues, and even Jason Witten, the long-time Cowboys legend tight end is only averaging 6 points per game and has only reached double digits once this season. Witten has been consistently below average, but in a year with poor tight end play Witten finds himself as the 12th best tight end. I know he has Elliot, but Elliot has only 18 receptions on the year, which comes out to only 2 catches per game. It’s insane how Prescott is putting up big numbers by spreading the ball to a host of different receivers and just finding the open man. No quarterback above Prescott has such a poor group of teammates to throw to. Even Marcus Mariota, has the second best tight end in the game and almost twice as many receptions coming from running backs than Prescott has. Is Prescott this good, or is there more here? Maybe looking at Ezekiel Elliot, the Cowboys star running back, will give us some hints to Prescott’s success.

Ezekiel Elliot has been playing better than any rookie running back I can think of in the modern era. Elliot has rushed for 90+ yards in all but two games this year and has scored in the double digits every single week so far. That kind of consistency wins fantasy football championships. On top of that he has scored 15 or more points on 6 occasions. This past weekend was by far his best showing of the season racking up 38 points. That is the most points by a single player in a single game this entire year.

Elliot is one of a long line of great Ohio State running backs. In fact when he first got to Ohio State he was behind one of those, Carlos Hyde, who now plays for San Francisco. Elliot would see greater playing time his sophomore year after Hyde went to the NFL. Elliot would make the most of his chances as a starter, one could say he hit the ground running.

He had a dominant sophomore season leading the Buckeyes to a National Championship with a third string quarterback. In the first round of the playoff, Elliot would end up destroying the stout, NFL ready, Alabama Crimson Tide defense, and then in the College Football Playoff Final ran all over an undersized, and paltry Oregon Ducks defense.

Elliot’s senior season would not be more of the same. The Buckeyes struggled all season and eventually lost to an upstart Michigan State team led by Connor Cook. This would cause the Buckeyes to miss the College Football Playoff. After the up and down year Elliot remained a bright spot for the Buckeyes despite an underwhelming year for the team as a whole who had repeating as National Champions on their mind. Elliot decided to enter the draft and would be the second Buckeye drafted in the 2015 draft after defensive end Joey Bosa was drafted as the third overall pick.

Elliot is great, Prescott is fantastic, but the secret to both of their success has been on the backs of the Cowboys offensive line. Anchored by one of the best, if not the best offensive lineman in the league Tyron Smith the Cowboys offensive line have made hole after hole for Elliot and have given Prescott more than enough time to throw the ball from the pocket. Check out this game winning touchdown from this past weekend.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJ8b6G895v4

As you can see here that Elliot wasn’t even touched on his way to the end zone. In the replay the commentators talk a little bit about the blocking scheme, below I have a screen shot of that blocking scheme.

cowboys

As you can see the tight end is one on one with the outside linebacker and Tyron Smith, the left tackle, is one on one with the inside linebacker. The tight end has the job to keep the outside linebacker outside of the hole, and to not let him crash down on the play. This is really technical but very important to understanding the play. The outside linebacker has a responsibility to keep outside contain (not let Elliot go outside of him) and to force the tight end down to close any gaps that may appear, he is actually almost successful at the second part of his job if it weren’t for Tyron smith. Below is how the play develops.

cowboys-2

Initially the tight end is able to keep from getting blown up by the Steeler’s outside linebacker, though he is losing ground. More importantly Tyron Smith (#77) is pancaking the defender leaving nothing but green grass ahead of him. Ezekiel Elliot may have scored the touchdown, but Tyron Smith is the reason Elliot made it all the way to the end zone. Smith’s pancake allowed the tight end to lose some ground. Pancakes are relatively rare and open up huge running plays as is evident in this play.

Here is another example of great blocking allowing Elliot to dominate. Once again Elliot goes almost untouched, 83 yards for a touchdown. Check out the offensive line on this play.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7j2BUfsOe-A

cowboys-3

 

As you can see the Cowboys have three offensive lineman in front of Elliot, 2 of the three would make important blocks that allowed Elliot to turn on the jets and outrun 4 Steelers defenders to the end zone.

Here is one last example of the offensive line plowing the way for Elliot.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fm6dCrr68rs

Check out this blocking set up.

cowboys4

The offensive line creates a wall on the bottom side of the line of scrimmage. You can see with the red arrows what happens to each of the blocks. Outside of #87 each player blocks their defender below Elliot’s running lane. Because of the play design, both the tight end flaring out for a pass, and because of the receiver’s route (not in the screenshot) both the linebacker and the safety run themselves out of the play, this can be seen with the black arrows. Outside of an sma;; chance of the nose guard making the tackle on Elliot, actually a very poor job of the nose guard keeping to his role, the Bengals never had a chance to stop this play due to the great blocking of the offensive line, and the crafty play creation by the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator.

Ezekiel Elliot may be one of the best rookie running backs in the history of the NFL. Dak Prescott may be the most surprising player of the year. Both players are playing on a pro-bowl level in my opinion. Elliot is clearly the leader for MVP in the league and rightfully so. My goal isn’t to take away from either Prescott or Elliot, but the offensive line play of the Dallas Cowboys has been spectacular and they are the real reason the Dallas Cowboys are 8-1. I can only hope that at the end of the year, when Elliot receives both the Rookie of the Year Award and the MVP Award that he gets up and gives credit to the offensive line that helped him amass his ridiculous rushing stats by jokingly saying “They are the real MVP’s” in the spirit of Kevin Durant. Because that would be the meme of the year.

So I know what you are thinking, that’s great, but what does that mean for fantasy football? The answer to that question is simple, as long as the Cowboys line remains intact expect Elliot and Prescott to put up strong numbers. I fully believe that both of them will continue playing well down the stretch and Elliot, in my opinion is going to be more or less immune to tough matchups, and should be a guaranteed starter each week barring injury to himself or major injury changes to the offensive line.

Any questions or comments? Send me an email at dm-dankert@wiu.edu or come visit me at 2414 in Building C.

All screenshots came from the YouTube videos in this articles, and all of those videos are the property of the National Football League.

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