OXNARD, Calif. - It's hard to complain much about stats when it comes to Ezekiel Elliott. He did lead the NFL in rushing (1,631 yards) as a rookie and just missed becoming the third rookie in league history to garner 2,000 all-purpose yards.
But this year, the Cowboys seem to be focusing on getting him the ball even more in the passing game. He caught 32 passes in 2016, tied for 27th in the NFL among all backs.
This year, Dak Prescott says he thinks Zeke will be more of a factor in the passing game. And that doesn't mean he has to be on the field more.
"I think Zeke can get more catches this year without him playing more plays," the quarterback said. "I think just his ability with the ball in his hands is valuable to this offense, so in passing plays, the defense giving us soft coverages, to get it to him and let him do what's best. We've kind of given it to him a bunch out here already, and that's just how the offense is going. It's what the defense is giving us – it's not necessarily that we're calling plays extra to give Zeke the ball."
Lance Dunbar, who had been the Cowboys' third-down back the past couple of years, signed with the Rams in free agency, leaving Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris as the backups, along with newly-signed veteran Ronnie Hillman.
Head coach Jason Garrett said the impressive part of Zeke's game is his ability to not only run the ball from many locations, but catch it as well.
"Well, Zeke is a very smart, instinctive and a versatile player. We saw that from the start," Garrett said. "Obviously he's demonstrated he can run the football any way you want to run it - inside or outside – in any kind of scheme. He's shown he's comfortable catching the ball, and from any spot. Coming out of the backfield, in the slot, as an outside guy. As it goes, he'll get more and more opportunities to do that."
One reason he could get more looks stems from a mindset from Dak, who said the smart play is often dumping the ball down to Zeke. Never was that more evident than the Pittsburgh game when he caught a screen pass and took off for an 83-yard touchdown – the Cowboys' longest play from scrimmage last season.
"He's a running back. They're the best people on this team with the ball in their hand, that's why they're the running backs – so it's important for us to get them the ball," Dak said. "Not only is it just calling run plays for them to have the ball, but as well as giving them the ball out of the backfield in space. Now, he's on the secondary – guys that don't want to tackle him or guys that aren't too good at tackling him."
Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee might have to face this more in practice but he's glad to see Zeke doing that more this year, knowing how tough it is to stop dynamic backs in the passing game.
"Its extremely tough. It just adds another level to your game planning of what you have to stop, especially linebackers," Lee said. "Most of the time we're going to have to handle it. Not only are we talking about stopping him in the run game but you're talking about screens and all these routes they run. A lot of the best backs in the league, they can do that. He's one of the guys who has the talent to do it and he's showing it right now."