FRISCO, Texas – Opposing defenses know the Cowboys want to run.
The Cowboys know opposing defenses know they want to run.
The question since last season, when Ezekiel Elliott rocketed to superstardom as the NFL's leading rusher, is this: Can opposing defenses line up and stop them?
A year ago, few did. This year, through three games, Elliott and the running game are still gaining traction.
"We've a little bit of growing pains in the first couple games, but we're getting there," Elliott said. "We're getting into a rhythm and we're planning on getting better every week."
Elliott currently ranks ninth in the league with 192 rushing yards. He's averaging 3.5 yards per carry, down from 5.1 as a rookie. He has three runs of 10 yards or more. Last year he had 47 in 15 starts.
Call it a number of factors: defenses stacking the line of scrimmage, two new starters on the offensive line, or simply the quality of fronts the line has faced. But there's no question Elliott and the run game have gotten the league's attention.
"When people commit to playing the run, that says the respect they have for the run game, No. 1," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "No. 2, they watched tape on us all offseason. They say, 'Listen, they're pretty hard-headed about running the football, Dallas (is). That's something they're committed to.' So they're equally trying to commit to stopping it."
In Week 2, Elliott had a career-low nine rushing yards on a career-low eight carries, partly because the Broncos built a big lead and forced the Cowboys into pass-first mode.
In the second quarter of the Cowboys' win over the Cardinals this past Monday, Elliott ripped off his longest run of the season – 30 yards – after making unblocked safety Tyrann Mathieu miss in the backfield. Linehan said the play "kind of put air back in the balloon for us" after the offense went three-and-out on its first two drives.
Then in the fourth quarter, after quarterback Dak Prescott threw back-to-back deep passes to Brice Butler, Elliott capped off the drive with a 7-yard run and an 8-yard touchdown run, his first of the season. He finished the game with 80 yards on 22 carries.
Positive signs going into Sunday's matchup with the L.A. Rams, a talented defensive front directed by former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips and led by All-Pro defensive end Aaron Donald.
"The game is eventually going to turn," Linehan said. "You've got to trust each other that we're going to get it going. We've got the players to do it. And we've gone through a little gauntlet of good defenses too.
"You've just got to keep banging away at these guys. It's not going to be easy. Sometimes it's better early than late, sometimes it's better late than early."