CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The imaginary breakfast spoon – Ezekiel Elliott's trademark "Feed Me" gesture – was tabled until the fourth play of the third quarter, when the Cowboys' star running back rumbled 17 yards for a first down.
Fresh after no preseason snaps and refreshed by an offseason without a looming suspension, Elliott couldn't hide his excitement for his 2018 in-game debut earlier this week. But his impact was limited by the Cowboys' early offensive struggles – and, as always, a collective defensive effort to stop him – in Sunday's 16-8 road loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Elliott finished with only 15 carries for 69 yards, including 51 in the second half. His third-quarter touchdown marked the Cowboys' only points of the game and finally established some sense of rhythm for an offense that couldn't get out of its own way.
The Cowboys punted on all five of their drives in the first half and found themselves in third-and-long too often, failing to convert on all five chances before halftime.
Finally, in the third quarter – one play after Elliott's 17-yard run – the offense crossed midfield for the first time in the game.
"We put ourselves in some of those positions to allow them to hone in on the run and stop us," quarterback Dak Prescott said. "Zeke's a great runner. He'll get going. We've got a lot of ball left
Elliott's production is vital to the group. His league-best 1,631 yards sparked Dallas to 13 wins in 2016, and last year the Cowboys sputtered for large stretches during his six-game suspension.
He did not have a carry on the final two drives with the offense in clear catch-up mode in the fourth quarter, trying to overcome an eight-point deficit after his touchdown and Prescott's two-conversion. His 15 carries tied for the fourth-lowest single-game total of his young career.
The offense will look for better balance next week. But Carolina's approach to stopping Elliott – crowding the line of scrimmage with their talented front seven – isn't a new strategy.
"Every week they're going to load the box," Elliott said. "They know that we like to run the ball. They're a tough run defense and they just beat us."