PITTSBURGH – Not that he's complaining, but Ezekiel Elliott certainly didn't expect that to happen.
The Cowboys faced a 30-29 deficit on 1st-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 32-yard line. Needing only a field goal, the Cowboys could have sent Elliott up the middle for a short gain, called a timeout and set up for a game-winning field goal from 47 yards out.
Instead, Elliott took the handoff and saw nothing but green grass, and – eventually – the end zone.
"They ended up bringing pressure and lost the gap," Elliott said. "The O-Line picked it up perfectly and it parted like the Red Sea. All I had to do was run."
Run is exactly what he did – all 32 yards, completely untouched, for the game-winning touchdown. It was the perfect exclamation point on arguably Elliott's most dominant game of the season.
That's lofty praise, considering what the rookie has accomplished to this point in the season, but the stats back it up. Elliott ran for 114 hard-fought yards on 21 carries, with two touchdowns thrown in. If that wasn't enough, he tallied a career-high 95 receiving yards – highlighted by his 83-yard catch-and-run that swung the momentum of the first half.
"One of the things you find out is that good things happen when he has the ball in his hands," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "We got behind the chains early on in the game. The screen pass for the touchdown was huge for us to overcome some adversity. He has the ability over time to wear a defense down."
There's plenty to say about Dak Prescott's composure, or Dez Bryant's resilience in this game. But the toll Elliott took on a physical Steelers defense might have been the tale of the game, as he repeatedly pounded against them over the course of the evening.
"People know we want to run the ball, and we saw it today," Elliott said. "They were very physical. They kept an extra guy in the box, and they made it tough for us."
The screen pass was enormous, as Elliott danced through two blocks and raced the rest of the way to pay dirt, turning a 12-3 deficit into 12-10 at the end of the first quarter. But he was right in saying that the going was tough on the ground.
At halftime, Elliott had just seven carries for 34 yards. The second half didn't start much better, as his longest gain of the third quarter was just seven yards. But, as Garrett loves to point out – and as his players are well aware – those short gains can pay off in the long run.
"Not to be JG on you, but those two or three yard runs turn into 20-yard runs at the end of games, and I think that happened tonight," said Jason Witten.
It's pretty much inarguable. Elliott's final two runs of the night were startlingly easy. With two minutes to play, he burst around right tackle and skated 14 yards for an easy touchdown. It was easy enough that reporters asked Garrett if he thought the Steelers allowed Elliott to score on purpose.
And even if they did, it didn't matter much. After Pittsburgh retook the lead with 43 seconds to play, Dak Prescott moved the Cowboys into field goal range – only to see Elliott do the rest of the work.
It looked exactly how the Cowboys drew it up when they drafted Elliott back in April, just as it has for much of the season. As would be expected, they're pretty proud of that fact.
"We grind guys down. It was a very physical game – it might have been the most physical one of the season," Elliott said. "But you saw, late in the fourth quarter, you saw those holes open up. We know that if we keep grinding, keep running forward like that, a couple are going to pop. And two popped at the perfect time."