ARLINGTON, Texas – The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't make a secret about their game plan.
With an inexperienced quarterback making his debut for Dallas, their focus for Sunday was to stop Ezekiel Elliott.
"I know Ezekiel Elliott has a lot of our attention and preparation and rightfully so," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin earlier this week.
One look at the box score shows exactly how well they fared.
In a slugfest of a game, the Cowboys' star running back didn't have much in the way of running room, slogging his way to 51 yards on 18 carries.
"I love the way that Zeke grounded it out today," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. "He was in question at the pregame workout. I think he did a great job. It was definitely a phone booth we were running into today."
McCarthy makes a valid point. The Cowboys didn't know for sure that Elliott was even playing until Sunday afternoon, as he has burn nursing a sore hamstring all week. Once given the go-ahead, Elliott said it felt like the injury loosened up some as he got moving.
"You know, as the game went on, it definitely loosed, loosened up more and more," he said. "And, I've got to thank all of our trainers, especially Britt, you know, just working with me all week and getting me ready for today, and then my PT Brian."
Despite all of this, the Cowboys still managed to have a fairly productive day on the ground. As a team, they rushed for 144 yards with a healthy average of 4.6 yards per carry.
The answer for that can be found in Tony Pollard, who had his best day of the season with 57 yards on nine impressive carries.
"I feel like I'm getting adjusted to my role with this offense," Pollard said. "I'm definitely going to be ready when my number is called."
This is the second-consecutive week that Pollard has seen an increased role, as the Cowboys have leaned on their running backs to offset their injuries at quarterback.
Heading into that Nov. 1 game against Philadelphia, Pollard had just 31 carries for 109 yards on the season. In the last two weeks, he has carried the ball 16 times for 97 yards.
"TP, he definitely had a great game," Elliott said. "He was bringing some good ones. I mean, he is a special player."
Perhaps the Steelers keyed differently on Pollard than Elliott, or perhaps Elliott was simply working through his injury. But it's hard to deny that the younger back had some more pop to his game.
On a day in which explosive plays were hard to come by, it was striking that Pollard managed to rip off two different gains of 20 yards against Pittsburgh's stout defense.
"They had an extra hat in the box primarily the whole day," McCarthy said. "I thought both runners did a really nice job of trying to eliminate the negative runs, falling forward, and attacking the apex, things like that. I thought both those guys played well."
It doesn't jive with the results-oriented nature of the NFL, but at the very least the Cowboys are finding ways to produce on the ground – even when the opposition is managing to bottle Elliott up.
If the Cowboys can get both guys going at the same time, it could go a long way to masking their inexperience at quarterback.