NEW ORLEANS – It would take more than a lingering knee injury to keep Ezekiel Elliott off the field, but anyone who has seen Zeke play over the past five years could probably assume that the running back wasn't playing at 100 percent against the Saints on Thursday by his inability to generate consistent yards.
Coming off of two straight losses and facing a Saints team that was even more depleted by injuries than Dallas, it would seem that the Cowboys' key to leaving New Orleans with a victory would be to get back to their former identity of running the ball well and controlling the time of possession.
And while Dallas' defense was able to ultimately keep the Saints' offense in check and pull out a victory, the Cowboys' rushing attack was still mostly nowhere to be found. Plagued with a knee injury that has been bothering him most of the season and seemingly was reaggravated in recent weeks, Elliott only managed 45 yards on 13 carries, and the Saints actually won the time of possession battle despite losing the game by 10 points.
"The Saints have a good front," Elliott said after the game, unwilling to attribute his struggles to his knee. "They do a lot of movement. They have a lot of good guys up front. So it was a little tough."
For the vast majority of the game, the Cowboys could do nothing on the ground, and a 33-yard screen pass to CeeDee Lamb that was later ruled a lateral and therefore a rush attempt accounted for the majority of their rushing yards. That was until 3:55 left in the third quarter when Dallas ran a toss to Tony Pollard who narrowly avoided being tackled for a five-yard loss. From there, he showed blinding speed, accelerating at each level and ultimately out-running the Saints' secondary for a 58-yard touchdown.
"When I get in front I try not to look back because I feel like that's slowing me down," Pollard said of his explosiveness after the game. "If I see I have enough space to see the pylon and a defender over here, it's a straight race at that point."
Pollard won that particular race for the second week in a row. The play was the longest run for the Cowboys this season and it extended their lead to 10 points.
Take away Lamb's screen pass and Pollard's touchdown and the Cowboys managed only 55 yards rushing after having led the league in rushing earlier this season. But Elliott says that big play potential is part of their attack.
"We made the plays we needed to make and all we can do is celebrate this win and turn around and figure out how we can get better," Elliott said.
Pollard confirmed that big plays can compensate for a lack of consistent dominance.
"We'd been saying it all week," Pollard said. "We knew we had to stick with the run game, even if it starts out slow. Eventually things are going to break. There's going to be some mismatches. People are going to make mistakes."
It might not have been the kind of rushing attack the Cowboys are used to, but Pollard showed that he can keep the defense honest on the ground, and Elliott will have 10 days to rest his knee and potentially regain his previous form. Asked if his knee could use the rest, Elliott was only willing to concede so much.
"It'll be good to get a break," Elliott said.