EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – The Cowboys are off to a 10-1 start to the season behind a dominant offensive line and a rookie quarterback whom observers are saying looks poised beyond his years and talented beyond his draft position.
But when it comes time to heap praise on Dallas’s great start to the season, don’t overlook the rookie running back. Ezekiel Elliot is the real deal, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said this week.
Before fielding questions from the media, Zimmer called the rookie out of Ohio State University a “super” player. When reporters asked a couple follow up questions, Zimmer had plenty more compliments where that came from.
“He’s one of the better backs I’ve seen in quite a while,” Zimmer said Sunday. “He’s really an all-purpose guy that catches the ball very well out of the backfield. He’s quick into the hole. [He] looks like he’s got great vision.
“He’s good in pass protection, better than [other] rookie backs for sure. One of the things – he’s an impact player on contact. He’s built – really — 225 pounds; he’s physical. He’s a hurdler if you try to cut him.”
In a word, Zimmer said, he’s “special.”
The former Buckeye is certainly delivering on high expectations. Eleven games into his promising pro career, he’s being compared favorably to Emmitt Smith. No fooling. Emmitt Smith!
How easy it would be to praise a rookie back who leads the NFL in rushing yards (1,199), has the most carries of 20 or more yards (10) and has found the end zone more than every player except for New England’s LeGarrette Blount.
Zimmer highlighted another, perhaps underappreciated, attribute to Elliot’s game: his pass blocking. Specifically against opponents’ blitzes.
Ordinarily, when a defense sends a blitz it doesn’t expect to get an untouched rusher all the way to the quarterback. Just like a wildcat formation or a read-option run on offense, blitzing can be reduced in its simplest form to a numbers game. The defense sends an extra rusher – or multiple – hoping that the offense either failed to account for that person and has to scramble under pressure, or in some cases they’re just hoping that the extra bodies in the backfield can lead to a mismatch somewhere. Say, for example, a linebacker running free at a running back on the way to the quarterback.
Zimmer said the way to disrupt the Cowboys high-flying offense varies from one team to the next. “Philadelphia blitzed them a fair amount,” he said. “Baltimore blitzed them a fair amount. Washington didn’t really. It depends on the team, really. They do a good job [countering blitzes].”
“There’s different ideas of the blitz,” continued the man known for his defensive acumen. “Sometimes you want to play man-to-man and you rush five and sometimes you rush six and play some kind of zone or man [coverage] or zeroes [a form of zone coverage without the over-the-top help from a safety].”
Observers could point to the gargantuan offensive line as the explanation for why the Cowboys have allowed just 15 sacks, only four more than league-leader Oakland. (The Vikings have taken 26 sacks, which is tied for fifth-worst in the NFL this season.) In fact, Dallas’ 89 yards lost on sacks is better than all but two teams this year, according to ESPN. The Vikings, by contrast, have lost 189 yards on sacks.
The sack numbers are a very crude measure, of course, but they help illustrate a picture that leads to the Cowboys being second in the NFL in yards gained on offense, second in points scored and third in points per game.
You pick up a blitz, you complete a pass, you convert a first down. That keeps drives alive and pushes a win streak to 10 games in a row. The offensive line helps with that, for sure, but don’t ignore Elliot’s impact in that area of Dallas’ success this season.
“[Elliot] is really a good protector. A lot of times when you’re blitzing, [when] you’re talking about blitzes, you’re trying to win on the back,” Zimmer said. “This back doesn’t get beat very much.”