Breaking Down Ezekiel Elliott's Promising Preseason Debut

Elliott did everything right in his preseason debut. How did he do it?

Ezekiel Elliott made his preseason debut on Thursday night, and while brief, it looked to be exactly what the Dallas Cowboys were expecting from the fourth overall draft pick.

At this point, it’s not really worth arguing whether the Cowboys should have drafted Elliott where they did. He’s on the team now, and he’s probably going to be really good.

But as we go into the season, remember, it’s possible to believe Elliott can excel in the position he has placed in, while also questioning the Cowboys for taking a running back that high in the draft.

Because of a hamstring injury, Elliott missed the first two preseason games, but he was finally healthy enough to take the field against the Seattle Seahawks. Elliott got only seven carries, but during that time, it was clear how the Cowboys were going to ride high with their new toy in the backfield.

Full Commitment

Elliott played on the first two Dallas drives, which lasted a total of 15 offensive plays. Of those 15 plays, seven of them were Elliott runs. Now, maybe some of that had to do with Tony Romo getting injured on the third play from scrimmage and not returning, but whatever the reason, the Cowboys were not shy about giving Elliott the ball.

Last year with the injuries to Romo and other quarterbacks, Dallas ran on 38.7 percent of offensive plays, the 12th-highest percentage in the league. If all goes to plan, that could be closer to the 50 percent mark the team had in 2014 with DeMarco Murray, as evidenced by the 7-of-15 play share Elliott saw.

It should be noted, though, the Cowboys were not worse running the ball in 2015 than 2014 by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. In fact, they were almost identical. NEP, for those new to the metric, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform according to historical data.

In both years, the Cowboys finished ninth in the league on the ground by Adjusted Rushing NEP per play -- even at the peak of Dallas’ running game, it was based more on volume than efficiency, though ninth in efficiency is nothing to write off.

We don’t want to overreact to seven carries in a preseason game, but the strengths of Elliott’s game are worth pointing out and could play into the Dallas plan to see high volume and also be efficient on the ground.

Gaining Ground

This was shown on the second Cowboys drive of the game, during which Elliott ran three straight times for nine or more yards. Earlier in the week, Danny Kelly of The Ringer broke down the multiple ways the Dallas running game has attacked opponents in the past, and many of them were on display on just these three runs.

The first of these three runs came on 2nd-and-9 after an Elliott run out of the I-formation was stopped for a gain of just one yard. On this play Elliott is the lone back for an outside zone run. While Dallas usually has excellent blocking, the edge isn’t quite set with Jason Witten on Frank Clark.

The defensive end is able to shed the block of the tight end and to line up Elliott, but the back’s speed puts him past the defender and allows him to get to the sideline to turn up the field. There are many running backs who wouldn’t have been able to get around Clark and would have been stopped for a minimal gain. (Video courtesy NFL Game Pass.)

On the next play, the Cowboys get a little more modern with a run out of shotgun. The whole right side of the line pulls and sets up a nice lane for Elliott to cut into, while three Seattle defenders are pushed over to the sideline. Elliott not only gets a nice gain but also picks up another two yards after he’s contacted.

2nd-and-1 is typically an aggressive down for most teams in the NFL. With a convertible third down already on the table, many coaches will call for a shot downfield. Maybe because this is the preseason (and maybe because Jason Garrett isn’t most coaches), the Cowboys instead put Dak Prescott back under center to hand the ball off to the running back.

Dallas runs another zone play with the right side of the offensive line pulling -- two tight ends were lined up at the line of scrimmage outside the right tackle -- and Elliott finds a hole while left guard La’el Collins clears out another few yards by getting to Earl Thomas at the second level. Elliott runs into Kam Chancellor -- something that’s rarely fun for an NFL player -- but again fights for a few extra yards after contact and a gain of 13.

Elliott had one more run in the game, another 2nd-and-1 attempt that gained 8 yards. He finished the day with 7 carries for 48 yards, a 6.9 yards per attempt average. There was only one run for fewer than 3 yards and just the one that gained more than 10. It’s likely Elliott will be given the opportunity to gain large chunks of yards on each run play.

Last season, the Cowboys were the ninth-most efficient team running the ball, while individually lead back Darren McFadden wasn’t stellar. He was just eighth of the 16 running backs who got at least 200 carries in Rushing NEP per attempt. It shouldn’t be too far-fetched to imagine Elliott easily eclipsing those numbers.

Last year’s rookie sensation Todd Gurley finished second among those backs, something that appears attainable for Elliott this year. Gurley might be much more of a physical wonder than Elliott, but the Ohio State product is in a wildly better situation.

The situation is part of what made Elliott a questionable pick on draft night, but Thursday night’s debut helped give a glimpse of what the Cowboys are expecting on the field.