Truth be told, the Dallas Cowboys entered the 2022 season hoping to lean into the running game.
It was the centerpiece of the game plan ahead of the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, though they didn’t get the results in a 19-3 setback that also saw them lose quarterback Dak Prescott to a broken thumb. law.
While backup quarterback Cooper Rush has grabbed headlines with his consistent and surprisingly decisive play in leading the Cowboys to back-to-back wins against the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Giants, the key to his success on offense has been what the team has planned to do since the offseason.
Lean into the running game using Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard as a two-headed tandem.
The Cowboys rushed 27 times for 107 yards in a 20-17 win over the Bengals that didn’t even include a 46-yard shovel pass from Pollard.
And then they rushed for 176 yards in a 23-16 win against the Giants. Pollard rushed 13 times for 105 yards, including one for 46 yards, and Elliott had 15 carries for 73 yards.
“We talked about this in training camp,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “We needed to run the ball better. More importantly, we needed to get more attempts at the plate. We needed to stay committed to that. I think we definitely have in the last two weeks.”
The running game will be the focal point of the game plan against Washington on Sunday.
McCarthy said the plan will be the same each time Prescott, who passed for 4,449 yards and a team-record 37 touchdowns last season, returns, whether it’s Oct. 9 at the Los Angeles Rams or Oct. 16 at the Philadelphia. Eagles.
“I want to say that Tony and Zeke are standout players for us,” McCarthy said. “I don’t see us changing.”
It has certainly made life easier for Rush.
The Cowboys called 31 passes on 27 runs against the Bengals and went 30 runs on 31 passes against the Giants. Elliott and Pollard had just 16 carries combined against the Buccaneers when the Cowboys fell behind and couldn’t convert third downs to stay on the field.
McCarthy said being balanced has been the team’s winning formula, as the running game has allowed Rush to operate with clean pockets in the passing game while chewing the clock to keep his defense off the field and rested.
“It starts with running the ball,” McCarthy said.
What has changed compared to previous years and was in the plan going back to training camp was how the Cowboys are using Elliott and Pollard.
They are a true tandem in 2022, instead of former two-time rushing champion Elliott being designated as the primary running back with the speedy Pollard considered the change-of-pace option who often earned the game’s third drive.
They are often on the field along with Pollard lining up in the slot at times. Elliott has played fullback against Pollard, who is ultimately recognized as one of the team’s best playmakers and arguably its most explosive weapon on offense.
“I think it’s a winning formula,” McCarthy said. “You have two guys who are standout players. They need to touch the ball, whether we throw it to them, toss it to them or hand it to them, I personally don’t care.”
Elliott has 43 touches for 173 yards in three games, including 40 carries for 178 yards and a rushing touchdown.
Pollard has 34 touches for 225 yards with one rushing and one passing touchdown, while showing off his explosiveness with a 46-yard run and a 46-yard reception.
Certainly, there are calls for Pollard to get more of the load because of his ability to play big. It should be noted that Pollard was on the field to close out the game against the Giants.
But the Cowboys like the current layout and remain cautious about wearing down Pollard, considering he has never carried a full load as a running back since high school.
The Cowboys want to keep him as fresh as possible so he can have juice on his legs at the end of games and later in the season.
“We want both guys to get bunted,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “I think the more balanced, the better week after week. There may be a game where one guy climbs a little higher than the other. That can be situational. That may be the way the rotation works, but we love that both guys have the ball.”
Elliott distribution is better for both the players and the team.
“One that keeps both of them fresh,” Elliott said. “That’s a great thing and two, it’s two different racing styles that you have to prepare against. They get used to one style of racing and now comes the other type. Things have been working out pretty well.”
How cool is Elliott?
“I’m fresh. I don’t know how else to explain it,” Elliott said. “I’ve probably had more touches every year than I do right now. My body feels really good.”
Elliott has averaged 21.47 career attempts per game since his rookie year. That number is 13.33 in 2022.
The best part about this is that Elliott and Pollard are each other’s biggest fans, allowing the Cowboys to use them in tandem and interchangeably at any given time.
“You can start a guy on a series, knowing the other guy is ready to come up and certain plays will dictate who’s in the game,” Moore said. “Maybe it’s a specific play for Tony or specific for Zeke and on occasion we want them on the field together. I think those guys work really well together, I think that’s the special part.
“They work together, they know, ‘Hey, I need a little hit here. Get the other guy in. They don’t have a problem when the other guy walks in there and they acknowledge each other.”
Elliott is good at it because he thinks it’s the best way for the Cowboys to win.
And that’s all that matters to him.
“All I care about is winning football games and chasing that ring,” Elliott said. “Do what we have to do. We stay committed to the race and continue to have those attempts, I think we will succeed.”
With Rush and when Prescott returns.