If truth be told, the Dallas Cowboys came into the 2022 season hoping to lean on the running game.
It was the focal point of the game plan going into 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 with a fractured right thumb.
While backup quarterback Cooper Rush has garnered headlines with his steady and surprisingly clutch play in leading Cowboys to back to back victories against the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Giants, the key to their success on offense has been what the team has planned to do since the offseason.
Lean on the running game by using Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard as a two-headed tandem.
The Cowboys rushed 27 times for 107 yards in a 20-17 victory against the Bengals that doesn’t even include a 46-yard scamper by Pollard on shovel pass.
And then they rushed for 176 yards in the 23-16 victory against the Giants. Pollard rushed 13 times for 105 yards, including a 46-yarder 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 it. I think we’ve definitely done that 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 whenever Prescott, who passed for 4,449 yards and a team-record 37 touchdowns last season, returns _ either Oct. 9 at the Los Angeles Rams or Oct. 16 at the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I mean Tony and Zeke are featured players for us,” McCarthy said. “I don’t see us changing.”
It has certainly made life easier for Rush.
The Cowboys called 31 passes to 27 runs against the Bengals and it was 30 runs to 31 passes against the Giants. Elliott and Pollard had only 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 run game has allowed Rush to operate with clean pockets in the passing game while also chewing up the clock to keep their defense off the field and rested.
“It starts with running the football,” McCarthy said.
What has changed compared to past years and it 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, rather than the former two-time rushing champion Elliott being designated as the lead back with the speedy Pollard considered the change-of-pace option who often got the third series of the game.
They are often on the field together with Pollard lined up in the slot at times. Elliott has played fullback in front of Pollard, who is finally recognized as one of the team’s top play makers and arguably their most explosive weapon on offense.
“I think it’s a winning formula,” McCarthy said. “You’ve got two guys who are featured players. They need to touch the ball whether we throw it to them, pitch it to them, hand it to them, it makes no difference to me personally.”
Elliott has 43 touches for 173 yards through three games, including 40 carries for 178 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Pollard has 34 touches for 225 yards with a touchdown by land and one by air, while demonstrating his explosiveness with a 46-yard run and a 46-yard reception.
Certainly, there are calls for Pollard to get a bigger chunk of the load because of his big-play ability. It must be noted that Pollard was on the field to close on the game against the Giants.
But the Cowboys like the current distribution and remain cautious about wearing Pollard down, considering he has never carried a full load at running back going back to high school.
The Cowboys want to keep him as fresh as possible so he can still have juice in his legs late in games and later in the season.
“We want both those guys getting touches,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “I think the more balanced, the better it is week in and week out. There may be a game where one guy goes a little bit higher than the other. That may be situationally. That may be just the way the rotation works but we love getting both those guys the ball.”
Elliott the distribution is best for both players and the team.
“One it keeps both of fresh,” Elliott said. “That is a big thing and two, it’s two different running style you have to prepare against. They get used to one running style and now here comes the other guy. I things have been working pretty well.”
How fresh is Elliott?
“I’m fresh. I don’t know how else to explain it,” Elliott said. “I probably had every year more touches than I have at this point. My body feels really good.”
Elliott has averaged 21.47 rushing attempts per game since his rookie year. That number is 13.33 in 2022.
The best part about it as the Elliott and Pollard each other’s biggest fans, allowing the Cowboys to use them in tandem and interchangeably at a moments noticed
“You can start a guy on a series, knowing the other guy is ready to pop in there and certain plays will dictate who is in the game,” Moore said. “Maybe it’s a play specific for Tony or specific for Zeke and on the occasion we want them on the field together. I think those guys work really well together, I think that’s the special part about it.
“They work together, they know, ‘Hey I need a little blow here. Get the other guy in.’ They have no problem when the other guy gets in there and they acknowledge that to each other.”
Elliott is good with it because believes it’s the best way for the Cowboys to win.
And that’s all he cares about.
“All I’m worried about is winning football games and going to chase that ring,” Elliott said. “Do what we’ve got to do. We stay committed to the run and we keep getting those attempts, I think we’ll be successful.”
With Rush and when Prescott returns.