"What's up with Zeke?"
It's a question I've found myself asking a lot when I sit down and watch Ezekiel Elliott play in the early part of the season.
Through three games now, Elliott's efficiency is way down compared to last year and at first glance it just seems like Zeke isn't as explosive as he was last year.
So again, what's up with Zeke?
TALE OF THE TAPE
First thing's first, the salacious way to approach this would be to assume all those off-the-field issues are plaguing Zeke's on-field performance. I'm not saying they are or aren't, but it's entirely possible his mind is not right and as I've said a million times, these guys aren't video game sprites; they're humans and when some humans face stress, some humans don't perform at their peak, while other humans are utterly unaffected. Have I mentioned they're humans?
Having watched all his carries through three games, what started to become clear was that I was seeing a guy having to run uphill on a large bulk of his carries.
So here's the super unsexy answer: The offensive line play isn't nearly as good as it was last year.
LIKE DRAKE SAID, GOING BACK TO BACK
Coming into 2016, the fantasy community helped to push an unproven rookie into the first round of drafts because it was largely believed that Elliott's individual talent paired with that massive offensive line in Dallas could lead to special things and we were all largely correct.
Elliott put the league on notice last year as a rookie, racking up 1,631 on the ground and doing it with great efficiency, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
This year that efficiency has fallen off harder than Meek Mill post Drake, as Elliott is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, low-lighted by his horrific eight-yard, nine-carry performance against Denver in Week 2.
But here's the thing, when it comes to beating defenders, Zeke is putting up similar numbers this year versus last year. His yards after contact numbers are very similar this year versus last year. And per Next Gen Stats, Zeke is running against stacked boxes at a slightly increased rate but actually doing better against them averaging a terrific 4.75 yards per carry when there are eight or more defenders in the box.
Not only that, but he is again, doing slightly better this year when defenders close in, averaging a very robust 4.43 yards per carry after a defender gets within a yard. So how does all this add up to a big dip in efficiency? Well, as the number show, there is a massive gulf in the push up front.
BACK IN THE DAY WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I'M NOT A KID ANYMORE
Last year it seemed like the big boys in the trenches were moving heaven and earth, slamming defensive lines backwards and as a result Zeke generally wouldn't see a defender close in until he had already pushed forward more than half a yard.
This year, it's a totally different story as defenders are literally in the backfield when Elliott is getting the ball, as he is losing nearly an entire yard before a defender closes in.
When you add up this hidden yardage it's a difference of about 1.58 yards per carry. The difference between his yards per carry this year (3.5) and last year (5.1)? About 1.6 yards per carry.
The penetration defenses are getting up front has also led to an increased percentage of negative runs going from about 8 percent in 2016 jumping to more than 11 percent in 2017 with league average at 10.7 percent last year. So again, Zeke is going from significantly better than league average to worse than league average.
It's all added up to much fewer explosive plays.
If we define "explosive" plays as runs of 10 or more yards and receptions of 20 or more yards, Elliott was one of the most explosive running backs in the NFL last year, hitting an explosive play on more than 14 percent of his touches.
This year, the number of explosive plays has plummeted, with Elliott connecting on an explosive play on just six percent of his touches through three games.
WELL ACTUALLY ...
It'd be silly to say all of Elliott's woes are because of the team's offensive line. He's missed a few holes and tried to stretch a few plays here and there that led to negative results but that's football. No one's perfect and no one's going to make the right read on 100 percent of the plays. But the decreased line play has led to a helter-skelter feel to the run game this year whereas last year, even if there wasn't early-game success you just had the feeling the opposing defensive lines were going to wear down.
So will it get better? Probably. Because even though it's tough to project offensive line chemistry, I do know this; it's still a talented line with three Pro Bowlers and a very good La'el Collins manning four of the five line spots. They obviously haven't gelled yet but it could happen and there are some softer matchups down the road as well.
But the next time your buddy starts complaining Zeke's performance and starts piling on blame, just "Well, actually ..." the hell out of that person and remind them that the offensive line isn't nearly as good as it was last year.
» Per music aficionado and noted hipster, Matt Franciscovich gives a hearty endorsement to the new single, "Sky Walker," from Miguel featuring Travis Scott. I give it a double thumbs up as well. It's a departure from the neo-soul, bedroom-blasting stuff we've become accustomed to from most Miguel tracks. It just feels relevant as all get out and I tell you what, as a dad who plays entirely too many Disney tracks while driving, you feel a helluva lot cooler bumping this in your car.
» We'll stay with the hip-hop theme, here's your rand-o old school track worth a listen if you're into that sort of thing. Poor Righteous Teachers - "Gods, Earths and 85ers."
» Daily daps to Jim Wright. He's a retired U.S. Naval officer and a chappy freelance political writer. He runs a blog that you should check out if you're fan of good, crisp entertaining writing.