The Dallas Cowboys have been through the wringer in the last three weeks, losing quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton to injury. And though they are down, they are not out. Sitting in third place in the NFC East with a record of 2-5 heading into a prime-time clash with the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles (2-4-1) on Sunday, there's still hope for the Cowboys, and it rests largely on their best player, Ezekiel Elliott.
Zeke is certainly not playing up to the standard that came with the $90 million contract he signed last year, which still makes him the league's highest-paid running back in terms of total value, per Over The Cap. However, now is the time for him to put the team on his back and make good on that deal.
The Cowboys had so much promise heading into the season, featuring an offense loaded with talent and a defense that looked on paper as if it would be good enough to get the job done. The offense was soaring under Prescott, ranking among the top five units in key categories, until he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 5. Since Week 6, Dallas ranks second to last in points per game (6.5, down from 32.6 in Weeks 1-5) and total yards per game (243, down from 488). The defense is another story entirely, as it has been consistently awful, giving up 34.7 points per game (most in the league).
As for Zeke, his struggles have been magnified with Prescott sidelined. In the QB1's absence the last two weeks, Elliott has just 94 rushing yards on 24 carries and 37 receiving yards on nine catches against Arizona and Washington. The three-time Pro Bowler has not rushed for 100 yards in any of Dallas' seven games this season -- the longest drought of his career -- and he has five fumbles, including four lost, through seven games (both most in the NFL among running backs). It doesn't help that the Cowboys' offensive line is extremely banged up, but turning the ball over is a sure-fire way to keep this team from righting the ship.
That said, I believe Zeke is still the same player who led the league in rushing twice. He needs to get back to the basics in every aspect to rekindle the exceptional play we've seen from him so often before. Focusing more intensely on details in practice or meetings, getting back to his physical rushing style, protecting the ball, blocking and catching the ball cleanly out of the backfield -- I would direct Zeke's attention to all of these things, because the team needs him to take advantage of every opportunity he gets. In doing so, he's the type of elite running back who can inspire and challenge his teammates to be better.
I experienced similar circumstances back in 2011 with the Jacksonville Jaguars, when we had a team with promise but entered Week 8 with the same 2-5 record Dallas has now. My coaches challenged me take my game to the next level, and I did, with the help of the entire offense. We finished 5-11 that year, but as the focal point of our offense, I felt I did everything I could to give us a chance. As a result, I ended up winning the NFL rushing title and scored 15 of my 19 TDs that season in the final nine games (shoutout to my O-line and blocking TEs and WRs).
I had to run like that, so I did. Now, Zeke's number is being called to do the same. He has a chance to get back on track this weekend against the Eagles, and he's had some of his best performances against Philly. In five of his six career games vs. the division foe, he has put up at least 140 scrimmage yards (most scrimmage YPG vs. Eagles since 1950, minimum five games). The Cowboys need this type of production to help their QB1, which might be rookie Ben DiNucci on Sunday, with Dalton in the concussion protocol.
Seasons like the current one in Dallas aren't easy, but they can play a big role in deciding a player's legacy, for better or worse. So, Zeke, what'll it be?
Top 15 Running Backs
2020 stats: 6 games | 143 att | 663 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 7 rush TDs | 10 rec | 81 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
Derrick Henry was held in check for most of Tennessee's loss to the Steelers, but he still leads the NFL in rushing attempts (143), rushing yards (663), rushing first downs (33) and rushing TDs (7, tied for the most) this season. Don't expect that to change any time soon, as Henry and the Tennessee offense face a Bengals defense that has allowed 133.7 rushing yards per game (28th in the league) on Sunday.
2020 stats: 6 games | 75 att | 364 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 46 rec | 460 rec yds | 3 rec TDs
Alvin Kamara has gained 100-plus scrimmage yards in five straight games (longest active streak in the league). He's been exceptional, week after week.
2020 stats: 7 games | 115 att | 551 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 22 rec | 194 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
I'm curious to see just how much Clyde Edwards-Helaire's usage changes now that Le'Veon Bell has a game under his belt with the Chiefs. Last week against the Broncos, CEH played 52.9 percent of the offensive snaps compared with Bell's 33.3 percent. I'd imagine they'll stick with the rookie as the feature back going forward, but there's no question that Bell will have a bigger role than Darrell Williams did as the primary backup.
2020 stats: 5 games | 92 att | 489 rush yds | 5.3 ypc | 7 rush TDs | 12 rec | 64 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
On schedule to play Sunday vs. Green Bay, Dalvin Cook is critical to the Vikings' offensive success. Without him in Week 6, Minnesota was held to just 32 rushing yards. He has to be on the field if the Vikings are going to turn their season around.
2020 stats: 5 games | 75 att | 389 rush yds | 5.2 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 18 rec | 161 rec yds | 2 rec TDs
Like Cook, Aaron Jones has scored at least one touchdown in every game he's played this season. If Sunday's Packers-Vikings game is anything like Week 1's matchup, expect more scoring from these two backs.
(UPDATE: The Packers announced Friday that Jones is ruled out for Sunday's game.)
2020 stats: 6 games | 95 att | 451 rush yds | 4.75 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 15 rec | 112 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
James Conner has had himself a nice start to the season, posting 100-plus scrimmage yards in four games after having three such games in all of 2019. He helped the Steelers win the battle of unbeatens last week by out-rushing Derrick Henry, and he'll need another outing like it to compete with the Ravens' No. 1-ranked rushing attack this weekend.
2020 stats: 7 games | 107 att | 481 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 4 rush TD | 27 rec | 225 rec yds | 2 rec TDs
James Robinson is the reason the Jaguars stayed with the Chargers for a majority of last week's contest. While Gardner Minshew struggled to connect with his receivers, the rookie running back racked up a career-high 119 rush yards and 137 scrimmage yards. He's one of five Jags rookies with multiple games of 100-plus rush yards, joining Leonard Fournette, T.J. Yeldon, Fred Taylor and, oh hey, me! That's some pretty good company.
2020 stats: 7 games | 110 att | 506 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 18 rec | 86 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
Ronald Jones has impressed on the ground with 100-plus rushing yards or one rushing TD in each of the last four games. As good as he's been as a runner, I'd like to see him improve as a pass catcher.
2020 stats: 7 games | 101 att | 463 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 16 rec | 106 rec yds | 4 rec TDs
Although the production of the Browns' rushing attack has decreased significantly since Nick Chubb suffered an injury in Week 4 (188.4 rushing yards per game in Weeks 1-5; 78.5 in Weeks 6-7), Kareem Hunt has been a steady presence in the backfield. He's recorded at least 70 rushing yards in five of his seven games (tied for most in the NFL) and has scored at least one receiving TD in four games (most among RBs).
2020 stats: 7 games | 87 att | 411 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 9 rec | 109 rec yds | 1 rec TD
The Rams (featuring Henderson and Malcolm Brown) are one of three teams to have multiple players with 250-plus rushing yards and three-plus rushing TDs, joining Arizona (Kyler Murray and Kenyan Drake) and Cleveland (Chubb and Hunt). Henderson has emerged as the featured RB for L.A., but Brown is hot on his tail after a big performance last week.
2020 stats: 6 games | 116 att | 394 rush yds | 3.4 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 18 rec | 122 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
Josh Jacobs underwhelmed against the Bucs last week, rushing for just 1.7 yards per carry. It's going to be tough for the Raiders to win any games, let alone ones against Tom Brady and the red-hot Bucs, with that kind of production. With a game against the 5-2 Browns up next, Jacobs needs to bounce back.
2020 stats: 6 games | 35 att | 185 rush yds | 5.3 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 20 rec | 152 rec yds | 1 rec TD
Adrian Peterson may lead the Lions in carries (80) and rushing yards (314), but D'Andre Swift has added a much-needed dynamic element to the offense, scoring five TDs in his first six career games. He's really picked up steam over the last two weeks (both wins), with 23 carries for 143 yards and three rushing TDs. The Lions have a shot to extend this streak if the rookie continues to play well.
2020 stats: 6 games | 66 att | 323 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 22 rec | 147 rec yds | 3 rec TDs
Chris Carson is great ... when he's on the field. His status for this weekend's matchup with the 49ers is up in the air after he suffered a mid-foot sprain last week. Seattle's Russell Wilson-led offense is one of the league's best, but Carson also deserves credit for what he's done so far.
2020 stats: 7 games | 113 att | 458 rush yds | 4.05 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 33 rec | 210 rec yds | 1 rec TD
I discussed Zeke's recent struggles above. Hence, the slide down the ranks.
2020 stats: 6 games | 119 att | 428 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 21 rec | 138 rec yds | 1 rec TD
Joe Mixon is week-to-week with a foot injury that kept him out of last week's contest against Cleveland. He's a key part of Zac Taylor's offense and needs to be on the field if the Bengals want to stay with the Titans offensively on Sunday.