Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott on dip in production: It's been tough

FRISCO, Texas -- As the Minnesota Vikings (4-5) have crept back into playoff contention after a horrid start, they can thank running back Dalvin Cook.

Three weeks ago, he had 163 yards on 30 carries with three touchdowns against the Green Bay Packers. Two weeks ago, it was 206 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns against the Detroit Lions. On ESPN's "Monday Night Football," Cook had 96 yards on 30 carries against the Chicago Bears.

This Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox), the Dallas Cowboys (2-7) will attempt to slow Cook. Perhaps they are a bit wistful as to how the Vikings have rebounded behind their lead back. Minnesota is playing the way the Cowboys, who have Ezekiel Elliott, want to play.

Like most things in 2020, the Cowboys' game plan has been foiled.

You can place the Cowboys' struggles on the loss of quarterback Dak Prescott in the fifth game. You can blame injuries. You can blame a defensive switch that was painfully slow to take hold.

But, there's also this: What has happened to Elliott's production?

He had at least 89 yards rushing in three of the Cowboys' first five games. He had six total touchdowns. The Cowboys found themselves in big deficits, which made running the ball superfluous. Elliott looked sharp enough because he had the benefit of training camp -- albeit a shortened version -- after sitting out camp in 2019 in a contract dispute.

In the four games since -- all Cowboys losses -- he has topped 60 yards rushing one time. He has fumbled five times this season, losing four, which all have been turned into opposing touchdowns. Elliott has not been as effective as hoped in the passing game, catching 36 balls for 238 yards.

"With us playing four quarterbacks in five weeks, their No. 1 thoughts are to stop the run because Zeke is such a dynamic player," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "He gave a gutty performance [against Pittsburgh] where he wasn't able to practice. Certainly had a little nagging hamstring. He just made some really solid, dirty runs and I think Zeke is a great player and -- just like everybody else on this team -- [has] been put in some challenging and tough positions. But he keeps competing."

Elliott has ducked nothing in terms of responsibility for mistakes, his or the team's.

"It's been tough, definitely," Elliott said when asked how difficult the season has been.

He is on pace for 1,017 yards, which would be his lowest total in a full season for his pro career. In 2017, Elliott missed six games because of suspension and finished with 983 yards. He has rushed for at least 1,357 yards in his three full seasons.

Elliott does not have a 100-yard game this season, the longest drought of his professional career. "I mean, yeah, I am a little surprised," he said. "Just got to figure this thing out."

Also, the Cowboys' offensive line has used 10 different combinations and six different starting lineups this season. Using four quarterbacks in five weeks did not help. Who else would opponents key in on but Elliott?

"Common sense tells you he'll be a central figure in your game plan," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

But it's not as if Elliott is running only against stacked boxes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 36 of Elliott's 150 runs have come against fronts of eight defenders or more. He is averaging 2.4 yards per carry. Among NFL backs, he has the fifth-most carries against fronts of seven defenders or less.

There was a time when the fronts did not matter because of how dominant the Cowboys' offensive line was and how good Elliott was at breaking tackles. As a rookie in 2016, he averaged 3.10 yards before contact and 1.96 yards per carry after first contact. This season, he is averaging 2.06 yards before contact and 1.75 yards after first contact.

For comparison's sake, Cook, who leads the NFL in rushing (954 yards), is averaging 2.90 yards before contact and 2.59 yards after first contact, numbers that took a dip against the Bears Monday.

What has made Elliott great is his ability to wear down a defense. In 2018, the last time the Cowboys made the playoffs, he had 72 carries for 351 yards and five touchdowns in the fourth quarter. This season, he has 27 carries for 107 yards in the fourth quarter -- and four of those runs have come with the Cowboys in the lead.

Differences between how Elliott hit the hole and how his backup, Tony Pollard, did the same against the Steelers looked stark. Undoubtedly, the Steelers were ready for Elliott.

"Zeke's just kind of the victim of some muddy looks and sometimes those are the dirtiest, hardest three-yard gains and we need them," Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said.

Elliott has one carry of more than 20 yards this season.

"Um, shoot, I don't know," Elliott said when asked why he thinks there has been a lack of explosive runs.

Elliott's declining numbers are a reminder of former Cowboys running back Marion Barber. In 2008, Barber signed a seven-year, $45 million contract that included $16 million in guarantees. Barber split time mostly with Julius Jones his first three seasons and ran for a career-high 975 yards in 2007 and had 10 touchdowns.

In the next three seasons after signing the deal, he averaged 730 yards on 188 carries and six scores. Barber lost the juice in his legs. He was 27 when the Cowboys released him.

Before the 2019 season, the Cowboys signed Elliott, who is 25, to a six-year, $90 million contract extension. His $9.6 million base salary in 2021 became fully guaranteed last March. His $12.4 million base salary in 2022 becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the 2021 league year, making it difficult for the Cowboys to release him, which is not even a thought for management.

The excuses are there -- no Prescott, a shaky offensive line, deep deficits -- but Elliott refuses to use them.

"I'm more worried about us winning football games," Elliott said. "I could care less about individual achievements and stats right now. ... My main focus right now is just trying to win a football game."