Back to the Bell-Cow: What the Old Zeke Elliott Could Mean to the New Cowboys
Part two of Cowboys Nation’s interview with ESPN football analyst KC Joyner looks at the Cowboys’ offensive line metrics, Ezekiel Elliott’s lost 2017 campaign and what a return to his 2016 form could mean to the club.
Sports Talk Line: In 2016 the team went 13-3 and the offensive line got a lot of praise. That unit went six deep. The team went thin last year. Ronald Leary left in free agency, Doug Free retired and the team did not adequately replace them. Once injuries hit in mid-season, especially to Tyron Smith, the unit collapsed. If you simply say, “Atlanta” fans know what you mean.
Start with an assessment of them as pass blockers. Let’s push run blocking aside for the moment. You were not bullish on them:
KC Joyner: I did an article for ESPN projecting where units will be going into the 2018 season and for Dallas, they ranked 8th in this article series, but this is before the Travis Frederick injury issue. I’ll probably move them down to around 10th or so and keep an eye on them.
They get an A on run blocking as might be expected. Even with the injuries they had last year they still posted some of the best run blocking metrics in the league. They ranked 2nd in the “good blocking” metric, which measures how often a line gives a back good run blocking. They did that 49.2% of the time. That’s a very strong showing; any time an offensive line gets near 50% in this metric it’s doing really well.
Their pass blocking only rated as a C. And it’s the second year in a row where they’ve had ranked low. The Cowboys rated 25th overall in pass pressure allowed, and 25th in quarterback contact rate. That’s how often a quarterback gets hit when he drops back.
Some of that was Dak Prescott scrambling, some of that was him trying to keep plays alive, but he’s also scrambling a lot because he’s not getting good protection.
STL: For context’s sake where did the unit rate in 2016?
KC: The Cowboys in 2016 ranked 25th in pass pressure allowed.
STL: So in both years they’ve been riding the run blocking. So all things being equal, taking Ezekiel Elliott out of the equation really hurt them.
STL: It did, but the real problem for Elliott last year was not the run blocking. Again they had really good run blocking grades last year. The problem was that he didn’t do very well in the yards-per-good-blocking category. He tied for 44th out of 47 qualifying backs (that’s backs with more than 100 carries) in this category.
It means that when he received good blocking he was one of the least productive backs in the league. And he received good blocking by the way on 50.2 % of his carries. That ranked 3rd best in the league, so Elliott did get good run blocking. Sometimes you see backs who have to make do when they get poor blocking. Melvin Gordon for instance only got good blocking on 36.3% of his carries. That ranked 45th out of 47 backs. When Gordon was producing his numbers, he had to do it in spite of his protection.
Zeke didn’t do that and his good run blocking rate was slightly higher than it was for the team overall, so his line actually blocked better when he was in the game than it did when he was not.
His issues were not related to his blocking. I do think he’ll bounce back.
STL: Talking about him as a bounce-back player, let’s get the same context we got with the line. What were Elliott’s numbers in 2016?
KC: Zeke in 2016 averaged 9.4 yards per attempt when he got good blocking. He only averaged 6.3 yards per attempt on similar plays in 2017. 9.4 tied for 8th overall. 6.3 tied for 44th. And he only received good blocking on 39% of his attempts his rookie year, so he got much better overall run blocking this past year.
I think part of that may be that he was trying very hard to make as many big plays as he could, knowing “I’m only going to be in so many games this year, the offense is struggling” and this happens, backs sometimes try to do too much. They’ll take a play that may break for a longer gain. They might take what may be a ten yard gain and turn it into a one-yard gain if they cut it back and try and hit a home run.
If it works they can spike their numbers but the overwhelming percentage of the time backs are much more productive in every metric if they just follow their blocking and don’t try to do it on their own.
If Zeke will just take what his line gives him in 2018 I think his production will spike pretty significantly.
STL: Just looking at the raw number, dropping from 9.4 to 6.3 is three yards-per-carry roughly. That’s a lot.
KC: When you consider he probably gets around 120 good blocking attempts per season you’re talking maybe as much as 400 yards if he gets to his previous level, and I think he’s one of the few backs in the league who can average over 10.0 yards per attempt on good blocking. He could get up to that level, but even if he just gets back to where he was you’re talking at least an extra 350 yards right there.
Next: Can Michael Gallup, Allen Hurns and the motley crew of new tight ends replace what the team lost from Dez Bryant and Jason Witten in 2018?
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