This is how the Dallas Cowboys pictured it.
Ezekiel Elliott rumbling and tumbling for a 60-yard touchdown, untouched from the moment he got the ball in his hands to the moment he crossed the goal line. Defenders left for dust. Fist bumps in the owner’s suite.
Two weeks into the season, the Cowboys having the “best offensive line in the league” was in danger of becoming a parroted falsehood, one of those things people repeat in an attempt to sound smart. Hey, did you hear that Mike Zimmer likes to use double A-Gap fronts?
Since then, the line has gone on to reassert itself as the most dominant unit around, injuries be damned.
Entering Week 5, they owned the No. 1 rushing attack in the league by DVOA – despite having two injured starters during that time.
They followed up a string of impressive performances by dropping a hammer on the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, with 180-total rushing yards and 2 scores for Elliott. The rookie is beginning to figure this whole NFL thing out.
Early on, Elliott was missing on some potential big plays. He was outrunning zone and stretch concepts, getting to the line of scrimmage before his blocks had time to develop. And the interior of the line – which has long been the most impressive in the league – was not playing up to its supremely high standards.
None of that was an issue Sunday, as they carved open holes so big even Adam Jones’ daughter could have run through them. And Elliott provided 134 reasons why the Cowboys opted to take a running back ahead of Jalen Ramsey, as he ran with more patience.
Given its quality, the Cowboys line can often afford to run more vanilla blocking schemes, overwhelming opponents with power and technique at the point of attack. They’ll go an entire series sticking to inside and outside zone runs. The goal is to distort the levels of the defense by generating combination blocks inside and getting a lineman to slip onto a second level defender. The design is simple, and the execution is often perfect, leading to huge holes for the running back.
Against the San Francisco 49ers, with simplistic blocking concepts (kick step, reach block, turn block, combination block) they opened up holes so big they could have fit a bus through them.
Here, the Cowboys are crashing the right side of the line on an outside-zone run. Niners lineman Arik Armstead whips inside gambling on an inside run and the Niners blow their run fits to the edge. A huge hole is opened up, with Travis Fredrick (center) getting the crucial block on a linebacker at the second level. Fredrick moves effortlessly to the second level and is able to flip his hips and drive the linebacker toward the goalposts, turning a 10-yard gain into a 20-yard pickup.
The Cowboys used a similar concept later in the game to the opposite side, opening up an equally big hole.
Here, they bring in an additional lineman (Chaz Green), with tight end Jason Witten alongside him. That allows the Cowboys to generate two combination blocks at the second level. They bully the 49ers line off the ball and give Elliott room to make a play.
The Cowboys finished the game with 194 yards rushing, averaging 5 yards per attempt. That dominant performance came a week after an equally impressive 199-yard display vs. the Chicago Bears, when they averaged 4.6 yards per attempt.
Against the Bengals it should have been different. The Niners and Bears play with three down linemen, whereas the Bengals play with four-man fronts. Just a week earlier, the Cincinnati front shut down a similar inside/outside zone rushing attack vs. the Denver Broncos. All-Pro lineman Geno Atkins slanted and crashed through gaps, playing as a one-man wrecking crew and forcing Denver to switch its rushing attack mid-game.
Dallas altered pregame, opening it up and utilizing more line movement.
On Elliott’s 60-yard touchdown run, the Cowboys run a trap play using backup tight end Geoff Swaim. The offensive line crashes the left side of the line of scrimmage, leaving Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap unblocked. The concept forces Dunlap to get deep into the backfield before Swaim comes across the formation to seal him off. That opens up enough space for Elliott to make a move and explode to the end zone.
In three consecutive weeks the Cowboys line has been back to its best. It has fueled a running game that once had very good backs and now has a transcendent one.
Behind this line, Elliott is regularly going untouched until the second level – where he is at his best. He can make powerful plays initiating contact, is elusive enough to make people miss in space and has the home run speed to score from anywhere on the field. With improved patience, he’s ready to take the NFL’s rushing title.
None of this is an accident. It’s exactly how the Cowboys designed it. Dallas poured resources into its line and topped it off by taking Elliott with the fourth overall pick. So far, the results have been close to perfect.
That ground game has helped ease rookie Dak Prescott into the starting quarterback role. It’s opened up a play-action passing game that is currently 5th in effectiveness in the NFL (10.6 yards per play-action play), with Prescott completing 80 percent of his passes thrown off play-action.
A dominant running game and opening up easy throws for the quarterbacks. That’s how they pictured it and that’s how it’s playing out.