Without Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys’ offense faces new challenge

Without Ezekiel Elliott (21), it’ll be up to Zack Martin (70), Travis Frederick (72) and the rest of the Cowboys’ offensive line to pick up the slack. 

FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys will have to learn what life is like without running back Ezekiel Elliott.

U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Failla declined Elliott’s request for a preliminary injunction on Monday that would have prevented the NFL’s six-game suspension for violating the personal conduct policy, which means he will be placed on the suspended list. Pending the results of an appeal, Elliott will not be able to return until Dec. 17 against the Oakland Raiders.

A Cowboys’ season that started to look and feel a lot like 2016 with the way Elliott had run the ball the past three games, may now become unpredictable.

The Cowboys have expressed faith in Elliott’s replacements: Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden and Rod Smith. But none can do what Elliott can. The Cowboys hope three of them can combine to replace Elliott’s production.

While the news is disappointing, it’s not as if the Cowboys were unprepared for the possibility.

“The way we’ve constructed our roster has taken his situation into account. We have some veteran running backs,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We have some depth at that position. It’s not like we’re just living this day and we don’t think about the future at all. You have to do that. I think you build your team that way at all positions. If this guy is not able to play, who’s your backup? Who can go in? We try to do that with our offensive line, receivers, running backs, all throughout our defense. That’s the way you construct your team, and you’re always thinking about those scenarios. We’ll take it one day at a time and we’ll see what his situation is. Regardless, we’re going to go forward and try to play our best football.”

Morris has three 1,000-yard seasons to his credit but his last came in 2014. McFadden was fourth in the NFL in rushing in 2015 with the Cowboys, but he has been inactive for every game this season. Smith has shown some promise but has 74 yards rushing in his career.

If the Cowboys are to continue to succeed with the running game without Elliott, then it will be because of their offensive line.

Elliott had a difficult start to the season, although it wasn’t just him. The entire ground game was out of whack. Where there were creases a year ago, the Cowboys found defenders. Where there were big plays a year ago, the Cowboys found negative runs.

But in the fourth quarter of the loss to the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 8, it all changed. Elliott ran 13 times for 85 yards in the fourth quarter. Coming off the bye week, he ran 26 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers. He added two more touchdowns against the Redskins on Sunday despite Washington using eight- and nine-man fronts.

“We’re executing better,” All-Pro right guard Zack Martin said. “That’s really all that there is to it. We’re sticking on blocks and Zeke is running extremely hard.”

The Cowboys’ line is considered one of the best — if not the best — in the NFL. In addition to Martin, they have All-Pros at left tackle and center, in Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick. La’el Collins has improved in his first year at right tackle. Jonathan Cooper, a top-10 pick in 2014 by the Arizona Cardinals, seems to have solidified the left guard spot.

Many believe running backs are a dime a dozen. Given the Cowboys have had the league’s leading rusher in two of the past three seasons with DeMarco Murray and Elliott, they don’t follow that belief.

But now they will rely on their offensive line to get the job done in the running game as much as the running backs.

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