Creating A Blueprint To Slow Down Ezekiel Elliott

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

The Dallas Cowboys’ offense could not have been hotter going into its bye week. They haven’t put up fewer than 35 points since Week 2 against the Los Angeles Chargers. Dak Prescott and the Dallas passing attack presents plenty of challenges, and the Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard run game has fired on all cylinders. The Cowboys’ run game is predicated on power runs, which ask a lot from their talented offensive line.

Power is an eternal fixture in the landscape of the NFL, but the Minnesota Vikings haven’t faced much of it so far. The Detroit Lions run some power, but Anthony Lynn‘s scheme is more of a hybrid. The Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns, and Carolina Panthers all prefer zone running principles (although everyone has a power run or two in their playbook). The Arizona Cardinals were their own beast. However, the Cowboys use power as their bread and butter.

Their run offense is ninth in EPA/play generated, while the Vikings’ run defense ranks 29th in EPA/play allowed. Exacerbating that mismatch is the unclear status of defensive tackle Michael Pierce. So the Vikings will have to find a way to defend a run offense that is simply more talented than its run defense. Such is the challenge of facing good teams.

“Power” doesn’t necessarily refer to runs predicated on physical power (though it often does), but rather a double team (or combo block) between a guard and tackle. Because that spends two players of the offense to block only one on the defense, power runs often pull a blocker from the back side of the play to the front side to replenish their numbers.

All of that complexity provides both a physical and mental challenge to defenses in the run game. Defenses have to adjust their gap responsibilities on the fly as offensive linemen shift and cross. Plus, big, 300-plus lb. offensive linemen work to the outside, where they’ll find smaller linebackers and even defensive backs. Good luck to your safety adjusting his run-fit responsibilities and then winning a block against a man 100 lbs. heavier than him.

Mike Zimmer has coached his linebackers to be a little more aggressive about punishing pulling linemen. If they read what’s called a “pull key,” they can try to shoot that gap if they think they can make it. But that requires incredibly quick processing. It’s a high-risk, high-reward decision that linebackers make in the thick of the moment. If they’re wrong, or hesitant like Nick Vigil is here, they take themselves all the way out of the play.

Thankfully, the Cowboys have played Bill Belichick, and that means we get to see how he handled that power running game. Dak Prescott gashed the New England Patriots’ secondary, but the Pats handed Ezekiel Elliott and that run game their worst performance of the season so far by EPA/play.

In run defense, the “force” player is the player responsible for keeping a running back contained inside. That’s where all his teammates are. In the above touchdown against New York, that force player is 200 lb. defensive back Xavier McKinney. Belichick drew it up a little differently:

Surprise, surprise, the Patriots are a well-coached, disciplined team in the fundamentals of football. That makes them a great example of how to keep power runs out of their strength. The goal is to deny that offense the OL-DB mismatches they’re looking for and keep someone, anyone, in every gap. Assuming everyone can read the play and stay disciplined in how they attack blocks, nobody’s assignment is too hard. That’s a pretty big assumption, however.

The Vikings use Anthony Barr to perform similar assignments to Matthew Judon. If he can hold up in contain and funnel things back inside, he can be a key to slowing down this Cowboys run game. That can keep them behind the chains and set up famous Zimmer blitz packages to stress Prescott. Barr doesn’t have to notch a single tackle if he can perform this duty all day. That’d earn him a game ball in my book.

Penetration can be especially potent against power. Perhaps ironically, power runs have a delicate structure that requires peace in the backfield. If someone can penetrate and get upfield, they can crush an incoming run play. Again, Zimmer is an aggressive defensive coach. He instructs his players to shoot upfield, take opportunities, and try to make plays when the key is there. Sheldon Richardson in particular is good at this. Perhaps too good at it.

Richardson’s game has always been to penetrate upfield and wreck shop. He’s made a career out of it, though teams have ways to take advantage. Still, playing into those traps (both trap runs and figurative traps) may be worth it to ruin the dance-like rhythm of the Cowboys’ solid power run game. With Pierce out, Richardson figures to play more anyways. Were I on the defensive staff, I’d tell Richardson to give in to his base instincts and get into that backfield. Even if he doesn’t make the play, he’s liable to influence it. That makes everyone else’s jobs easier.

Power running is as old as time in the NFL, but it will always have its place. When an offense has linemen and backs like Dallas, and a fairly old-school coach like Mike McCarthy, they’ll utilize those talents to create stressful matchups and test the processing power of the linebackers across from them. Elliott had the best game of his season against Minnesota last year. Can the Vikings figure out how to prevent a sequel?

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