FRISCO, Texas — Ezekiel Elliott finally had his first breakaway run of the season in Week 3 at Arizona, then lost 8 yards on his last carry with Dallas trying to run out the clock in a 28-17 win.
At least the Cowboys and their 2016 NFL rushing leader could say they bounced back solidly from Elliott’s worst game as a pro in a loss to Denver.
The win over the Cardinals also demonstrated that Dallas is still searching for the dominance that powered the league’s second-best running game a year ago.
“We answer these questions every year,” center Travis Frederick said. “We have a game where we’re not rushing as many yards and you say well, if they’re going to stack the box, you want to throw. I do think that we’re not as productive as we’d like to be and as efficient as we’d like to be in the run game. So we do need to work on it.”
There are plenty of theories, starting with Elliott being distracted by the legal fight over a six-game suspension that’s on hold while the case related to a domestic incident in Ohio last year plays out in federal court.
The Cowboys (2-1), who face the 29th-ranked run defense against the Los Angeles Rams at home Sunday, have two offensive linemen in new spots after the retirement of right tackle Doug Free and left guard Ron Leary’s departure in free agency.
Chaz Green is a full-time starter for the first time in Leary’s spot after spending his mostly injury-filled first two seasons at tackle.
La’el Collins, who was strong as a rookie at left guard in 2015 and even took Leary’s job before getting hurt last year, was moved to Free’s old position.
“We felt like there were going to be some growing pains,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “Losing the two guys we lost, you don’t replace them with the same veteran experience. The only way these guys are going to get better is to go out and play these games.”
Elliott had a rough start to his rookie season, averaging 2.6 yards per carry in a loss to the New York Giants in his debut before getting benched after two fumbles in a win at Washington.
The former Ohio State star answered with four straight 100-yard games on the way to franchise rookie records with 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns rushing.
While Elliott had 104 yards in the opener against the Giants, his per-carry average is just 3.5 yards after he finished at 5.1 last year. The Cowboys are a full yard below last year’s per-carry average of 4.8 yards.
“We’re more comfortable when we get 3 or 4 yards on first down and then another 4 or 5 on second down so we can convert a shorter third down rather than being third-and-long,” said Elliott , who is ninth in the NFL with 192 yards. “We’ve just been putting ourselves in a lot of situations where we’re in third and long.”
The puzzler for Dallas came in Week 2 against the Broncos, who dominated the Cowboys up front and held Elliott to a career-low 8 yards on nine carries in Denver’s 42-17 win
Against the Cardinals, the Cowboys were close to three straight three-and-outs to start the game when Elliott went 30 yards on third-and-1. While that drive didn’t lead to points, it helped the Dallas offense put aside a second straight miserable start on the way to a 7-7 halftime tie.
With the lead late thanks in part to Elliott’s first touchdown of the season, the Cowboys finished off the Cardinals, but not the way they wanted. Elliott had 83 yards when Dallas took over intent on running out the clock.
Similar situations a year ago often ended with Elliott over 100 yards. The 8-yard loss on third down forced a punt as Elliott settled for 80 yards on 22 carries and his second straight per-carry average below 4 yards. He had three such games last season.
“You like to think that you become a better running team as the year goes on because you get a chance to run these runs in real life against a real opponent,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I do think as the game wore on, we got better in the running game.”
The Cowboys are still looking for the dominance of 2016.