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Cowboys will lean on run game in Week 2 vs. Bengals: Zeke Elliott or Tony Pollard to be featured?

In a couple of conversations with different folks who cover the Dallas Cowboys, the run game has been a big topic of chatter. With Cooper Rush now under center, it comes under more focus in Week 2 for the Bengals.

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For the second time in three seasons, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a significant injury. While he’s set to return later this year (unlike in 2020), it won’t be in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

So, Cooper Rush gets the call again after spurts of playing time last year. While the Cowboys did entrust him with 40 pass attempts in his lone 2021 start, the prevailing opinion is that it will be the Zeke Elliott and Tony Pollard show.

However, opinions on these two running backs widely vary. After taking the league by storm from 2016-2019, questions have surfaced a bit on Elliott. Minor injuries and the splitting of time with Pollard have many wondering what the best plan of attack is for the Cowboys with Rush at the helm.

When we spoke with SB Nation’s David Halprin over at Blogging the Boys earlier this week, he noted that Elliott had a good Week 1 game, despite going away from the run. But, he also noted that the “burst and speed just aren’t there like they were in those days (2016-2019).”

On our Orange and Black Insider channel, we had Jeff Cavanugh on the program to give us the weekly peek-over-the-fence. He co-hosts the BLEAV in Cowboys program and has previously been a well-recognized voice on the official radio station of the Cowboys in Dallas.

Yeah—I can see that,” Cavanaugh answered when John Sheeran asked him if Elliott is actually back to being underrated. “Anyone who watches my channel on YouTube thinks I hate Zeke, just because for the past three straight years, everything you can measure with a running back, Tony Pollard is a better running back than Ezekiel Elliott is.”

For reference, Elliott had 1,981 rushing yards on 481 carries, 4.1 yards per carry and 16 rushing touchdowns to go with 99 receptions, 625 yards and four receiving touchdowns from 2020-2021. Pollard, by contrast, had 1,154 rushing yards on 231 carries (a near 5.0-yards per rush average), and 67 catches, 530 receiving yards with one score through the air.

It’s that yards-per-carry disparity and just the general “juice” Pollard has provided in spells of Elliott that sparks debates.

“The year before he banged up his (Elliott’s) knee in Week 1, he was running the ball really well,” Cavanaugh continued. “He’s still not really a ‘make people miss’, ‘break off huge chunk plays’ guy. But, as far as vision and power and finish, he’s still a good NFL running back—I don’t know that he’s one of the top-five, or maybe even ten.”

So, financial reasons has entered the chat, as the kids say.

“He’s a good player. It’s just that in a league that doesn’t tend to reward running backs, in terms of contracts and all of that, the Cowboys set the standard for paying running backs with Zeke,” Cavanaugh continued.

“And, still, nobody has beat some of the numbers on that contract because Jerry Jones thinks that the way they won in the 90’s is the way that they’re going to win in 2022. And, so they believe—at least Jerry does—that this team goes as far as Zeke goes, which is bad and probably what turned some people against him.”

Without paying attention to the stats, one would have thought Elliott fell off an absolute statistical cliff, based on national narratives. Really though, he’s never fallen below four yards per carry in a season and had 12 total touchdowns just last season (10 rushing, two receiving).

It seems as if the contract is playing a big role in driving the national talking points, as he is still producing. But, with a mountain of touches in his NFL career and his plain in his seventh season, the gradual decline that occurs with even the best at the position is inevitable.

Then, throw in Pollard, who continually impresses when taking over for Elliott. Folks see similar, if not better production (in some areas), point to the Elliott contract and then create their opinions.

Halprin believes Zeke will be the featured back this week, despite a semi-split of touches in Week 1 with Pollard. Cincinnati has to hope that it won’t equate to the performance seen by him as a rookie the last time these two teams faced each other, wherein Elliott went for 171 yards from scrimmage (134 rushing, 37 receiving) and two scores.

Regardless, the Bengals will still be facing a two-headed monster, likely starring Elliott this Sunday. Lou Anarumo has to concoct a similar output to what we saw in Week 1 against the Steelers, where his crew stymied Najee Harris and company for 75 total yards and 3.4 yards per carry.

Our thanks to Jeff Cavanaugh of the BLEAV podcast network. Go check out BLEAV in the Dallas Cowboys with him and former Dallas wide receiver, Jesse Holley, or on their YouTube channel!

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