Film Study: In an Era of Specialization, Ezekiel Elliott Remains the Focal Point of the NFL's Top Offense

By Kyle Jones on August 31, 2020 at 8:35 am
After four years in Dallas, Ezekiel Elliott is on pace to become the most successful NFL running back in Ohio State history.
James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

While it remains unclear when the Ohio State football team will again take the field, many former Buckeyes are currently preparing for the upcoming NFL season. As we get closer to professional football kicking off, Film Study will take a look at some of the more prominent players who once donned the Scarlet & Gray and now stand out on Sundays.

Part one: Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints

Part two: Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys

Ohio State Football Film Study

Running the football is more synonymous with Ohio State than any other program in college football history. When Bill Levy wrote his history of the program - in 1966 - he titled his work, Three yards and a cloud of dust: The Ohio State football story.

Buckeye lore is filled with storied runners, but their success at the next level has often been muted. From injuries to bad decisions off the field to simple bad luck, many of Ohio State's most beloved backfield figures have struggled to replicate their production as professionals.

Ezekiel Elliott's pro career has been a very different story, however. Through just four seasons in Dallas, Zeke has emerged as one of the NFL's best backs, rushing for 5,405 yards, twice leading the league in that category, while finding the end zone 40 times. Though the Cowboys went just 8-8 in 2019, they had the league's most productive offense thanks in large part to their star running back.

While much of the credit went to quarterback Dak Prescott after he set a number of personal passing records, the Cowboys' feature back remained just that. Under first-year play-caller Kellen Moore (yes, that guy), Elliott carried the ball in many of the same schemes seen during his college days in Columbus.

With one of the league's best and most athletic offensive lines, the Cowboys rely heavily on zone schemes, such as the inside zone concept that was the foundation of Tom Herman's playbook with the Buckeyes. Just as he did in the Scarlet and Gray, Elliott shows the patience to read the center's block before bouncing it through the backside B-Gap.

Prescott led a Mississippi State offense under another former Urban Meyer assistant, Dan Mullen, making him more than comfortable running the option. While Moore doesn't often put his star QB in such a predicament (often feigning the keep as seen above), the Cowboys featured a number of wrinkles to spice up their run game and keep from becoming too predictable.

By motioning a receiver into the backfield to create a two-back set, Prescott executed a true triple-option with both an inside handoff and a pitch read. But to ensure Zeke doesn't just run into traffic once receiving the ball on the 'dive,' Moore pulled all-world tackle Tyron Smith across the formation on a Dart concept to kick out the opposite end and give Zeke an open crease.

With linemen who can move so well, Moore likes to get them on the edges to lead his star runner. One of the Cowboys' favorite plays is a pin & pull sweep that may look familiar to Buckeye fans, and certainly helped make Zeke famous.

The concept is fairly simple. If an interior offensive lineman has a defender directly across from them, they are "covered" and simply block that man. Those without such a defender pull around to lead Elliott outside. Typically, two players will find themselves pulling, with the first kicking out the end man on the line while the second leads Zeke around the edge. 

Moore didn't simply duplicate Ohio State's playbook, however. Like most NFL teams, the Cowboys operate from under center quite often and even feature a true fullback from time to time.

They still rely heavily on zone runs from these looks, but use motion to keep from revealing their intentions until the absolute last second. Once again, Elliott's ability to read defenders comes in handy here, as he waits for the fullback to make his block on the middle linebacker before making his cut.

With Moore calling plays in just his second year of coaching, Elliott thrived, finishing fourth in the league with 1,357 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. But while he finished second to Tennessee's Derrick Henry with 301 carries, Zeke wasn't just used as a runner last fall.

Much as he had done early in his Buckeye career, laying the boom on kickoff coverage and earning the praise of his head coach as a true freshman, Elliott contributed greatly to his team's success without the ball in his hands. The Cowboys' lead back proved effective in the occasional fullback role himself, sharing the field with backup Tony Pollard and acting as his lead blocker, helping the rookie tally 455 yards on just 86 carries.

This unselfishness and physicality can be seen in the Dallas passing game as well. One reason Prescott set career-highs in completions, yards, and touchdowns was because of his protection in the pocket, where Elliott was a willing contributor.

According to Pro Football Focus, only Todd Gurley and Dion Lewis saw more pass-blocking snaps at running back than Elliott. This was a major reason why Zeke saw the second-most snaps of any back in the league in 2019, trailing only Christian McCaffrey.

As seen below, his ability to recognize pressure is evident, as he identifies the blitzing safety (fellow former Buckeye Malcolm Jenkins) through the B-gap. Instead of simply squaring up to stay between Jenkins and his quarterback, Elliott quickly steps up to take away the inside gap, much the same way the guard does in front of him. 

Once Jenkins is forced to take the long route around Elliott's outside shoulder, the back then flips his hips to shuffle laterally instead of absorbing the rush on his heels. Though the receiver dropped this pass, Prescott was kept clean in the pocket despite the blitz of a pro bowl defender.

While his total targets as a receiver were reduced in 2019, Elliott still saw 71 throws come his way which resulted in 54 catches. Many were check-downs, but Moore often dialed up a few designed concepts each week to free up his best playmaker in space.

In addition to the traditional running back screens seen across the league, the Cowboys used rub/pick concepts with great success, especially when facing teams that leaned on man-coverage. With linebackers often matched up against Elliott coming out of the backfield, Moore liked to send multiple receivers in front of him to create traffic and force that defender to catch up from behind.

Once the ball was in his hands, Elliott truly went to work, amassing 385 of his 420 receiving yards after the catch, as he was capable of outrunning linebackers and using his physicality to run through the tackles of smaller defensive backs.

Of course, despite such an explosive offense, the Cowboys decided to finally part ways with longtime head coach Jason Garrett following last season. When former Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy took over last winter, he kept Moore in his role as coordinator and play-caller, despite the new head coach's own history in the role.

According to Elliott, though, the change has been a welcome one thus far. 

"Guys are juiced,'' he said after a practice session last week. "We're flying around. I think we all love coach McCarthy."

While many have predicted that Pollard will take touches away from Elliott this fall, that doesn't seem to bother the fifth-year player. 

"If they ever came to me and asked me to split carries, I'm going to do it," Elliott said recently during a local Dallas radio interview. "I love being the bell cow. I love getting the rock 30 times a game. I do. But whatever this team needs me to do to win that's what I'm going to do."

More importantly, though, McCarthy has been adamant that he has no intention of taking the ball out of diminishing Elliott's role in the offense.

“Zeke is going to get the football," McCarthy said last week. "Let’s make no mistake about that." 

But even if his touches decrease a bit this fall, he'll still be on pace to have the best pro career of any Buckeye back. According to, 110 former Buckeyes have recorded a carry in NFL history, but only three - Eddie George, Robert Smith, and Pete Johnson - have rushed for more yards than Elliott has to this point. 

Johnson is only 221 yards ahead as of this writing, meaning Zeke will likely occupy third place before the leaves start changing colors this autumn. Smith is just 1,413 yards ahead, meaning second is within reach this season, especially if Dallas returns to the playoffs.

While Eddie George's mark of 10,441 career rushing yards is still a ways off, Elliott is on pace to surpass him within a few seasons, assuming he stays healthy. Zeke's career average of 4.6 yards-per-carry is a full yard better than George's, while he has averaged a full 21 yards-per-game more than #27 had in nine seasons as a pro.

Just as George and Smith acted as a walking recruiting pitch for a generation of running backs that considered coming to Columbus for college ball, Elliott now carries that banner for the Buckeyes. It certainly didn't hurt Ohio State's chances when the star ball-carrier for the most visible sports team in J.K. Dobbins' home state of Texas had donned the Scarlet and Gray. 

Ohio State fans may always remember him for his 85-yard touchdown run in the Sugar Bowl, clinching a spot in the CFP title game in which he'd earn MVP honors. But as the foundation of the most visible team in America's most popular sport, Ezekiel Elliott is reaching a level of stardom no former Buckeye has seen before.

View 10 Comments