Ezekiel Elliott was held in check Thursday night, not just by the Buccaneers’ defense but also by his head coach.
Mike McCarthy opted not to give his top running back many touches in the Cowboys’ 31-29 loss in Tampa. Elliott had just 11 carries — the second-lowest total of his five-season NFL career — despite the Cowboys running 77 total plays.
Elliott averaged 16.3 carries per game last season in McCarthy’s first year with Dallas. He never had fewer than 12 carries in his 15 games.
Naturally, that led many people to ask why Elliott got so little work in Week 1 of 2021. The answer turned out to be simple.
Why did Ezekiel Elliott only get 11 carries vs. the Buccaneers?
Elliott didn’t get the ball much because of matchups. McCarthy said that to NBC’s broadcast after Elliott, Tony Pollard and Dak Prescott combined for just seven first-half carries.
On limited carries by Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, Mike McCarthy says is a result of “defensive matchups we are seeing” per the TV broadcast.
— Brianna Dix (@DixBrianna) September 10, 2021
Tampa Bay has had the NFL’s No. 1-ranked run defense in back-to-back seasons. It allowed 82.7 rushing yards per game last season and 73.8 rushing yards per game in 2019. McCarthy avoided running the ball and tried instead to take advantage of the Buccaneers’ secondary.
That secondary wound up having to deal with multiple injury issues Thursday night. Starting safety Jordan Whitehead (hamstring) was inactive. Starting cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting suffered a dislocated elbow in the first half. Mike Edwards — who started in place of Whitehead — had to miss time because of cramping.
The Cowboys have a strong passing game and one of the NFL’s best three-man receiver combinations in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. That was the better matchup for the Cowboys, so McCarthy let Prescott throw the ball 56 times. Elliott caught two passes for 6 yards, to go with his 33 rushing yards.
McCarthy also schemed short passes to the outside to generate easy pitch-and-catch options. The Cowboys essentially used the screen game and swing passes to replace the running game. That allowed the team to get its playmakers in space while avoiding running up the middle against the likes of Ndamukong Suh (307 pounds) and Vita Vea (346 pounds).
McCarthy’s game plan worked. The Cowboys racked up 451 yards of offense and punted just three times in 13 drives.
What Ezekiel Elliott said about Mike McCarthy’s game plan
Elliott echoed McCarthy after the game by saying that he saw fewer carries because of the Bucs’ run defense, but he was noncommittal when asked whether this pass-heavy game plan was an aberration.
“You know, the game goes however it goes,” Elliott said. “I was out there to play — out there to do my best every play. So, I mean, I don’t know.”
Elliott certainly has a role to play with Dallas regardless of how many carries he gets. Against Tampa Bay, he was a key pass protector and had a handful of blitz pickups that allowed Prescott to get the ball downfield.
And Elliott seems optimistic about the Cowboys’ offense despite Thursday’s results.
“It’s great to get back out there,” he said. “I think we did a great job going out there competing. Defense did a great job going out there and taking the ball away. Offense did a great job of going out there [and] scoring. We just fell short but, you know, I like where we’re at right now. We’re going to get better.”