Pick an adjective, any adjective.
For Mario Addison, it’s leaky. For Wes Horton, powerful. Or as Kawann Short says, he’s just good.
The truth of the matter is, just about any adjective that describes Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is true. There’s the breakaway speed and change of direction ability, sure, but also a brutish, physical running style. Get in front of an Elliott run, and there’s always the chance he bulldozes through you.
“He can do basically everything,” Addison said this week. “He can catch, and he can run real good. He can read holes very well. He can run you over, and he can also hit the outside on you.
“Just a different breed, man.”
But for as much as Addison and the rest of this Carolina Panthers’ defensive line respects Elliott, they aren’t afraid of him. They know stopping him will be one of the keys to a Week 1 win — and they’ve got a plan for how to do it.
Aside from any descriptions of Elliott’s talent, his numbers through two NFL seasons speak for themselves.
Last season, even though Elliott was suspended six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, he still finished with the 10th-most rushing yards overall (983) and the most on a per-game basis (98.3). That came after his breakout rookie season, when he led the league in carries (322), rushing yards (1,631), and rushing yards per game (108.7).
And for as much as Dallas ran its offense — no pun intended — through Elliott the last two seasons, it may do so even more intensely in 2018.
This offseason, the Cowboys lost both tight end Jason Witten and receiver Dez Bryant as dependable options in the passing game, or in quantifiable terms, more than 130 receptions, 1,300 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns. The team still has some young, intriguing options at receiver, but replacing that production won’t come easy.
So naturally, Elliott will help to fill that void, too.
“Ezekiel Elliott is as much a part of the passing game, in some respects in terms of being targeted,” Panthers defensive coordinator Eric Washington said, “as some of the wide receivers and slot receivers.”
Much of the onus for stopping Elliott will fall to Carolina’s defensive line, with the goal of not allowing him to break to the second level. Carolina did that successfully in 2017 when it didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher all year, but like Addison said, most backs aren’t Elliott.
“He’ll hit a gap, and it’s 5 yards, 4 yards, 3 yards. You can’t underestimate him,” Addison said. “I’ve got to keep my eye on that guy, because he’s one of those guys that will test every hole, and when you think you’ve got him, he’ll bounce it outside. You’ve just got to play gapped-out defense.”
By gapped out, he’s talking about limiting Elliott’s rushing lanes through the lines for both teams. The team’s defensive scheme stresses shutting down interior holes for runners to escape through, instead forcing them to the outside of the line where Carolina’s athletic linebackers are waiting. The trick to remaining steadfast is twofold: get into the gap you’re supposed to plug, and then make sure there’s not any crease for Elliott — or any back — to poke through.
“With our run fits in practice, we spend a lot of time making sure all the fits are clean so there’s no indecision,” Horton said. “It’s up to us to have that accountability of being in your gap when you’re supposed to be in your gap and then obviously tackling well.”
The other element to stopping Elliott, who is listed at 6-foot and 228 pounds, is not trying to stand him up one-on-one.
Washington said the most dangerous thing about Elliott is his ability to muster yards after contact, meaning, “We have to make sure we tackle by committee.”
“Frequently,” Washington added, “it takes two or three players to get him down.”
The moment of truth
For all that’s been said already about Elliott, there isn’t much time left for talking.
When Dallas and Carolina face off Sunday at Bank of America, all the weeks of preparation and planning this summer will finally manifest themselves. The only question left now: How?
“It’s going to be a group effort starting with me, making sure that I give the guys the right information and the right calls and that we execute when we have to,” Washington said. “We just have to make sure that in terms of the things that we emphasize and focus on, it really starts with us.”
Washington will have a full complement of pass-rushers at his disposal, too, now that veteran Julius Peppers has finished rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery. Between Peppers, Horton and Addison on the edge, and with Short and Dontari Poe manning the middle of the line, Carolina has the bodies necessary to stop, or at least limit, a runner of Elliott’s caliber.
Now it’s time to prove they can.
“A running back like this is going to present a tremendous challenge,” Washington said.
“But I like who we have.”