ARLINGTON, Texas — In an age of high-speed, high-tech passing attacks filled with misdirection and designed to cause confusion, the Dallas Cowboys’ offense is easy to figure out.
It’s all about Ezekiel Elliott, who through Dallas’ first 11 games led the league in rushing with 1,074 yards and a 97.6 yards-per-game average, and led his team in receiving with 47 catches.
“We were preaching all week, ‘Stop 21 (Elliott),’ ” Saints strong safety Vonn Bell said, “because their offense runs through 21.”
Stopping him was the challenge for the Saints in their 13-10 loss Thursday night — and that challenge is not so easy.
The Cowboys’ running back and offensive centerpiece entered Thursday night’s game on a roll, having run for more than 120 yards and a touchdown in each of his previous three games — not to mention his 137 yards and a TD receiving in that span.
Not coincidentally, the Cowboys won all three of those games.
“He’s a great back,” defensive tackle David Onyemata said. “It seems like he’s been putting up 100 yards on pretty much every team they’ve played.”
But for most of Thursday night at AT&T Stadium, the Saints’ defense was very much up to the task.
While the Cowboys kept feeding him the ball, Elliott could do little with it, running into a wall, often led by linebacker Demario Davis, Bell or Onyemata.
The Saints mostly succeeded in neutralizing Elliott on the ground, holding him to 76 yards on 23 runs — including 2.5 yards per rush in the first three quarters.
They did it, Onyemata said, by playing “our brand of football.”
“Rely on fundamentals and play your primary gap and don’t be moving around,” he explained, “because he’s a very patient back. Sometimes you see him back there taking a second or two before he hits the gap. So you have to stay in your primary gap and make the best out of what you’ve got.”
Perhaps the Saints’ success against Elliott shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise. After all, the Saints came into the game with the NFL’s No. 1-ranked run defense, allowing just 73.2 yards per game and 3.6 yards per rushing attempt.
And that league-leading matchup, Bell said, served as motivation for the Saints’ improving defense.
“We always to step up to a challenge,” he said. “We challenge ourselves and challenge each other on the defensive side. Tonight we stood up and held him under 100 yards. That’s what we’ve been doing all year.”
As it turned out, though, even putting the lid on Elliott wasn’t enough to stop the Cowboys from pulling off a stunning victory. Dallas had lost all of the three previous games in which Elliott was held to less than 4.0 yards per carry.
It happened because, despite his less-than-stellar statistics, Elliott played a major role in winning the game for his team.
While he gained a mere 39 yards in the first half, his 14 carries helped the Cowboys run the clock, keeping Drew Brees and the powerful New Orleans offense off the field.
At halftime, Dallas held an astounding 21:49-to-8:11 advantage in time of possession. For the game, the Cowboys held the ball nearly 14 minutes longer than the Saints.
And more important, he put points on the board as a receiver, scoring Dallas’ only touchdown on a 16-yard screen, racing between strong blocks by guard Zack Martin on Davis and center Joe Looney on nose tackle Tyeler Davison.
“You could tell just looking at the film, you could see their screen game and how effective it is,” Onyemata said. “That’s their go-to after things don’t go too well.
“That big play, that’s what kept them in the game, I would say.”
Elliott also helped put the game away with his only big run on the night, bulling inside for 21 yards with the Cowboys nursing a three-point lead in the final five
minutes to push them deep into New Orleans territory.
“You have to give credit where it’s due,” Davis said. “He made a couple of great plays.”
But, Davis added, the Saints’ performance against Elliott overall was something to be proud of.
“He’s one of the most explosive guys in the game,” he said, “so anytime you can slow down one of the most explosive guys in the game, you can kind of pat yourself on the back after that.”