Ezekiel Elliott’s impact on the Dallas Cowboys defense

Did the Dallas Cowboys gamble of drafting a running back with their first round pick to help their defense actually pay off? We’ll look at the numbers.

Possessing the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, America’s Team desperately needed to add an impact player to their roster who could help their defense. The season before, the Cowboys defensive unit ranked 17th in the NFL and dead last in takeaways.

But there was a catch. Although the Cowboys liked several of the defensive playmakers that would likely be available for them to draft at the top end of the first round, they believed no single player would benefit their defensive unit more than a running back.

But not just any running back. Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. Speculated to be the most complete back to come out of the draft in years. Eleven weeks into the regular season and Zeke’s selection appears to be a no-brainer. But at the time, it came to many as a big surprise.

The Cowboys thought process behind the selection? If they could effectively run the football, like they did in 2014 with former running back DeMarco Murray, and control the time of possession in games, then they would be able to get away with having less talent on the defensive side of the ball. With Murray in the backfield that year, Dallas went 12-4, were undefeated on the road in the regular season, and posted their first playoff victory in five years.

Without Murray last season, and due to starting veteran quarterback Tony Romo missing 12 games due to collarbone injuries, the Cowboys finished the year a dismal 4-12. But that poor performance put Dallas in position to draft Elliott fourth overall. Now, the gamble appears to have paid off exactly how they predicted.

“Dallas, last season, held the ball for 30:59, on average, in games,” wrote longtime NFL columnist Peter King on the MMQB Wednesday. “That was 11th in the league in time of possession. This season, with Elliott, the Cowboys are first in time of possession, at 33:27 per game … a full two-and-a-half minutes more than last year. Foes averaged 10.9 possessions per game last year. They [are] averaging 9.9 possessions this year. So Elliott has helped Dallas’ defense be on the field for a full possession less per game, and for 2.5 minutes less per game.”

Give the Cowboys front office a lot of credit here. They took a risk drafting Elliott instead of filling their more obvious defensive needs and it’s paid off with a 10-1 season. Don’t get me wrong. The Cowboys still need more talent on the defensive end of the ball. But playing behind Dallas’ dominate offensive line, Elliott has been so effective it’s been masking the Cowboys “D” deficiencies.

Through the Dallas Cowboys first eleven games, Elliott has rushed for 1,199 yards and currently leads the NFL in that category. Through Week 10, the Cowboys defense ranked 13th in total defense, 21st in passing defense and 3rd in rushing defense. They have forced 10 takeaways so far this season, which is tied for 23rd in the league. And Dallas defense has racked up 20.0 total sacks, which is tied for 19th in the NFL.

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