Cardinals face challenge of stopping focused Dallas RB Ezekiel Elliott
TEMPE, Ariz. — The Cardinals know the most important detail about Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott as they prepare for a Monday Night Football matchup with the Cowboys at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Elliott will play.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ignored the NFL’s request for a ruling by Sept. 26 on the emergency motion to stay the injunction that allows Elliott to play while the legal challenge to his six-game suspension proceeds. The court has set oral arguments for Monday, Oct 2.
That means Elliott will play against the Cardinals and on Oct. 1 against the Los Angeles Rams.
How to stop the NFL’s 2016 leading rusher is a different matter.
“He is a pads down runner,” Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “Whatever’s been said about the performance last week, I watch tape and I see a guy who carries the ball 20 times a game and averaged over 100 yards rushing a game and has a lot of talent who can burst on the second level, can make guys on the second level miss.
“You’ve got to wrap, you’ve got to run and we’ve got to rally when we tackle this guy.”
Elliott ran for 1,631 yards last season, and he topped 100 yards seven times. He ran for 104 yards against the New York Giants in the season opener, but the Denver Broncos held him to career lows in carries (nine) and yards (eight) in Week 2 in a 42-17 Broncos’ win.
Elliott faced criticism for a lack of effort at various points in that game, leading him to address those concerns head on.
“It’s definitely not me. It’s definitely not the type of player I am. It’s definitely not who I am for this team,” he told reporters in Dallas. “I just can’t do that. I was frustrated. I wasn’t myself.
“That’s no excuse for the lack of effort I showed on tape. I just can’t do that. Being one of the leaders on the team and being a guy that people count on, I can’t put that type of stuff on film.”
The Cardinals were interested in a different aspect of that film: what Denver did to stop Elliott. While the game situation limited his carries in the second half because the Broncos had a big lead, Denver was effective at shutting him down early.
“Our plan was to clog every gap, play man-three outside with the corners and their receivers and clog every gap,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph told reporters. “If he did pop a run, it was going to be on a missed tackle. It wasn’t going to be on an open gap.
“When they went three wides and one back, we played our normal base front with our normal secondary. It was a great plan by (defensive coordinator) Joe (Woods) and his staff and it obviously worked.”
The Cardinals weren’t giving away their game plan, but their defensive players talked Friday about the specific challenges Elliott creates.
“First off, when you’re playing Ezekiel Elliott, you’re basically playing the O-line and it’s a good one so that’s its own challenge,” defensive lineman Frostee Rucker said. “Elliott’s short in height but he’s not a small guy. With his height, he can hide behind blockers and they do a lot of things to make sure he’s in space and he gets the matchups he wants.
“They do a lot of unorthodox things that you might call trick plays but they’re within their offense, base plays that they run so we have to be tuned in the whole 60 minutes.”
Defensive tackle Corey Peters stressed the importance of team defense.
“He’s a bigger back and he runs hard so it’s difficult to get him down without having a clean shot on him and you’re not going to get too many line-him-up-and-hit him shots in this game,” Peters said. “You’re battling blocks and all these different things so we’ve got to do a good job up front of striking offensive linemen, pushing them back, getting separation, getting off blocks and getting our bodies on him so that he has to run through you to beat you. And we’re going to have to gang tackle him in those situations where you’re not squared up.”
Dallas’ vaunted offensive line took some hits in the offseason. Left guard Ronald Leary signed a four-year $35 million contract with Denver, and right tackle Doug Free retired. Left tackle Tyson Smith has also faced recent criticism for his play, but Bettcher still sees a tough task ahead, and a time-honored solution.
“It will come down to tackling,” he said. “As small as that is and maybe that’s a statement you’d probably hear from a coach who is coaching middle school or elementary school, but that’s what it’s going to be about.
“We’re going to have to tackle well on early downs to put us in position on second and third downs to be able to do some of the things that we want to do defensively.”