Ezekiel Elliott's dirty work as a blocker sets him apart for Cowboys

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FRISCO, Texas -- Ezekiel Elliott's first touchdown in the season-opening loss at the Los Angeles Rams was an example of what everybody thinks they know about the Dallas Cowboys running back.

He collected a swing pass from quarterback Dak Prescott, headed upfield, saw four defenders in his path, cut back and lunged into the end zone.

"That's just trusting my training all camp, making sure I finish every time I touch the ball," Elliott said. "You just saw it translate to the game."

As proud as Elliott was of that moment, his rushing touchdown and his 96 yards on the ground, he took more pride in his pass protection. Much has been made of Rams pass-rusher Aaron Donald tossing Elliott aside as he made a move toward Prescott, but what many seemed to forget was Prescott completed the pass to wide receiver Michael Gallup for a first down.

Without Elliott, Prescott would have been hit hard.

"Blocking was something I never really shy from," Elliott said. "I will say in college [at Ohio State], one of the things that coach [Urban] Meyer and my old running back coach [Stan Drayton] ... really emphasized is you can't play unless you can protect the quarterback. If you can't protect the quarterback, you're not going to be able to get carries."

The Cowboys did not guarantee Elliott $50 million a year ago because of his ability to pass protect, but the ability to plug gaps behind an offensive line that has undrafted Terence Steele at right tackle, left guard Connor Williams returning from a torn ACL and a new center in Joe Looney helps.

"The thing I'm impressed with -- and these are the things you don't ever get to see as a coach until you get the opportunity to work directly with players -- he's a very intelligent, very instinctive player," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. "He had a number of really good instinct plays in pass protection, had a couple of saves in pass protection. So he sees the game very well."

The preparation starts, in part, because of loneliness. Since Elliott does not take part in special teams and the other running backs do, he has a meeting room to himself. Instead of watching film alone, he will spend his mornings with the quarterbacks and offensive line.

"Just because I feel like for me to play at my best, I need to know not only what I have to do but what everyone else around me is doing and why my job is my job," Elliott said. "I like to know what my job is but also why it is."

For the Cowboys' offensive line, there is a benefit to watching film and hearing Elliott too.

"Any time you get those position groups together, especially in the pass game with the different pressure look, it's important to know what each other is doing and how we fit," guard Zack Martin said. "With the run game, he can give us an idea of what he's looking at and how he hits his aiming points."

Because he is with the quarterbacks at times, Elliott can signal the wide receivers about checks Prescott makes.

"Zeke's really like Dak's right-hand man at most times," Gallup said. "If we don't see a play or we don't see Dak's hand signals, Zeke's always right there to see it, because sometimes Dak's looking the other way and Zeke, he's just looking over there. He'll give us the signal or tell us where to be or what to do, especially if we're in hurry-up tempo or anything like that."

When things appear easy for professional athletes, the assumption might be their natural gifts allow them to do things others can't, but that belies the work Elliott puts in to know his job.

McCarthy said the first challenge for a running back in pass protection is the mental aspect. Defenses can be complex with their looks, so Elliott has to know whom to pick up before the snap and adjust on the fly if things change, like he did on the Donald play last week.

Then there is the physical aspect of picking up the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year or a hard-charging linebacker or defensive end who might outweigh Elliott by 30 pounds or more.

"When you look at running backs, just about all of us are gifted with the ability to run the football," Elliott said. "I look at [pass protection] as just another way to set me apart from other backs."