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Steelers Film Room: Cowboys offense starts and ends with Ezekiel Elliott

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Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott will present a lot of challenges to the Steelers’ young defense that is still finding its identity.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Cleveland Browns Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest surprises of the 2016 NFL season has been the resurgence of the Dallas Cowboys’ offense. It’s been especially surprising since they are being led by rookie Dak Prescott, a fourth-round draft pick whose college game tape revealed outstanding athleticism, decent leadership skills and terrible mechanics. That flaw has been fixed, and he’s steered the ship to seven straight wins.

The real hero, though, may very well be running back Ezekiel Elliott. Even though the Cowboys had a stable full of runners, most draft pundits had Elliott headed to the Cowboys in the first round back in late April. Jerry Jones, after all, loves having a Clydesdale in the stable.

What Elliott brings to the Cowboys is, essentially, a third dimension. He’s an outstanding runner, both in the middle and on the perimeter, and is a decent receiver. What he brings, though, is a constant uncertainty to the defense, because his ability as a runner allows Dallas to run from passing formations and throw from running formations.

It also doesn’t hurt that Dallas has, perhaps, the best offensive line in the NFL.

This one is two parts great blocking and one part runner. Immediately, you see that the left side of the line did their job, with left tackle Tyron Smith driving his man a full five yards backward by the time the play is over. Left guard Ronald Leary initially gets stood up, but then proceeds to walk his man backward with ease.

Behind that, Elliott does two things well. First, he sees the hole and commits without hesitation. His running style is reminiscent of LaDanian Tomlinson in that regard. Second, as soon as he sees his primary hole close, he recognizes a secondary hole and, again, commits without hesitating. This is the kind of vision you want out of your running back, because the running game in general is a fluid concept. Holes will open and close at random; having someone who can see that as it happens is invaluable. And being able to make the cut that he does without scrubbing off momentum is all about balance. And Elliott has balance in spades.

Again, what jumps out on this play is the way Elliott explodes into a hole. A combination of a good blocking scheme and a little luck made this play happen, but Elliott got about four yards more than a lot of guys would have because of how aggressively he attacks downhill.

When right tackle Doug Free crashes inward on the defensive line, it leaves a gaping hole on the right side of the line. That allows Jamie Collins, the newest Cleveland Brown, unblocked, and he gets two yards of penetration into the backfield — only to be met by Leary, who was pulling from left to right. This opens up the off-tackle running lane, and Dallas fullback Keith Smith cleans up, driving linebacker Christian Kirksey out as well. In fact, Smith moves across Kirksey’s face, and leads the linebacker to turn outside and away from the play entirely. Elliott hit the hole at full tilt, and was through the second level before anyone else was able to get into his way.

All this success from an aggressive run game and a downhill runner opens up the passing game for the cowboys in a big way.

Before the snap, the power run formation is obvious. The Cowboys use a two-tight end set as their base, and they use a lot of pre-snap movement to change matchups and deflect attention. So far this season, it has worked consummately well, as it does on this play.

Tight end Geoff Swaim goes in motion from right to left. Doing so causes both inside linebackers and the left outside linebacker to shift to the offensive left along with Swaim. The way the offensive line sells the outside zone run to the left in the beginning seals it, as it has the defense both sifted left pre-snap, and running to the le offensive left. As soon as Prescott fakes the hand-off, he turns back to the right and bootlegs out, buying the time and space necessary to find wide receiver Cole Beasley on the right sideline for a 15-yard gain.

Much like swinging at a major-league fastball, defending an aggressive runner like Elliott requires committing to pursuing him before you really know if he’s got the ball. That’s what happens to the inside linebackers on the play-action pass above. And even if you guess right, these Cowboys — unlike the 2015 version -- have all the weapons they need to prevent you from stopping the play anyway. They are a formidable bunch, and will be tough for a young defense like Pittsburgh’s to defend Sunday afternoon.