Plenty of questions surfaced in recent weeks about how the Dallas Cowboys would use running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard upon Elliott's return from a knee injury in Week 11. It was fair to wonder if Dallas would turn to old trusty (Elliott has logged more than twice as many carries as Pollard since Pollard arrived in 2019) or ride Pollard's hot hand, considering Pollard averaged 123 rush yards per game (second in the NFL among running backs) and 137.5 scrimmage yards per game (first among RBs) while rushing for four TDs (tied for first) during Zeke's absence from Week 8 to Week 10 (Dallas had a bye in Week 9).
Based on what I saw in Dallas' shellacking of the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore found the perfect blueprint to maximize their backfield talent. Let's break it down.
Each back recorded 15 carries in Week 11, with Pollard rushing for a game-high 80 yards and Elliott earning just 42 yards but cashing in twice at the goal line. Pollard also led the Cowboys in receptions (six) and receiving yards (109), including a 30-yard TD off a checkdown from Dak Prescott and a 68-yard catch-and-run TD off a lofted pass down the sideline.
"That's something that we've got to keep going all year," Pollard said after the game. "Just keeping us fresh in the game, you know, rotating. Just keeping the defense guessing. Just keeping them on their toes."
What makes this tandem so special is the combination of styles. Elliott, 27, is the tough, physical rusher who thrives in short-yardage and goal-line situations at this stage of his career, while Pollard, 25, is an explosive playmaker in both the run and pass games. Having this pair healthy allows each to stay fresh throughout the duration of a game and forces the Cowboys to be balanced. In the loss to Green Bay, when the Cowboys were still without Zeke, Pollard performed well in the run game (22/115/1), but they struggled to close out the game down the stretch.
Again, over the course of their time together in Dallas, Elliott has clearly had the edge over Pollard in total carries. But there is support in the data for adopting more of a committee approach.
Consider the Cowboys are 13-0 in the Elliott era (since 2016) when multiple RBs have 12 or more carries in a game, including 3-0 in 2022. You might be saying: "But MJD, is this only happening when Dallas is playing with the lead and running the ball to control the clock?" I thought you might ask that, and the answer is no. The Cowboys are 7-2 since the start of the 2021 season when multiple RBs have eight or more carries through the first three quarters of a game, including 3-0 in 2022. They've averaged 31.2 points over those nine games, with Zeke scoring 11 TDs.
It's notable that Pollard's per-game carry mark has been steadily creeping up since his rookie year (5.7 in 2019, 6.3 in 2021 and 8.7 in 2021). That trend was continuing before Elliott's injury; even with Elliott dominating the workload from Week 1 to Week 7, Pollard was on pace for a career-high 9.6 carries per game. That figure has jumped to 11.8 heading into Week 12, thanks to Pollard's usage over the past three games. (In terms of how they fit in the passing attack, Elliott has outpaced Pollard in receptions since 2019, hauling in 160 catches vs. Pollard's 103, but Pollard has a healthy per-catch advantage in that span, with 8.5 yards vs. 6.8.)
Now, I would argue it's time to make the distribution of carries look more like Sunday's perfectly even split. Ultimately, Dallas' winning formula is going to rely on both players being involved consistently throughout the game, rather than one or the other being implemented as the lead back. Capitalizing on this blueprint is what will make the biggest difference for Dallas down the stretch and in the postseason.
Top 15 running backs
Former NFL rushing leader and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew will survey all running backs and rank his top 15 each week of the 2022 season. His rankings are based on this season's efforts alone. Here is MJD's list heading into Week 12.
2022 stats: 10 games | 230 att | 1,010 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 10 rush TD | 18 rec | 199 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
The Packers had all of the momentum ahead of Thursday night's game with the Titans after a big comeback win over Dallas in Week 10, but Henry stopped them cold. He did a little big of everything, finishing with 87 yards and a rush TD on 28 carries and 45 yards on two receptions -- he even completed two pass attempts for 4 yards, including a TD toss to Austin Hooper. It's no surprise that the Titans have won seven of their last eight games, given the way their leader is playing.
2022 stats: 10 games | 174 att | 923 rush yds | 5.3 ypc | 11 rush TD | 16 rec | 136 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble lost
In Sunday's loss, Chubb was held to a season-low 19 rush yards on 14 carries (1.4 yards per carry). Credit the Bills' defense for forcing the Browns to try to beat them with Jacoby Brissett, who played well enough. But having Brissett throw the ball 41 times is just not a recipe for success for Cleveland.
2022 stats: 10 games | 213 att | 953 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 6 rush TD | 31 rec | 210 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
The Lions put up one of their best defensive outings of the year against the Giants, forcing three turnovers and holding Barkley to 22 yards on 15 carries. Since 2021, in games where Barkley has fewer than 75 scrimmage yards, Big Blue is 1-10. He must find a way to produce against Dallas in a Thanksgiving Day tilt that will have major implications on the NFC East and playoff picture.
2022 stats: 10 games | 132 att | 602 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 4 rush TD | 54 rec | 462 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
Kyle Shanahan's versatile offense sliced through the Cardinals in Mexico City. Even with Shanahan spreading the love around, McCaffrey was more than adequate, recording 14 touches for 106 yards, including 5.6 yards per tote on seven carries. This 49ers offense is hitting its stride, and it's so fun to watch.
2022 stats: 10 games | 156 att | 799 rush yds | 5.1 ypc | 6 rush TD | 22 rec | 146 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 1 fumble lost
The football world was just waiting on the edge of its seat for the Vikings to have a letdown after the thrilling OT win over Buffalo, and boy, did the wheels fall off Sunday. The offense was nonexistent for most of the game -- kudos to Dan Quinn's D for holding it to three points -- and though Cook was efficient, averaging 6.5 yards per carry on 11 attempts, the Vikings were never in this one.
2022 stats: 10 games | 123 att | 534 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 7 rush TD | 69 rec | 437 rec yds | 4 rec TD | 1 fumble lost
Ekeler scored his 11th scrimmage touchdown of the season (tied for second in the NFL) in a heartbreaking loss to Kansas City on Sunday night. The Chargers' passing attack was firing on all cylinders again, with wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams back in the mix, but Ekeler still got his opportunities, finishing with 100 scrimmage yards on 21 touches.
2022 stats: 10 games | 118 att | 701 rush yds | 6.0 ypc | 6 rush TD | 21 rec | 243 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
Pollard was the game's leading rusher with 80 yards, but the passing attack was where he really shined against the Vikings. A huge mismatch against Minnesota's linebackers, Pollard had 109 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns in the lopsided Cowboys win.
2022 stats: 10 games | 131 att | 725 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 4 rush TD | 22 rec | 202 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble lost
Since becoming the starter in Week 6, Etienne is averaging 17.4 carries and 102 rush yards per game with four rush TDs. He has his work cut out for him coming out of the Jaguars' Week 11 bye, as Jacksonville will face a Ravens team that boasts the league's third-best run defense.
2022 stats: 10 games | 175 att | 780 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 3 rush TD | 24 rec | 135 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 1 fumble lost
Pierce entered Sunday's showdown with the Commanders with 85.8 rush yards per game on the season and 100-plus scrimmage yards in six of his previous seven games. Ron Rivera's defense took him out of the game completely, limiting Pierce to 8 rush yards on 10 carries (0.8 yards per carry). Hopefully, the rookie has a short memory, with the Dolphins on tap.
2022 stats: 11 games | 143 att | 778 rush yds | 5.4 ypc | 2 rush TD | 40 rec | 248 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 1 fumble lost
The Packers got away from the run game Thursday night, as Jones and AJ Dillon combined for 19 fewer carries than they did in Green Bay's Week 10 win over Dallas. Jones finished with 12 carries for 40 yards and six catches for 20 yards, plus a reception on a converted two-point try. His final touch of the game, in which he was stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-1, summed up how the Packers' offense looked for most of the night, with the exception of a few big plays.
2022 stats: 10 games | 144 att | 644 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 4 rush TD | 41 rec | 283 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
The Patriots couldn't get much going on the ground with 99 rush yards against the Jets. Stevenson had just 26 yards on 15 totes but led the team in receptions (six) and receiving yards (56). The Patriots have a short week as they travel to play on Thanksgiving night against a Vikings team that just allowed over 450 yards and 40 points to Dallas.
2022 stats: 10 games | 183 att | 930 rush yds | 5.1 ypc | 7 rush TD | 34 rec | 251 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
In Sunday's overtime win over the division-rival Broncos, Jacobs had his first 100-yard rushing performance since Week 7. He finished with 109 yards on the ground and a season-high 51 receiving yards. Jacobs has a good chance to continue putting up big numbers in Week 12 against a Seahawks defense that ranks 28th against the run.
2022 stats: 9 games | 121 att | 587 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 7 rush TD | 18 rec | 103 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
Walker had one of his least productive outings of the season last time out, against the Bucs in Week 10. He has an opportunity to help the Seahawks get a fresh start out of their Week 11 bye against the Raiders, whose defense ranks in the bottom third of the league.
2022 stats: 10 games | 156 att | 757 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 6 rush TD | 12 rec | 43 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
The Eagles' turnover-prone offense looked flat all game long against Indy before a Jalen Hurts-led game-winning drive secured the Eagles' place atop the NFC. No Eagles player put up big-time numbers; Sanders finished with 47 yards on 13 carries for 3.6 yards per carry.
2022 stats: 10 games | 159 att | 668 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 12 rush TD | 9 rec | 57 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble lost
Williams is balling at the goal line this season. He scored his 10th, 11th and 12th rush touchdowns of 2022 in Detroit's Week 11 win over the Giants -- it was the first three-TD performance of his career. Williams has been a big part of the Lions' three-game win streak, and he has a chance to add to his TD total Thanksgiving Day against the Bills.