Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott won't blame knee injury for recent struggles

Following Thursday night's 27-17 win over the New Orleans Saints, the Dallas Cowboys now get an elongated week of rest. The 10 days before a pivotal NFC East battle with Washington could benefit running back Ezekiel Elliott.

"It'll be good to get a break," Elliott said, via the team's official website.

The highly paid back refuses to blame recent struggles on his ailing knee, but it's clearly bothering him.

On Thursday, Zeke rushed 13 times for 45 yards. It marked his fourth straight game under 50 rush yards and seventh straight under the 70 rush yard mark, both career-long streaks, per NFL Research.

On a 10-yard fourth-quarter run to the edge, it was clear that Elliott wasn't healthy as his gate appeared hampered on the play. According to Next Gen Stats, the 10-yard run had an expected yards gained of nine yards -- i.e., it was blocked well. The +1 yard over expected was the second-highest mark of the game for Zeke (+9 RYOE on the final carry when the game was no longer in doubt). For the game, Elliott had -12 rush yards over expected. A dozen fewer than blocked.

Despite the visual and statistical evidence, Elliott refused to attribute the issues to his knee.

"The Saints have a good front," Elliott said. "They do a lot of movement. They have a lot of good guys up front. So it was a little tough."

We don't even need to make this a Zeke vs. Tony Pollard argument. The speedy back has been better of late, but outside of one carry for 58 yards, he too was stymied for much of Thursday's game.

The more significant issue than which back should be seeing more touches is Elliott not looking healthy and the offense being poorer for it. Zeke played 45 of 65 snaps (66.2), with most of his touches being ineffectual.

Elliott's role in the Cowboys' offense is more than simply running the ball. He's one of the best blocking backs in the NFL, so he can still impact a game even if he's not gashing yards.

But the question is whether a diminished Zeke is the best thing for this Cowboys offense at this moment in time. Since Week 6, Elliott has generated -68 rush yards over expected, per Next Gen Stats, or -.8 per play. His expected points added per carry sits at -0.28, tied for ninth-worst in the NFL over that span among running backs with at least 20 carries (for comparison, Jonathan Taylor is at .23 since Week 6, best in the NFL).

Thursday's 20-point offensive output was enough against a Taysom Hill-led Saints team. Will it be against better talent, particularly if the Cowboys make the postseason?

"We made the plays we needed to make and all we can do is celebrate this win and turn around and figure out how we can get better," Elliott said.

Where Elliott can get better is rest and getting as healthy as possible. However, with the Cowboys insisting on not sitting the star back for a game or lessening his reps, whether that is possible remains a lingering question as we hit the stretch run.

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