To beat Cowboys, Lions must solve biggest weakness

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has racked up 274 rushing yards through three games, which is tied for the second most in the NFL.

Allen Park — It’s never great when your biggest weakness is your opponent’s strength, but that’s exactly what the Detroit Lions are looking at when they travel to Dallas to square off with the Cowboys on Sunday.

For all the corrections and improvements the Lions made in their 26-10 win over the New England Patriots last weekend, there are still lingering issues with stopping the run. In the loss, the Patriots running backs still managed to average 4.7 yards per carry.

And the Patriots running backs are no Ezekiel Elliott.

The former first-round pick ran for 1,631 yards as a rookie, nearly managed to top 1,000 again last year, despite a six-game suspension stemming from domestic violence allegations, and is averaging 5.7 yards per carry this season. That’s fifth in the league and second among backs averaging at least 15 carries.

“He’s a big-time back,” Lions safety Glover Quin said. “He’s got good size, good speed, good power. He’s patient. When he sees it, he hits it. He’s a tough tackle. He has all the attributes you want in a running back.”

As Quin highlights, Elliott isn’t a one-trick pony. He can beat you with power as much as he can beat you with speed. He’s just as likely to break a big run up the gut as he is getting around the edges.

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The Cowboys' offensive line might not be as dominant as its been in years past, especially with four-time Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick sidelined by Guillain-Barré syndrome — a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the nervous system — but it’s still a formidable group.

Three of the remaining starters — Tyron Smith, Connor Williams and Zack Martin — were selected in the first two rounds of the draft. And right tackle La’el Collins was a projected first-rounder and only went undrafted after he was briefly tied to a murder investigation of a former girlfriend just before the draft.

If the unit is having any struggles, it’s in pass protection. Elliott’s running lanes have clearly remained. And that’s problematic for a Detroit defense that ranks last in defending the run.

Despite facing a slate of average backs, the Lions have allowed opponents to rush for 448 yards through three weeks, at a staggering 5.4 yards per clip. Consistency has been an issue, but those numbers are inflated by a pair of scoring runs, one in each of the first two games, longer than 60 yards.

The Lions are the only team in the NFL that have allowed two runs longer than 40 yards, and are tied for last by allowing four runs of 20-plus.

The Lions have been particularly susceptible on the edges of their defense, getting beat on the perimeter for sizable gain after sizable gain, part of the team's growing pains of adjusting to the team’s new defensive scheme.

Compounding that issue is Dallas' and, more specifically, Elliott’s success running stretch zone, where the offensive line moves together in a single direction at the snap and allows the back to choose his outside lane.

“That play is such hard play to defend and obviously we’ve had some struggles with it here this year,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “It’s one of those plays where if just somebody gets a little bit out of a space that there’s a big play opportunity there with the way that they block it and run it."

Patricia said stopping Elliott, particularly on those stretch runs, doesn’t come down to one or two players. It requires all defenders on the field to do their jobs.

“We have to be real disciplined,” Patricia said. “We have to do a good job with our technique and we just have to recognize it. Obviously, it becomes difficult when there’s different complementary plays that come off of it and those are the ones that if you hesitate a little bit on it, then you get in trouble right there. It is with that particular play, I would say a full team defensive effort.”

If the Lions can limit Elliott, the chances for victory and a .500 record through the first quarter of the season go way up. Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott is slumping, his performance anchored by the aforementioned protection and a stable of underwhelming passing options.

Stretching back to last season, Prescott has failed to top 200 yards passing in his past five games. The Cowboys are 2-3 in those contests.

On the other hand, the Cowboys are 8-1 when Elliott has averaged over five yards per carry during his career.

"Yeah, when you’re facing a good running back, it takes everybody," Quin said. "It’s going to take the secondary, it’s going to take the linebackers, it’s going to take the D-line. It’s going to take all of us."

Lions at Cowboys

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV/radio: Fox/760

Records: Lions 1-2, Cowboys 1-2

Line: Cowboys by 3

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers