What Tony Pollard’s big day against 49ers means for Dallas Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliott

Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy reckons it was “probably the biggest play of the game.”

Even if offensive coordinator Kellen Moore admits his unit’s execution of the design was actually “not pretty.”

With 2:36 to play Sunday and the Cowboys clinging to a  three-point lead over the 49ers, quarterback Andy Dalton handed the ball to running back Tony Pollard.

Pollard cut just behind receiver Noah Brown as he slipped right. But Brown didn’t engage Niners linebacker Dre Greenlaw meaningfully. Before Pollard knew it, he was surrounded by a scarlet-and-gold pocket of four defenders. Linebacker Fred Warner dove for the tackle while Greenlaw clutched fabric in attempt to wrap Pollard himself. Pollard spun out of their holds and barreled down the middle of the field, accelerating to 19.85 mph as he closed in on the end zone.

A 40-yard touchdown. Cowboys by 10.

Cowboys OC Kellen Moore admits Tony Pollard’s 40-yard TD was actually “not pretty if you’re looking at it just from an execution standpoint.” Missed block on LB.

But TP slipped & spun his way to endzone. Accelerated to 19.88 mph, per @ZebraSports.

Kellen: “A tremendous play.” pic.twitter.com/JeWZ8GthAm

“I didn’t think I’d end up breaking as many tackles as I did,” Pollard said. “It was a normal go-to run play up the middle, it was a little crowded and I bounced it outside. My guys did a good job holding their blocks, and I just let my natural ability make up for the rest.”

Pollard’s natural ability saved the Cowboys’ chances Sunday after running back Ezekiel Elliott felt a tug on his calf that resulted in his first game sidelined by injury in five seasons. Pollard stepped up to chip in two touchdowns and 132 yards from scrimmage in his first career performance handling the primary load.

His efforts in a 41-33 win kept Dallas alive in the NFC East. They also gave Cowboys fans reasons to be excited over what Pollard can offer and the talent the Cowboys surely will feature more in 2021. Pollard understood the significance.

“It’s big knowing everything doesn’t have to run through one guy or a few guys,” he said. “There’s different guys on the team who can help carry the weight and take some of the weight off the other guys’ shoulders.

“It’s definitely big.”

An explosive option

Dallas Cowboys' Tony Pollard scores against the 49ers in the fourth quarter Sunday. (Photo: Yffy Yossifor, AP)

When the Cowboys selected Pollard in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, they were bullish on his potential. He’d tallied nine touchdowns and 1,010 yards from scrimmage his final season at Memphis despite not being the No. 1 back. On 78 rushing carries, Pollard averaged 7.1 yards a pop. The Cowboys envisioned a role for Pollard. But – as they’d reiterate when signing Ezekiel Elliott to a six-year, $90 million extension less than five months later – that role wasn’t meant to be that of a grinding workhorse.

“It was more of a change-of-pace, complementary guy that was going to be great in the return game and spell Zeke,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said Monday on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “Obviously, Tony brings explosiveness to the game.”

Elliott continued to be the centerpiece of the Cowboys run game in 2019, totaling 14 touchdowns and 1,777 yards from scrimmage on 355 touches while playing 83.6 percent of offensive snaps. Pollard was inconsistent but flashed while employed on 17.8 percent of snaps, finishing his rookie season with 562 yards and three touchdowns on 101 total touches. He starred in Week 3 and 15 games against Miami and Los Angeles, notching 128 yards and a score and then 142 and a touchdown in outlier performances. Each output came despite playing just a third of snaps.

Tony Pollard: 131 yards, 44-yard TD, 10.9 yards per carry.

Cowboys up 44-15 on Rams
(📹: @dallascowboys)pic.twitter.com/ORe9jBzkcF

So when Sunday morning arrived, and Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was warming up on resistance cords at AT&T Stadium as he always does to get loose for games, Pollard didn’t expect much more than the 19 snaps he was averaging this season. He knew Elliott’s calf contusion had sidelined the three-time Pro Bowl during practice through the week, but Elliott hadn’t missed a game to injury in five professional seasons. This time was different, the tug in Elliott’s calf a cause for concern beyond the pain and inflammation he was willing to play through.

Elliott found Pollard in the pregame locker room after Elliott was ruled out.

“He just told me to be me and do what I do,” Pollard told USA TODAY Sports. “And that he was excited to watch.”

Versatility and ability

The run game wasn’t flawless. Behind a patchwork offensive line, Pollard, and teammates attempting to shuffle in with him, struggled to power up the middle against the Niners’ stout front. The Cowboys gained just 8 yards rushing in the second quarter, 13 in the third. But early and late in the game, Pollard capitalized when the Cowboys needed it most.

After the Cowboys forced and recovered the punt return fumble three minutes into the game, quarterback Andy Dalton turned to Pollard five consecutive times. Two screen passes and three runs later, including a 1-yard stretch for a TD up the middle, the Cowboys scored first. They would never trail.

“You get him the ball in space and he’s able to make guys miss,” Dalton said of Pollard. “Turn a quick completion or run into big gains. I think that’s what makes him such a special player. … He’s so versatile.”

Tony Pollard reaches for Cowboys TD.

Ezekiel Elliott nods his approval.

(@NFLBrasil) pic.twitter.com/KZWjwZtxCs

Pollard was explosive. Despite midgame runs for -1, 1 and 2 yards, he continued to hit his holes hard. When the Cowboys intercepted a Nick Mullens past with 2:51 to play, leading by three, Elliott told Pollard to “go put it on ice.” Pollard’s persistence and burst paid off with the 40-yard run – his second big-gain play of the day, adding to a 30-yard screen play at the end of the first quarter.

“Trying to keep that thing inside a little bit and then mixing in some of our perimeter type runs where we're trying to capture the edge,” Moore said. “Just trying to find different ways to get it going.”

Pollard’s early touchdown allowed the Cowboys to jump out to a lead, enabling Moore to call a more tempered array of plays than he was able to in several games this season when they had fallen into deep deficits. And Pollard’s ability to threaten commanded attention in his career-high 52 snaps (90%), paving the way for big plays also from receiver CeeDee Lamb, receiver Michael Gallup and tight end Dalton Schultz.

“Tony is a totally different feel from Zeke,” said Schultz, who scored a 12-yard touchdown between stints blocking for Pollard. “He sees a hole, he’s going to hit it at full speed (whereas) Zeke is more of a down-hill, run-you-over kind of guy. So I think TP is different and has the capability.”

Cowboys coaches agree. Elliott’s prognosis remains day-to-day. McCarthy said Monday he was in better shape than last week but not sure to be available for this week's NFC East matchup against the Eagles. But whether in the final two weeks of this season, or looking ahead to 2021, Elliott and Pollard flash complementary skills rather than a duplicate  arsenal.

“The obvious part of that is versatility,” McCarthy said. “It also makes the defense play more at the line of scrimmage with who is in the game, where they’re lined up.”

Elliott will aim to continue wearing down defensive lines, grinding for extra yards on dirty runs while doubling in pass protection to maximize a deep stable of receiving weapons. Pollard, as he showed Sunday, will await his next chance to energize his teammates by ripping off a big play.

“He was ready,” McCarthy said. “He was ready long before (Sunday). He’s been rarin’ and ready to go.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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