'That's the easy thing to do': Cowboys won't bash late play calls for Ezekiel Elliott

Jori Epstein

ARLINGTON, Texas — Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said the Vikings might as well have announced their plan upon arriving for "Sunday Night Football."

“You basically could’ve put a sign on the start of the game that said, ‘Zeke's not going anywhere,’” Jones said after Dallas’ 28-24 loss. “That was the story of the game. (They) designed a plan to win the game that way.”

The Cowboys, it seemed at times, kept returning to a plan that would lose it.

Perhaps the first quarter should have been a hint, when Dallas thrice moved the chains by pass and not by run. But Dallas still posted its fifth touchdown-less first quarter in the last six games as only the Vikings scored.

Perhaps the second quarter should have been a hint. Dallas seven times moved the chains by pass and not by run. This time, they scored 14 points. Dak Prescott found Amari Cooper for 20 on third-and-12, Michael Gallup for 15 on third-and-12, Blake Jarwin for 26 on third-and-3, and Randall Cobb for 22 on third-and-7.

32 THINGS WE LEARNED:All the takeaways from Week 10 in NFL season

STEELERS' TURNAROUND:Sparked by one trade

Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) is tackled by Vikings outside linebacker Ben Gedeon (42) during their game.

“They were all playing lights out,” said running back Ezekiel Elliott, praising five of his offensive teammates by name before asking: “Who am I missing?”

Perhaps the third quarter should have been a hint. Four more first downs by pass. Still none by run. The run game, on two attempts, netted minus-2 yards. Prescott found Cooper on the right sideline for two more toe-tappers, including a 12-yard touchdown.

“There’s always times for a receiver when you take this step like, ‘I don’t feel like I can be guarded,’” Witten said of Cooper. “As his teammate and someone who’s studied a lot of route runners for a long time, he’s at that place.”

But the Cowboys weren’t ready to acknowledge that the run game clearly wasn’t working against the talented Vikings linebackers. They insisted on running Elliott seven times in the fourth quarter — for 8 yards, even as Prescott’s passing game would generate 8.2 yards per play on the night to the run game’s 3.1. Prescott completed six of seven passes for an average of 13.2 yards on what Dallas hoped could be its game-winning drive, trailing by four in the last five minutes of the game.

Dallas advanced to Minnesota’s 11-yard line, facing second-and-2 with 1:33 to play.

Then, Dallas sent Elliott rushing for no gain on second-and-2. Prescott handed off to Elliott on a run-pass option on third-and-2 for a loss of 3 yards that Elliott later called a good read but one where “there really wasn’t anywhere to go.” And Prescott targeted Elliott for an incompletion on fourth down.

Players insisted they, not their coaches, shoulder the blame.

“We get through that first down, no one in here is even talking about the fact that they took the ball out of my hands,” Prescott said after his 28-of-46, 397-yard, three-touchdown day. “I’m not going to question the play calling. There were opportunities. We just have to do better at executing those plays. It’s as simple as that. Every guy in that locker room would say that.”

His teammates did. Elliott said he wasn’t surprised he was given the opportunity, and Cooper, who finished with 11 catches for 147 yards, insisted that “we got the best running back in the league” and the run game is “our identity. So if we had to do the situation over again, we would run it again.”

Witten said they “would never question” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.

“I think that’s the easy thing to do, try to question something like that,” said Witten, who is six years older than Moore and a player who teammates say holds coaches accountable. “That’s been a good run for us in short and third-and-short this season. Kind of find the soft spot, Zeke does such a good job. Dak. They’re used to running that type of play.

“That’s been a good play for us. Not surprised he went back to that.”

And yet the play calls on the late fourth-quarter drive, like the run calls throughout the game, were fruitless.

“We definitely don’t want to be peaking right now,” said Elliott, who finished with 20 carries for 47 yards.

But even Elliott was left saying “I don’t know” why the run game stalled, why the team keeps starting slow, or how to re-establish a balanced offense.

Prescott, on the other hand, was sure of one thing. As their conference foes improved to 7-3, and the Cowboys lost their NFC East lead with a 5-4 record, was the loss a missed opportunity to make a statement on national television?

“Absolutely,” he said.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

If you love talking football, we have the perfect spot for you. Join our Facebook Group, The Ruling Off the Field, to engage in friendly debate and conversation with fellow football fans and our NFL insiders.