Tomlin on Cowboys RB Elliott: 'Simply nothing he can't do'
When the Dallas Cowboys visit Heinz Field on Sunday, the Steelers won't be caught off-guard by a little-known runner such as Miami's Jay Ajayi.
They also won't be permitted to “bleed a little bit” — coach Mike Tomlin's term — like when they allowed chunks of yards to New England's LeGarrette Blount as a way to counter elite quarterback Tom Brady.
No, the Steelers know what is coming at them, and they know the margin for error is nonexistent when Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott sets foot on the Heinz Field grass.
“We have our work cut out for us,” Tomlin said.
Do they ever. The Cowboys have the NFL's top rushing offense led by Elliott, the No. 4 overall pick in this year's draft from Ohio State.
The Cowboys average 165.3 yards per game, and Elliott has a league-best 891 yards in helping Dallas to an NFL-best 7-1 record.
“If we are going to have a chance to have a great day,” Tomlin said, “we have to work to minimize that element to their attack.”
Easier said than done. Elliott is on track for 1,782 yards, which would be 26 shy of Eric Dickerson's rookie rushing record set in 1983. Elliott has 27 runs of 10 yards or more, and the only time he has gained fewer than 83 yards in a game was 50 in the season opener.
Consider that among teams who have played eight games, Elliott's next closest competitor is Arizona's David Johnson with 705 yards.
“I knew he was going to be one of the top backs coming out,” said linebacker Ryan Shazier, who played at Ohio State when Elliott was a freshman.
Like the Cowboys, who have been winning behind another rookie sensation in quarterback Dak Prescott, Elliott has exceeded expectations since turning pro.
“It's a challenge to transition from college football to pro football regardless of what level you played at,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “For him to be doing what he's been doing so quickly is impressive to all of us.”
Consider Tomlin equally on board the Elliott bandwagon.
“There's simply nothing he can't do,” he said at his weekly news conference.
Tomlin gushed over Elliott's ability to run inside, run outside, praised his vision and “contact balance,” and lauded his pass-catching ability and blitz-pickup awareness.
“He simply does all the things that encompass the running back position, and he does it like breathing,” Tomlin said. “It's probably second nature to him.”
What is the key to stopping Elliott, something other NFL defenses haven't accomplished?
“When you play running backs like him, it's hard to ask one guy to bring him down,” Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats said. “It's hard to ask one guy in the open field to make a one-on-one tackle with him. It's important to have multiple guys hitting him so the hits accumulate.
“If he makes the first guy miss, you have to have two or three guys coming in and finish him off.”
Elliott's cause is helped by running behind arguably the NFL's best front five, who possess “some of the best in the world at what they do,” Tomlin said.
The Cowboys offensive line consists of three first-round draft picks: tackle Tyron Smith (2011), center Travis Frederick (2013) and guard Zack Martin (2014). They also have 10-year veteran tackle Doug Free and fourth-year guard Ronald Leary.
“We look forward to challenges like this,” defensive lineman Cam Heyward said. “As a front seven, this is one of those games we circle on the calendar.”
The Steelers can take some measure of confidence into the game thanks to improved run defense against the Baltimore Ravens.
After giving up a combined 362 rushing yards in losses to the Dolphins and Patriots, the Steelers held the Ravens to 50 yards in a 21-14 loss. Aside from a 14-yard scramble by quarterback Joe Flacco on a broken play, the Steelers didn't permit a run longer than 9 yards.
“It's a start,” linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “We feel like we responded from those performances, but it's just a start.”
That success perhaps should come with an asterisk. The Ravens have the NFL's 28th-ranked rushing offense. The Cowboys present a step up in class.
“We have to continue to do (good things),” Heyward said. “It can't be popcorn — can't be here, can't be there. We have to do it every time and be consistent.”