Cowboys plan to diversify way Ezekiel Elliott gets involved in offense

OXNARD, Calif. -- With the ball in the air, Dez Bryant raised his hands in celebration. He knew Ezekiel Elliott had a touchdown.

Lining up in the backfield during red zone drills Sunday, Elliott circled out of the backfield and used his speed and a Bryant rub to get a step or two on linebacker Damien Wilson. Dak Prescott floated a perfect pass 2 yards deep into the end zone and Elliott secured the score.

It was that easy.

Elliott, who has not spoken since the start of training camp, has been the subject of many articles nonetheless. Most have been about a potential suspension for an alleged domestic-violence incident last summer and an incident in which a source said Elliott was involved at a Dallas bar before the Cowboys left for training camp. Some of it has been about Elliott's follow-up to a rookie season in which he led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards and ran for 15 touchdowns.

Very little has been written about what Elliott can do for the Cowboys out of the backfield as a pass-catcher.

As a rookie, Elliott caught 32 passes for 363 yards and had an 83-yard touchdown on a screen pass in the win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Those are good but not great numbers. In his final two seasons with the Cowboys, DeMarco Murray had more than 50 catches both times, including 57 with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan calling the plays. When Linehan was calling plays for the Detroit Lions, running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell had 54 and 53 catches in the 2013 season, respectively.

Getting the ball to Elliott will remain the focus of the Cowboys' offense in 2017. But it might come in different ways.

"Zeke can get more catches this year without him playing more plays," Prescott said. "I think just his ability with the ball in his hands is valuable to this offense. So in the passing game [if] the defense is giving us soft coverage, get it to him and let him do what's best. As you see, we've kind of given it to him a bunch out here already. And it's just the fact of that's just how the offense is going, that's what the defense is giving us. It's not that we're calling plays extra to give Zeke the ball."

So far in training camp, Elliott has lined up in the slot. He has lined up wide. He has started in the backfield and motioned to the slot as well as out wide. He has run routes from the backfield.

"The game has become so specialized," coach Jason Garrett said. "There's a lot of different personnel substitution that happens really every down, but if you have a guy who you can leave in there for three downs and he can affect the game by running it, affect the game in protection, and then you can throw him the ball, those guys are pretty rare and they're difference-making because you can do a lot of different things with the personnel group and attacking the defense. You can be a power running team, an outside running team, and then you can spread the formation out and throw him the ball -- that's hard for a defense, challenging for them to decide how they want to match up from a personnel standpoint and the defenses they want to play."

A year ago, Elliott played 716 of 1,060 snaps. He did not play in the regular-season finale because the Cowboys had clinched the best record in the NFC. He touched the ball on nearly half of his snaps (322 carries, 32 catches).

"I thought we had a really good plan for him last year as far as the amount of plays we wanted him in there for, and then we had certain times where we scripted in times where other backs were in the game so it wasn't going to be too much," Linehan said. "We always remind ourselves it's not a sprint ... [but] when it's all said and done, we want him in the game, and there's not really a down where we wouldn't want him in the game."

For Prescott, Elliott is another secure outlet with Cole Beasley, Jason Witten and Bryant. The more he has the ball, the better it is for Prescott.

"He's a running back. They're the best people on this team with the ball in their hand, that's why they're the running back" Prescott said. "That's why it's important for us to give him the ball. Not only is it just calling run plays to have the ball, but as well as give him the ball in space, and now he's on the secondary, guys that don't want to tackle him or guys that aren't too well at tackling him."