ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Ezekiel Elliott is a tandem running back for the first time in his career with the Dallas Cowboys, who might have a different rushing leader for the first time since drafting him in 2016.
The two-time rushing champ has always embraced the shared role with Tony Pollard, even when faced with the reality that the best playmaker in the Dallas backfield is the shifty speedster from Memphis rather than the durable downhill guy from Ohio State.
“I think we all have the same goal: Go out there and win football games,” Elliott said. “However we have to do that, that’s what matters.”
Bottom line: It's working better than at any time in the four years Elliott and Pollard have been together in Dallas.
The Cowboys (9-3) are coming off a season-high 220 yards rushing going into Sunday's meeting with the hapless Houston Texans (1-10-1), who have the NFL's worst run defense.
“I am very lucky to have these two cats,” running backs coach Skip Peete said. “They both understand that they both have qualities. One guy is truly a hammer, hammer, hammer, hammer. Tony’s more of a slasher.”
Pollard started in place of a healthy Elliott for the first time in last week's 54-19 victory over Indianapolis. Owner Jerry Jones suggested it was a mild disciplinary measure, but coach Mike McCarthy declined to confirm that.
It was the first time in 102 career games, playoffs included, that an active Elliott didn't start. The 27-year-old has missed just three games in his career due to injury, two this season with a knee issue.
Pollard rushed for more than 100 yards in both games Elliott missed, and already has a career high with 852 yards on the ground.
The 25-year-old Pollard easily beat Elliott to 1,000 scrimmage yards — Elliott still has 292 yards to go this season. Pollard is the first Dallas player with five touchdowns of at least 30 yards in the same season: three runs and two catches.
Dallas drafted Pollard in 2019, when Elliott missed all of training camp in a contract holdout that ended when he signed a $90 million, six-year extension days before the opener.
“From that point, just the way he picked up the playbook so fast,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “Just his personality, his hunger to get better, a guy that does everything the right way. I’ve known TP can do what he’s doing for a long time.”
Elliott needs to average 65 yards per game to reach his previous career low of 979 yards from two years ago. Because of Pollard's emergence, there's a good chance Elliott will go without a 100-yard game for the first time this season.
Still, his teammates are unwavering in their belief in Elliott's value.
“Zeke is going to do anything he's asked to do,” five-time All-Pro right guard Zack Martin said. “I hate the idea that people think he's not a back that you can give the ball to all the time. We could give it to him 30 times a game and he'd carry it.”
Houston quarterback Davis Mills gets his starting job back after getting benched two weeks ago for Kyle Allen. Mills led the league with 11 interceptions through 10 games.
Allen didn’t do anything to help Houston’s passing game, committing five turnovers in his two starts, including an interception return for a touchdown and a fumble return TD in last week's 27-14 loss to Cleveland.
Coach Lovie Smith wouldn’t commit to Mills for the rest of the season, but said he expects him to play better in his return after spending a couple of games on the sideline observing.
“We don’t give out permanent jobs,” Smith said. “It’s about how you play each week.”
‘DON'T EAT THE CHEESE’ WEEK
It's been a “don't eat the cheese” week for McCarthy with the Cowboys going in as 16 1/2-point favorites, according to the FanDuel Sportsbook NFL line.
McCarthy showed the teams clips of Team USA basketball's Dream Team practices before the 1992 Olympics, when Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson squared off in an epic intrasquad scrimmage.
“The whole ‘iron sharpens iron’ message for the most part, it was very well received,” Prescott said. “Yeah, I loved the clip and I’ve seen it a couple of times.”
One of the only bright spots in Houston’s terrible season has been the play of rookie running back Dameon Pierce. The fourth-round pick from Florida has 861 yards rushing to lead all rookies.
Pierce had 73 yards against the Browns to rebound after being held to 16 yards total the previous two games.
He also has 165 yards receiving to give him 1,026 scrimmage yards this season, making him the third rookie in franchise history to reach the mark and the first since Steve Slaton in 2008.
The Cowboys can reach 10 wins in consecutive seasons for the first time since the last of six in a row in 1996. That was the year after the last time Dallas made it as far as the NFC championship game.
The club also is solidly in position to make the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since 2006-07. The Cowboys didn't advance either of those years, and lost a wild-card game to San Francisco last season.
AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL