Elliott will test vaunted Packers run defense

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY -  Despite allowing the fewest rushing yards in the NFL, despite yielding 1 full yard per carry less than the second-best run defense in the league, and despite having five defensive starters with at least 5 tackles for loss, a question remained about the legitimacy of the Green Bay Packers’ run stoppers.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) fights off a tackle attempt by Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam Jones (24) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, in Arlington, Texas.

Could the defense hold up against a true No. 1 running back?

Crazy though it may seem, the Packers traversed their first four games without facing any starting tailbacks for the full four quarters. Chris Ivory (illness), Ameer Abdullah (injured reserve) and Rashad Jennings (thumb) did not play at all, while Adrian Peterson left early with what turned out to be a torn meniscus.

Come Sunday, that streak should end.

“I know you guys have been bashing them a little bit that we haven’t faced a No. 1 running back yet,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Wednesday, “so I know those guys are excited about the opportunity to go against their stud running backs and the offensive line. It will be a good challenge.”

The challenge, of course, is star rookie Ezekiel Elliott, the No. 4 pick in this year’s draft. Elliott, who played at Ohio State, is off to one of the best starts in NFL history. He leads the league in carries, rushing yards, first downs and runs of 20 yards or more. He has the fourth-most yards in five games of any rookie running back since 1960.

The three guys ahead of him are Billy Sims, Adrian Peterson and Eric Dickerson.

“Excellent football player,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think he’s definitely a running back that gets better with attempts, and that’s what the good ones do.”

That Elliott leads the league in so many categories is tremendous, but that he does so by such a wide margin is astonishing. He has 85 more yards and eight more first downs than any other rusher. There are 25 carries between Elliott and the 10th-busiest tailback. And with three 100-yard games so far this season, he’s topped the century mark in 20 of his last 23 games dating back to college.

His influence in the passing game is growing as well. Elliott caught just three passes for 5 yards in his first two games combined. He’s caught six passes for 76 yards in the three games since, including three for 37 last week against the Bengals.

“He’s a good back,” inside linebacker Joe Thomas said. “He’s a great catcher. He can catch the ball well. He’s not as polished at route running as a lot of backs are. But once he gets the ball in his hands, he can be a problem.”

But not for his quarterback. Elliott’s steady, explosive presence has been a security blanket for rookie Dak Prescott, who was thrust into the starting role when Tony Romo broke a bone in his back during training camp. Both players have thrived behind an offensive line that is arguably the best in football.

By riding Elliott, the Cowboys lead the league in rushing with 155.2 yards per game. And together with Prescott, who has been tremendous in his own right, the Cowboys have the No. 2 offense in the league. They average 397 yards per game.

“It’s allowed us to be pretty balanced throughout every game we’ve been in so far,” Prescott said. “We get him going, they start to load the box for the run and then we can sling it around a little bit. It just allows our offense to be completely balanced. But all the credit really goes to those five guys up front, including the tight ends.”

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