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Breaking down Cowboys backfield without Ezekiel Elliott

The Dallas Cowboys have known for nearly 18 months that this day could come — the day when Ezekiel Elliott, the team’s workhorse running back and arguably its best player, would face a suspension as a result of domestic violence allegations raised against him by a former girlfriend in July of 2016.

For a team that relies as heavily on the running game as Dallas does, losing a lead runner, especially one of Elliott’s caliber, could be a devastating blow. However, because they’ve seen this coming, the Cowboys took steps to protect themselves. They retained two veteran reserve running backs, Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden, who each have multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons on their resumes, as well as Rod Smith, a young and promising running back who has shown tremendous upside this year.

Considering the Cowboys leaned so heavily on a single player, Elliott, in the backfield, there is a great deal of mystery as to the roles each remaining running back will play in his absence. Based on their actions in 2017 and in the past, we can draw some conclusions.

Alfred Morris has been the Cowboys’ primary backup runner throughout the season. When the team has taken Elliott off the field for his customary rest series on the first possession of the second quarter, Morris came onto the field and took those carries.

Morris has only 14 carries this year, but based on Football Outsiders’ “success rate” statistic, Morris has been successful (gaining 40 percent of the yards to go on first down, 60 percent on second down, 100 percent on third down) on six of his 13 carries, including this 70-yard run. That success rate of 46.2 percent would rank Morris inside the top 15 runners in the NFL if he met the minimum carry threshold.

Morris’s level of success in limited opportunities will likely lead to the Cowboys to give him the first crack as their starting running back in Week 10.

Darren McFadden has been inactive every game of 2017, and all but four in the 2016 regular season. He has only 27 touches since the end of the 2015 season, but he does have a track record of being able to succeed in the Cowboys’ offense after rushing for nearly 1,100 yards in the 2015 season. He will likely get work on third downs, and in passing situations due to his proficiency in pass protection, but his current capabilities remain a mystery due to the lack of work the last season and a half.

The ballcarrier on this play, Rod Smith, is the true wild card in the entire backfield. He has gotten work on offense in spot duty, through the first eight games of the season, and has made some very important plays. His most extensive work came after the Cowboys’ win over the San Francisco 49ers was well in hand, when he had eight carries for 61 yards, including the 45-yard run above.

Smith has a combination of size, athleticism, and skill set as a runner, blocker, and receiver that is unique among the Cowboys’ remaining runners. This makes him the back most likely to cause the team to throw its preconceived plans out the window and roll with Smith as its true lead running back.

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