How ‘sledgehammer, sword’ powered Cowboys past Rams — and further eased pressure on Dak Prescott’s recovery timeline

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Just six minutes and 17 seconds of play had elapsed between the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams.

Already, the Cowboys had scored twice.

A strip sack returned promptly for a 17-yard touchdown. Favorable field position from a blocked punt handily converted into a field goal.

From the sideline of SoFi Stadium, Ezekiel Elliott turned to his partner in crime.

“All right now, TP,” he told fellow running back Tony Pollard. “Get ready now.”

The Cowboys were already off to the races. And powered by dominant performances from the defense and special teams, they’d lean heavily on the run game to complete their fourth straight win.

“It wasn’t necessarily the prettiest,” Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott told Yahoo Sports. “But the defense and running game went out and did exactly what they needed to do.”

The unusual path to victory also allows Prescott, recovering from a Week 1 thumb fracture, to do what he needs to: heal without rushing. Cooper Rush has quarterbacked the Cowboys’ four-game winning streak as Prescott remains “day-to-day” regaining sufficient grip strength to throw.

In a 22-10 victory, the Cowboys gained 68% of their yardage by ground, a highly unusual distribution. They gashed the NFL’s seventh-best run defense (93.7 yards per game) for 166 yards. In turn, they faltered vs. the 12th-worst passing defense (252.7 yards per game) to the tune of 76 net yards, 102 gross.

And the Cowboys didn’t just wear down the Rams with one runner. Elliott’s physicality and Pollard’s elusiveness complemented each other as the Cowboys led for all but 3 minutes and 5 seconds of the game. They trailed for under 2 minutes of play.

“It’s like you have a sledgehammer that starts it off: boom, boom, boom,” Cowboys running backs coach Skip Peete told Yahoo Sports from the postgame locker room. “Then a sword comes in and slices it up.”

Elliott repeated the analogy several times, smiling.

“Shoot, I think it’s fairly accurate,” he told Yahoo Sports. “You can definitely look at it that way, and either way: You don’t want to get hit with a sledgehammer or a sword.

“I think we’re a good football team when we put the run first and we’ve got to keep leaning on guys. That’s going to open up the play-action pass. I feel like that’s the best recipe.”

On a day when Rush completed 10 of 16 passes for just 102 yards and no scores — CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup each dropped a pass — it was also a necessary recipe.

Ezekiel Elliott (21), Cooper Rush and the Cowboys are winning in ways that don’t require Dak Prescott to hurry back from injury. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Elliott took the Cowboys’ first carry right for 5 yards. He took touches 4 yards then 9 then 1 in the Cowboys offense’s first-quarter snaps.

By the time Pollard touched the ball halfway through the second quarter, Elliott had tracked 27 yards on six carries.

Peete thought back to a lesson the late Raiders team owner Al Davis had first taught him in 1998.

“When you run the same play with two different backs with two different styles, [defenses] get used to seeing the play, reacting and taking an angle to make the tackle,” Peete said. “Then all of a sudden one guy comes in who’s a little faster, it kind of screws up your angles. And all of a sudden, then he’s gone.”

With 8:10 to go in the second quarter, Rush handed off to Pollard, who burst up the middle. Cowboys left guard Connor McGovern engaged Rams All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald while right guard Zack Martin cleared nose tackle Greg Gaines from the lane.

But Pollard wasn’t done, his upfield cuts leaving three Rams defenders splayed on the ground along his 57-yard route to the end zone.

The Cowboys regained the lead that Cooper Kupp’s 75-yard touchdown reception had momentarily snatched.

They wouldn’t cede control again.

Pollard rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown on eight carries while Elliott had 22 touches for 78.

“The little guy always has bigger runs and everybody’s like, ‘Put him in, put him in, put him in,'” Peete said. “But the key is that they work well together. Two-headed monster. The philosophy of those two guys working together, I think, is very special.”

The Cowboys’ rushing attack was undoubtedly sufficient because the team’s other two phases were clicking. Kicker Brett Maher connected on 3 of 3 field-goal attempts to steadily extend the Cowboys’ lead. Defensive end Dorance Armstrong’s blocked punt early in the game yielded both juice and a 20-yard field goal for the offense.

And Dallas’ defense continued to stifle opponents, having limited each of its first five enemies to only a single touchdown. Cowboys defenders hit quarterback Matthew Stafford 11 times, sacked him five times, intercepted him once, and forced and recovered two fumbles.

“Outstanding and consistent in all five games,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said. “They are definitely the straw stirring this drink.”

The Cowboys next play their highest-stakes game of the season, facing their NFC East rival Eagles in Philadelphia on “Sunday Night Football.”

The Eagles are the NFL’s lone undefeated team through five weeks.

The Cowboys’ defense will aim to contain dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts while their offense — whether quarterbacked again by Rush, or Prescott in his looming return — must temper an opportunistic Eagles defense.

“We’ve got a big one, obviously in Philadelphia,” McCarthy said. “A good chunk of confidence comes with this win.

“I’m just really proud of our football team. We’re staying true to our formula.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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