/Dropping the ball: Why is Zeke fumbling so much?

Dropping the ball: Why is Zeke fumbling so much?

The Dallas Cowboys have no shortage of blame for their disappointing 2-4 start.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and/or head coach Mike McCarthy.


Practically any and every player at some point this season not named Zack Martin or Demarcus Lawrence.

Hell, take your pick.

But after the Cowboys’ embarrassing 38-10 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night, star running back Ezekiel Elliott fell on the sword, thanks to his two ghastly fumbles.

“I started the game out with two fumbles, gave the ball away, and that gave them all the momentum that they needed to go and take off,” Elliott said. “So I want to say I’m sorry and this one’s on me and I need to be better for this team.”

The fumbles continued a disturbing trend for the normally reliable Elliott, who has four in just six games this year, tied for the most in the NFL with Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. 

Worse yet, thanks to Dallas’ leaky defense, all of those fumbles have turned into touchdowns for the opposition.

“I’m supposed to be a guy that this team can lean on when times get rough,” Elliott said. “I just wasn’t that today. I got off to a terrible start, defense was playing well, but I killed our momentum. Two fumbles, I can’t do that. I can’t.”

So why does it keep happening?

“Honestly, I can’t … I can’t really even, I don’t know why,” Elliott said. “I’ve just got to focus up, I’ve got to be better with it.”

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Elliott wouldn’t go there, but in the only item in this week’s “Things I Noticed” column, I thought it would be educational to watch every one of Elliott’s nine lost fumbles in his career — plus one against Indianapolis in 2018 that didn’t count because it came on fourth down — and figure out what’s going on.

For starters, it’s worth noting that since his rookie year in 2016, Elliott has fumbled 20 times in his career. A career-high six came in 2018, when the Cowboys managed to recover all but one of them. He is somebody defenders can poke the ball away from, primarily in one of five ways.

Targeted waist swipe when carrying ball upright

Often when Elliott carries the ball, defenders will swipe at it either in passing or when aiming for a tackle. Six of his fumbles came this way:

Poked out or taken while going to ground

Defenders on the periphery of the play also like to swipe at the ball when Elliott is headed toward the ground. I counted four such instances where plays like that happened, including the one that Cleveland’s Andrew Sendejo forced this season.

Pile fumbles 

Four of Elliott’s fumbles were of the goofy variety, where he got caught up in a pile or a crowd and the ball squirted free. This is how I counted Zeke’s second fumble against Arizona on Monday, which credited to Corey Peters. This isn’t OK either.

You can see it at the 30-second mark of the clip below:

The good ol’ Peanut Punch

Three of Elliott’s fumbles came via the Peanut Punch, popularized by Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman.

In past seasons, Atlanta’s James Crawford and Washington’s Josh Norman got Elliott with this tactic, and Atlanta’s Foye Oluokun got him with it in Week 2 as well.

Chopped from behind while sprinting 

There were also two occasions where Elliott was sprinting and got the ball chopped out from behind, with the defender aiming down on his right arm. Philadelphia’s Malcolm Jenkins and Seattle’s Bradley McDougald did it this way.

That leaves one fumble, which came on a flubbed handoff on an end-around against Tampa Bay in 2016. So aside from that one, all of Elliott’s fumbles are related to his ball security, and his need to squeeze the ball tighter and keep it closer to his body.

And that’s really the point here. All the fumbles have generally come in a bunch of different ways, so there is no great insight, magic solution no one has thought of. The solution is a simple one, one that Elliott, a great back, already knows. He said Sunday that he’s been focusing on keeping the ball tight to his body in practice and not carrying it loose, and it’s something he’ll clearly keep working on based on his postgame comments.

“I just need to have a short memory,” Elliott said. “I need to get that behind me, play some good ball and get on a roll.”

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