Rookie Ezekiel Elliott has developed far beyond the running back the Redskins saw when they played the Cowboys in Week 2 and will give the defense quite a challenge on the biggest stage.
The stage doesn't get much bigger than playing the team with the best record in the NFL on Thanksgiving Day. Add on top of that the fact that the Redskins will be facing off against the opponent that has been their biggest rival throughout the franchise's history, who also happened to beat them once this year, and you get one of the most exciting games of the season.
While the increased attention and intensity brought to this game will surely make the Redskins that much more energized to perform at their best, the team has quite a challenge ahead. Facing a 9-1 team is no easy task, especially when going up against the running back that just happens to be leading the league in rushing yards with 1,102 through 10 games.
And rookie Ezekiel Elliott is only showing signs of improving, something the Redskins have taken note of. His level of success, however, even came as a surprise to those who knew him before he found his place as a professional.
"We always know Zeke was a great player, great running back and he was a top ten pick for a reason," rookie Su'a Cravens said. "But I didn't think he was going to be talking about breaking 2,000 yards in his rookie year so that's definitely a surprise, but I mean don't underestimate a guy like Zeke. He's a great athlete, comes from a great program at Ohio State and he's a winner. I'm proud of my guy."
That love between the two newcomers to the league who are already finding success will have to be put to the side Thursday, as stopping the back is setting up to be a much more difficult task than the first time around. Elliott recently became the first rookie in NFL history to rush for 130 yards in four consecutive games. He hasn't rushed for less than 92 since the Cowboys defeated the Redskins in Week 2. While Elliott only ran for 83 yards and gave up two fumbles against the Redskins, his statistics reflect that he has grown immensely into his role as the starting running back for the Cowboys.
"He's got 10 games under his belt now," Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. "With him running behind that line, you gain a lot of experience. You get kind of a feel for how the offensive line plays a little more."
Dallas' offensive line has also been discussed as the best in the league and its performance this season has been a big help in Elliott having so much success so early on in his career. Elliott not only leads the league in rushing yards, but also in carries (233) and yards per game (110.2). He is also tied for third in rushing touchdowns with nine. The Cowboys are using Elliott effectively and often, making it that much more important that the Redskins put a priority on stopping the run first.
"They have a great O-line that wants to run the ball with a great running back," Cravens said. "First things first, we got to take the ball out of Zeke's hand and keep that o-line from getting up the field on us and hopefully we can get them to pass the ball and get up in the lead where they can't run the ball and be aggressive."
Elliott has firmly established his place as a dominant back already after going fourth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft out of Ohio State. His unique style, alongside the dominant offensive line, is what makes him so dangerous.
"(Elliott's) a guy that can do it all and that's what makes him good," Kerrigan said. "He can run in between the tackles, run outside. What you're seeing on film, especially today, we're seeing that guys will have him hit for no gain at the line of scrimmage, but then he'll be able to turn out two or three yards. That's a big deal, when you can put your offense in second-and-seven vs. second-and-10 or even second-and-five vs. second-and-eight. He's not only just a really fast, athletic guy, but he's very powerful and can put their offense in a better situation."
Redskins head coach Jay Gruden also remarked on Elliott's ability to completely turn things around for the Cowboy's offense.
"Zeke is a powerful runner," Gruden said. "He's been bottled up from time-to-time in first quarter, but as the game goes on, that offensive line can wear you down and he gets chunks of yardage.
The Redskins defense will try to combat this with the improvement they have seen in the defense in recent weeks. The development of Cravens and the pressure they have been able to create have played a major role in limiting the rushing attack of their opponents, with both of their most recent opponents, the Vikings and the Packers, gaining less than 100 yards on the ground as teams.
While Elliott no longer may resemble the back Washington faced in Week 2, it will hope to bring the defensive success it has produced in back-to-back home games down south to Dallas this weekend.
"It's big, but we know that we've got to continue to be focused," Josh Norman said. "Offense, defense and special teams, all in this together and we'll see what happens and see if we can come out with a victory on Thursday. But we got to work for it."