FRISCO, Texas — On most accounts, the Dallas Cowboys would rather forget their 2021 loss to the Denver Broncos.
Dallas’ defense was burned for 30 points and 407 yards. Quarterback Dak Prescott completed just 48.7% of his passes. And to some around team headquarters at the Star, the Broncos exposed a blueprint for stifling the Cowboys’ previously explosive offensive attack.
But there was one play that not only generated excitement in the moment — it also hinted at what running back Tony Pollard could offer the team when given the opportunity. It foreshadowed, in some ways, a strength in Pollard’s 131-yard, three-touchdown rushing performance this week as the Cowboys exploded to a 49-29 win against the Chicago Bears.
Let’s revisit Pollard’s game-opening 54-yard kickoff return on Nov. 7, 2021.
Pollard caught the Broncos’ kickoff in the end zone, heading up the right center of the field. He cut right several steps as a lane began to materialize, then left several steps later rounding a teammate’s block. A Bronco dove for Pollard’s leg around the 20-yard line, causing the Cowboys running back to trip but not fall. Another defender dove for his legs around the 30-yard line, grasping his left leg while Pollard simply hopped ahead on his right foot until he regained a two-footed platform to track another 20-plus yards.
Pollard’s left leg repeat last year on a 54-yard kickoff return vs. Broncos pic.twitter.com/GPvUNsgEyx
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 1, 2022
“He can run off one leg, get hit on this leg and then the next leg that hits (the ground) is the same leg,” Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel said. “We call it like a 'same leg-same leg' run.
“His contact balance is phenomenal.”
During his second touchdown in Sunday’s three-score game, Pollard repeated the tactic.
Prescott handed the ball to Pollard in the red zone as the Cowboys had a first-and-goal from the 7-yard line, up 28-23 with 6:55 to play in the third quarter.
Pollard burst through the lane his teammates had cleared near the 5-yard line before Bears defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad grabbed ahold of his left ankle at roughly the 3-yard line. Pollard hopped his right foot a step closer, then generated enough power from his free ligament to dive swiftly into the end zone.
The Cowboys extended their lead to 35-23, and the Bears never again came within a single possession.
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) October 30, 2022
“He’s built in a way that he sees it and has got really strong, powerful legs,” Fassel said. “His vision on some of these runs or kickoff returns some of these last years and his ability to break tackles is something you can’t coach.”
Mentally and physically, Pollard is an efficient runner — the most efficient runner in the league this week, per NFL Next Gen Stats, which calculates rushing efficiency based on the divergence between rushing production and total distance traveled on a play. Pollard’s 2.31 yards traveled per yards rushed represented the best north/south effort in the NFL this week. Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry clocked second at 2.75.
Through eight weeks of the season, Pollard’s 3.03 yards traveled per rushing yard ranks second best in the league behind the Carolina Panthers’ D'Onta Foreman. In terms of traditional stats, Pollard has averaged a full yard per carry more than Foreman. Pollard’s 506 yards and five touchdowns trumping Foreman’s 273 and three.
Fellow Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott’s efficiency ranks 30th, per NFL Next Gen Stats, with a 3.73 to 1 ratio.
Pollard’s “sneaky powerful” run style, in teammate Dalton Schultz’s words, will continue to give the Cowboys an edge the second half of the season.
“His ability to break runs, to break tackles and then just that getaway speed,” Cowboys left tackle Tyler Smith told Yahoo Sports. “He’s so strong in his cuts and plays so fast and with such twitch that he’s a hard back to stop when he gets going.
“I feel like that’s something he probably doesn’t get enough credit for: how strong he is. His stride doesn’t break. His strides are powerful. That’s one of his ‘X’ factors.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein