In this Aug. 25, 2016, file photo, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) rushes against the Seattle Seahawks in the first half of a preseason NFL football game, in Seattle. The Seahawks play against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Dec. 24. The winning team is still in the NFC wild-card race. The loser isn’t. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Zeke’s return major test for Seahawks struggling run defence

Loser of Dallas-Seattle clash will be eliminated from playoff contention

RENTON, Wash. (AP) — Seattle’s Michael Bennett was clearly paying attention when news started circulating of the workouts Ezekiel Elliott was doing to stay in shape during his suspension.

“He definitely going to have fresh legs,” Bennett said on Thursday. “I’ve seen the pictures. He looks like he’s been working out every single day on the beach. I know he’s ready to go out there and run.”

Healthy, motivated and still with playoff aspirations, Elliott will make his return on Sunday against the Seahawks, and the timing could not be worse for Seattle.

They are battered by injuries on defence, fatigued from a long season that has seen their defensive line wear down and have no room for error needing wins in their final two games to have any playoff hopes.

Those factors don’t even take into account some fundamental problems that have plagued the Seahawks the past two weeks and allowed the Jaguars and Rams to run wild.

“We made some misses in some reads and some things that could be a lot sharper, and it just leads to the easy yardage for them,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “Good running backs take advantage of that.”

While Leonard Fournette and Todd Gurley are outstanding running backs that took advantage of their opportunities against Seattle, a heathy, rested Elliott is not what the Seahawks wanted to see with their season on the line.

The Seahawks problems first surfaced in the second half against Jacksonville after Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright were injured. Founette rushed for 101 yards in the game, with 84 of those coming in the second half.

It was a similar story against the Rams, just a different point of the game. With Wagner limited because of a hamstring injury and Wright out because of a concussion, Gurley ran for 144 of his 152 yards in the first half of the Rams’ 42-7 rout.

While Gurley’s 57-yard TD sprint in the final minute of the first half got most of the attention, the bigger issue was the huge chunk plays Gurley had well before his long run.

The Rams had eight run plays of 10 yards or more in the rout. The Seahawks allowed 10 total run plays of 10 yards or more during a five-game span from late October and November when they were ranking among the best run defences in the league.

“I’m excited for him, Todd Gurley is a heckuva player,” Cowboys QB Dak Prescott said. “You watch that game and you see why. Zeke with a lot of the similar abilities and traits, we’re excited for what he can do.”

While Seattle is unsure how much the Cowboys will feature Elliott, the fact he hasn’t played in six weeks and isn’t worn down from a long season is a boost.

Wagner has been playing with a hamstring injury for nearly two months and was its most troublesome last week when he lacked the explosiveness to try and chase down Gurley. Bradley McDougald has played well at strong safety, but he isn’t Kam Chancellor when it comes to stopping the run. The Seahawks will get a lift by having Wright back this week.

Wagner noted that because of all the injuries, what’s been an experienced, veteran defence is now full of new faces that have never played together.

“It’s kind of just furthering the thing that we have kind of been dealing with, with everybody trying to relearn everybody,” Wagner said.

Stopping the run has long been a hallmark of Carroll’s defensive priorities and it’s proved true in his Seattle tenure.

The Seahawks are 23-31-1 since 2010 in games where they’ve allowed at least 100 yards rushing to the opponent. They are 55-16 when holding opponents under 100 yards.

Before his suspension, Elliott had four straight games of at least 93 yards rushing, and three of those were well over 100 yards.

“I think he’ll be really fired up to play football. I think he has to be about as hungry as you can get,” Carroll said.

___

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

Tim Booth, The Associated Press

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