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Cowboys news: The next step for the Dallas offense is efficiency in the red zone

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Cowboys Weekend Riffing: Cowboys need to improve in the red zone – Bob Sturm, The Athletic
There’s a lot to digest in Sturm’s post, but one of the things he highlights is the need for the Cowboys to improve in the red zone.

There is no question that everything will be different if he gets back to his red-zone performances of 2016 and 2017 quickly. In 2018, the Cowboys have been horrible in the red zone. It should be noted, we knew this would be the biggest issue when 82 and 88 went away. How would you get those touchdowns? The Rico experiment is growing a bit tiresome already, but regardless of specifics, they cannot settle for field goals and expect to win.

[Prescott’s] career red-zone stats are fine, but the breakdown is headed in the wrong direction; excellent in 2016, fine in 2017, and unacceptable in 2018. There are certainly sample-size issues, but this is where everything speeds up, shrinks down, and pressure builds. Watch the end of the Seattle game last year and you can see how vital this is to the outcome of games. For Dak to truly succeed, he must improve in this respect. Of course, this requires a follow-up question: Does he have any red-zone weapons besides Zeke? Well, let’s just say the front office has not done him very many favors over the last 12 months.

How Cowboys OC Scott Linehan is factoring Rico Gathers’ basketball background into TE instruction - Jori Epstein, SportsDay
Speaking of red-zone weapons, can the Cowboys figure out how to use Rico Gathers in that area to any great effect?

Linehan has realized following instructions isn’t Gathers’ recipe for success.

Gathers has looked stiff and overly technical at times, so focused on running a route or following a scheme perfectly that he doesn’t adjust in game as seamlessly as his 52 teammates who played college football do. Linehan implores him to attack a play like a “free-running” pickup basketball game.

Need to post up? Gathers has that down. Grab the rebound? Gathers can do that, too. Now it’s time to translate that fluidity to the field.

”The positive thing is he’s making aggressive mistakes,” Garrett said. “He hasn’t slowed down. And I say that as a compliment.

”A lot of times young players, whenever they start moving around, they just slow down and the reason you like them starts to go away. You never see their physicalness, their speed, their explosiveness.”

Is Dallas holding Dak back? - Domonique Foxworth, The Undefeated
Foxworth re-watched all 2018 Cowboys games and believes that Dak Prescott is a better QB now than he was as a rookie, despite the stats.

As for the receivers, according to Next Gen, their separation numbers (distance between receiver and nearest defender when the ball arrives) are about league average. But, to be fair to them, separation is only calculated for plays when the receiver is targeted. So Prescott, who has a tendency to hold the ball for too long, could be missing open receivers. Which I saw happen some, but not enough for that to be the problem in this offense.

Linehan relies on his players to beat the man in front of them. He doesn’t do much scheming to get them open. And that makes for tight passing windows, which puts the pressure on Prescott to be incredibly accurate and precise — which is not his strongest skill as a passer.

Unsurprisingly, Prescott leads the league in tight-window throws at 22 percent. But, to Prescott’s credit, despite the tight windows, he has thrown only two interceptions this season

The most surprising impression I got from watching the Cowboys is that Prescott is a better quarterback than he was as a rookie. Although the stats don’t support that opinion, he has grown as a quarterback. He understands his offense and the opposing defense at a level that many quarterbacks never reach. He has demonstrated that football knowledge in every game this season by recognizing blitzes and coverages pre-snap and checking to better protections and plays for those defenses.

One thing Dak needs to do more is get the ball downfield.

Ezekiel Elliott is a top 5 running back, but if the Cowboys involve him more in the passing game, he could be the best - Kevin Sherrington, SportsDay
Sherrington answered some Cowboys questions during a live chat. Here's one of them:

Question: Where would you rank Ezekiel Elliott among top backs in the NFL right now?

Sherrington: He's certainly in the top five, and if they keep involving him in all aspects of the offense as they have lately, he could go to the top. Frankly, I don't know why they waited until his third season to make him a larger part of the passing game. He was good at that at Ohio State, too. A complete back: great runner, great blocker, great receiver. That's why he went with the fourth pick. I can understand if they needed to keep him in to pick up blitzes and such, but this offensive line isn't exactly a bunch of clowns.

DeMarcus Lawrence developed into the ‘War Daddy’ Jerry Jones dreamed of. Now can the Cowboys keep him around? - Kate Hairopoulos, SportsDay
Lawrence has been playing like the best defensive end in football. The Cowboys will have to pay his price in the offseason, unless they decide to use the franchise tag again.

Lawrence’s 14.5 sacks in 2017, tied for second-best in the league, marked the first time in his career that he reached double digits. It followed consecutive offseason back surgeries.

So the production begged the question - can the relentless 6-3, 265-pounder nicknamed “Tank” do it again? The Cowboys putting a $17.1 million franchise tag on him ahead of this season only heightened the stakes.

His answer so far is an NFL-leading 5.5 sacks in four games.

Team owner Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones, the team’s executive vice president, have praised Lawrence’s play, in which he’s also been strong against the run.

“At this juncture,” Jerry Jones said Thursday from The Star, “He’s as good as anybody we’ve had.”

But they will have to decide after this season whether to work out the rich long-term deal Lawrence covets. They could also use a second franchise tag, worth $20.5 million for the 2019 season.

Top ramen: DeMarcus Lawrence calls noodles secret to success - Todd Archer,
Lawrence’s secret to success may not be what you would think it would be..

One day before the 2017 season, Cowboys defensive end Tyrone Crawford walked up to teammate DeMarcus Lawrence with a serious question.

“Hey, D, what was the difference between Boise State and here?” Crawford said, pushing back only like a best friend can. “You were a beast in Boise, so what’s different? What are you eating? What are you doing now?”

Lawrence was coming off a one-sack season in 2016. He had his second back surgery in as many offseasons and going into the final year of his contract, his career was at a crossroads.

Lawrence pondered Crawford’s question for a minute.

“S---, I only ate ramen noodles in Boise,” Lawrence remembered.

So Lawrence, a second-round pick in 2014, went back to his college days with the ramen noodles. Every week.

Why Tyrone Crawford is the Cowboys' most underrated defensive player - Kristi Scales, SportsDay
In response to a reader question, Scales explains why Crawford is often overlooked and underappreciated.

The most underrated player on the Cowboys defense is a team captain whose production is valued and appreciated by teammates and coaches, but often overlooked and underappreciated by fans. Tyrone Crawford, the versatile 7-year veteran from Boise State, does the dirty work inside at defensive tackle.

Crawford has played the 3-technique for the Cowboys this season. He's already played 189 snaps through 4 games, just 6 fewer snaps than defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (189) who has been on the field more than any other defensive lineman through the first month of the season.

D-Law would be the first to tell you that Crawford has pushed the pocket and created enough havoc to help Lawrence accumulate a league-leading 5 ½ sacks.

Crawford is playing along the interior of the line, so it's harder to accumulate stats. But he already has 1 sack, 7 QB pressures, 2 pass breakups, and 14 tackles.

Crawford is also one of the most unselfish players in the league. He is willing to play anywhere the coaches need him. By moving inside, young defensive ends Taco Charlton and Randy Gregory can get their reps and continue to develop. Rod Marinelli can keep all the d-linemen fresher throughout the game with a rotation. Crawford at the "3" also allows David Irving (who also plays the "3") to work his way back into game shape as Irving returns from his 4-game suspension. But if Marinelli needs to move Crawford to the end within the game to get some reps, that's doable. In a pinch, Crawford could also play the nose, although I expect Antwaun Woods, Maliek Collins, and Caraun Reid to carry the load at the "1" (nosetackle).

All of the above does not include Crawford's intangibles. He's a leader and team captain. He sets a standard. And he plays through aches and pains. He's the ultimate "team" guy.

Will Cowboys DT David Irving play against Texans after just one practice? - Clarence Hill, Star-Telegram
After just one day of practice since returning from suspension, what is Irving’s status for Sunday night football?

For Irving, the Cowboys are taking a huge leap of faith playing him against the Texans after having just one practice with the team since last November.

The suspension officially ended on Tuesday and he practiced on Wednesday before missing the last two days dealing with a family issue.

The Cowboys got a one-week exemption and have until Saturday at 3 p.m. to activate him for Sunday’s game. They will also have to make a roster move to free up a spot.

But as long as he shows up on Saturday for the walk-through practice and the flight to Houston, the team is seemingly comfortable with him playing 10 to 20 snaps against the Texans Sunday after just one practice since last November.

Report: Cowboys “leaning towards” placing Travis Frederick on IR to make room for David Irving - RJ Ochoa, Blogging the Boys
If Irving is ready to go for Sunday night’s game, there has to be a move made to get him on the roster. Ochoa, breaks down what roster move may happen to get Irving on the 53-man roster.

From a roster perspective the Cowboys didn’t do anything with Frederick. They carried him on the 53-man roster and he has been inactive ever since. That could be changing soon as it’s been reported that the team is “leaning toward” placing him on injured reserve in order to make room for David Irving, who is returning from suspension.

Per source, Cowboys are leaning toward placing center Travis Frederick on injured reserve to make room for David Irving. But no final decision has been made. Stay tuned

Should Frederick indeed be placed on IR he’ll have to remain there for at least eight weeks. Had the Cowboys placed him there before the season even began he’d be halfway through that period already, but hindsight is 20/20.

Cowboys VP Stephen Jones provides the latest update on Travis Frederick - Jon Machota, SportsDay
Looks like the window is closing on any chance Travis Frederick could be back this year. Stephen Jones provided the following update yesterday.

”I just think it’s the unknown,” Jones said on the Ben and Skin show. “You just never know when that switch is going on to turn. They’re different things. I want to be clear on that, but it’s a little bit like Jaylon (Smith). You’ve got to have patience. You feel good that it’s going to happen, but I’m afraid it’s one of those things that only the Man up above knows when that’s going to all come together for him.

”He was on a pace there for a while where he was making big strides, which is certainly not out of the norm, and then he has plateaued a little bit. Obviously for him to get back in a competitive type situation, one, he’s got to continue to make strides, but then he’ll need to get into football shape. Those are all things that, as he misses more, then he’s away from the game longer, then it takes longer to get back in shape to be able to compete at the level he expects himself to compete at.

”Those are all things we’re looking at. As we move forward, certainly taking what’s in Travis’ best interest first and foremost, which is his long-term health, and then once we feel good about all that, which I think we do, then you start to just see when he’ll get to a point where he can really start to make strides towards getting back on the field, and those are things we’re working closely with him, his doctors and our training staff, and trying to determine what’s in the best interest, first and foremost, for him and then our team.”

Three And Out: Cowboys-Texans Predictions - Battle Red Blog
Three of the BRB staff writers (who seem oddly concerned about field goals) polled like the Cowboys for the win on Sunday. Here's why:

Mike Bullock: Cowboys 27, Texans 23 - The Dallas offensive line slows down Houston’s pass rush just enough for Dak Prescott to look like Blaine Gabbert in week two. Then the Cowboys sixth-ranked defense befuddles Bill O’Brien’s play calling and defeats the Texans offensive line.

Conventional wisdom might expect this to be a low scoring game, but the level of incompetence in both organizations defies all convention, leading to a field goal heavy borefest.

BFmf’nD: Cowboys 27, Texans 23 - For the record, I guessed Cowboys 27, Texans 23 on BRR last night, so MIKE STOLE THE SCORE FROM ME ALL CAPS!!!

But, really, that’s three field goals for the Texans, and we again lose a one score game by trading field goals for touchdowns.

Kenneth L.: Cowboys 20, Texans 17 - A close game that neither team deserves to win. Dallas has a better roster and is a more consistent team. The Texans will hit Dallas with big plays but I do see the Cowboys handing it to us in the 4th quarter. Nothing is better than beating the Cowboys. I fear that like this game four years ago the opposing team will have a ton of fans at the game.

Scout’s Eye: Whoever Runs The Ball Better, Wins - Bryan Broaddus,
How can the Cowboys defeat the Texans? Bryan Broaddus tells us:

As good as the Texans are at playing the run, they’ve had their issues playing pass defense and that is surprising considering they have two of the best pass rushers in the league in J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. It doesn’t matter the down or distance, the Texans have struggled to play pass defense. Even when getting opponents into 3rd-and-long situations, they’ve allowed a conversion 36 percent of the time.

To win this game, I believe the Cowboys are going to need a game plan that was similar to the Giants game. Throw the ball on early downs and then mix in the run out of 11 personnel. Use the pass to set up run opportunities to keep the Texans off balance and hold their pass rush in check.

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