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Cowboys biggest issue for a deep playoff run? Red zone problems

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The Cowboys haven’t been very good in red zone offense, will that end any hopes at a long stay in the playoffs?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys only had one red zone trip in last week’s loss to the Colts and it ended with a fumble. Only one other time this season has an opponent held the Cowboys to a single red zone opportunity, it was week one against the Panthers. For what it’s worth, that drive ended in the only points the Cowboys scored on the day. Dallas has had no problems moving the ball between the 20’s but somehow everything shuts down when they enter the red zone. Just how bad has it been for the Cowboys?

Well, the Cowboys have had 43 trips to the red zone this season, that ranks 20th in the league. Dallas has only scored 19 red zone touchdowns (44.7%), only the San Francisco 49ers are worse in red zone percentage. Even if you look at total red zone scoring including field goals, the Cowboys are 31st with 82.9%. The Cowboys also join the Steelers as the only two playoff teams with four red zone turnovers. Pittsburgh also has the highest red zone touchdown percentage of any playoff team. Let’s take a look at how all the playoff teams stack up in the red zone on both sides of the ball.

2018 SEASON
NFC Seeds RZ OFFENSE RZ DEFENSE
1. NO 6th 24th
2. LAR 20th 19th
3. CHI 10th 11th
4. DAL 31st 6th
5. SEA 9th 5th
6. MIN 21st 2nd
AFC Seeds RZ OFFENSE RZ DEFENSE
1. KC 2nd 28th
2. HOU 26th 29th
3. NE 16th 22nd
4. PIT 1st 14th
5. LAC 12th 12th
6. BAL 13th 23rd

The Cowboys are by far the worst offensively but following them are the Texans, Vikings, and Rams. The Steelers, Chiefs, Saints, Seahawks, and Bears are all Top-10 in red zone offense. There is always another side of the coin and that’s how good are you at stopping your opponent? The Texans, Chiefs, Saints, Ravens, and Patriots all struggle in red zone defense. To that point, the Cowboys are the third-best red zone defense set for a postseason berth. The NFC is where all the top red zone defenses reside, so that is something to keep an eye on when the playoffs begin. In order to get a better idea of how red zone rankings affect playoff results, let’s start with last three seasons:

(Note: * denotes Super Bowl participants, champions are underlined, + denotes conference title appearance)

2017 SEASON 2016 SEASON 2015 SEASON
NFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF. NFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF. NFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF.
1. PHI* 1st 13th 1. DAL 3rd 14th 1. CAR* 2nd 10th
2. MIN+ 9th 30th 2. ATL* 9th 32nd 2. ARI+ 12th 14th
3. LAR 14th 9th 3. SEA 27th 20th 3. MIN 25th 3rd
4. NOR 8th 19th 4. GB+ 10th 28th 4. WAS 8th 13th
5. CAR 17th 25th 5. NYG 19th 1st 5. GB 18th 17th
6. ATL 23rd 28th 6. DET 17th 30th 6. SEA 16th 4th
AFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF. AFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF. AFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF.
1. NE* 5th 29th 1. NE* 8th 9th 1. DEN* 28th 20th
2. PIT 22nd 5th 2. KC 30th 4th 2. NE+ 4th 16th
3. JAC+ 2nd 31st 3. PIT+ 13th 5th 3. CIN 5th 5th
4. KC 29th 14th 4. HOU 31st 8th 4. HOU 13th 15th
5. TEN 19th 23rd 5. OAK 14th 24th 5. KC 14th 24th
6. BUF 21st 18th 6. MIA 15th 22nd 6. PIT 10th 6th

Two of the last three Super Bowl champions had both the better red zone offenses and defenses. The only outlier is the Denver Broncos, who were worse than their Super Bowl opponent in both categories throughout the regular season. However, the Broncos really turned up the heat on defense in the playoffs becoming the best red zone defense.

Denver only allowed eight drives inside their 20-yard line and a postseason best 75% scoring percentage. That may seem high but remember that the competition is also much better. Overall, Denver forced the most punts, field goal attempts, while also getting seven takeaways, and forcing the most turnovers on downs. There were only 23 red zone plays in Super Bowl 50, the Broncos ran 18 of them, the Panthers had five plays and zero points to show for it. That’s a pretty darn good defensive performance, one the Cowboys should aspire to replicate.

Just for a little deeper dive, let’s look at the four years prior to 2015 so we can cover every postseason since Jason Garrett has been head coach.

2014 SEASON 2013 SEASON 2012 SEASON 2011 SEASON
NFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF. NFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF. NFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF. NFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF.
1. SEA* 20th 26th 1. SEA* 13th 1st 1. ATL+ 8th 5th 1. GB+ 3rd 20th
2. GB+ 10th 20th 2. CAR 7th 3rd 2. SF* 21st 28th 2. SF 30th 4th
3. DAL 2nd 27th 3. PHI 18th 12th 3. GB 3rd 29th 3. NO 6th 28th
4. CAR 27th 31st 4. GB 26th 24th 4. WAS 4th 24th 4. NYG* 8th 22nd
5. ARZ 30th 3rd 5. SF 11th 13th 5. SEA 10th 4th 5. ATL 13th 8th
6. DET 17th 17th 6. NO+ 12th 18th 6. MIN 18th 27th 6. DET 4th 12th
AFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF. AFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF. AFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF. AFC RZ OFF. RZ DEF.
1. NE* 9th 6th 1. DEN* 1st 25th 1. DEN 7th 26th 1. NE* 2nd 21st
2. DEN 4th 22nd 2. NE+ 15th 16th 2. NE+ 1st 13th 2. BAL+ 17th 1st
3. PIT 18th 18th 3. CIN 2nd 9th 3. HOU 12th 7th 3. HOU 25th 9th
4. IND+ 12th 32nd 4. IND 14th 20th 4. BAL* 11th 2nd 4. DEN 24th 15th
5. CIN 11th 10th 5. KC 8th 10th 5. IND 17th 10th 5. PIT 18th 17th
6. BAL 19th 2nd 6. LAC 25th 27th 6. CIN 16th 9th 6. CIN 26th 25th

From 2011-2014, three of the four champions had the better red zone defense but not necessarily the better red zone offense. Once again, we have another outlier as the Giants were technically worse in both categories and defeated their Super Bowl opponent. Not nearly as impressive as the Broncos, the Giants defense still got it done when it mattered most. In the Super Bowl, they limited the Patriots scoring opportunities to three red zone trips, while owning time of possession 37 minutes to 23 minutes. Sounds a lot like the same gameplan for success the Cowboys try to implement.

Looking at the past seven seasons, on average, two teams make the conference title game despite being poor offensively or defensively in the red zone. The overwhelming majority have been teams that struggled defensively but were carried by their offenses. Only three of those teams made the Super Bowl with a poor red zone offense and only one of them won the big game. Teams like the Cowboys will have to continue lean heavily on their defense to keep them in games but that’s better odds than teams like the Texans may find themselves facing. A bad red zone offense may not keep the Cowboys from winning a playoff game or two but if they have higher aspirations, they must find a remedy quickly.