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The McCarthy Chronicles: What’s gone right, and wrong, for Cowboys red zone offense

The Dallas Cowboys offense looks good until the part that matters most.

New England Patriots v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Cowboys did what they usually do under Mike McCarthy: respond well after a loss. Following a disappointing loss to the Cardinals on the road, the Cowboys returned home for a battle with the Patriots. New England had just won their first game of the year, but they had also endured one-score losses to both the Eagles and Dolphins.

Anyone expecting a close game was sorely mistaken, as the Cowboys dominated from start to finish and handed Bill Belichick the worst loss of his career, 38-3. As has been the case this year, defense and special teams played a big part in the win but the Cowboys offense once again looked really good.

That is, until they reached the red zone. After all the talk about their red zone woes in the past week, Dallas only scored one touchdown in their four red zone appearances. That drops their offense to a meager 36.84% red zone rate. Only the Texans and Saints are worse through four games.

It’s a strange phenomenon, as McCarthy’s Texas Coast offense has been great between the 20’s. Dallas ranks 11th in total yards, fourth in points scored, and seventh in EPA/play. By all accounts, the Cowboys have a potent offense that moves the ball very effectively; they lead the league in third down conversion rate and are tied with the Bills for most first downs gained. These are all very good signs.

However, an offense is ultimately measured by its ability to score points, and the Cowboys are consistently leaving four points on the board. It’s a truly strange trend given how well they move the ball anywhere else on the field. The Cowboys didn’t even have a hint of a red zone problem in Week 1, scoring a touchdown on three of four trips. That dropped to 2/6 against the Jets, 1/5 against the Cardinals, and now 1/4 against the Patriots. So what’s the issue?

What’s working in the red zone

In the last three games, during which the red zone offense has become a problem, the Cowboys have made it work four times. Two of those touchdowns, both against the Jets, saw the tight ends on the receiving end. One of them involved Dak Prescott holding the defender with his eyes as he looked towards the corner route before hitting Jake Ferguson in the flat. The other came on first and goal, with a play-action concept where Luke Schoonmaker leaked out to the weak side for the touchdown.

The Cowboys’ lone red zone touchdown against the Cardinals came on a screen play to Rico Dowdle, who took the pass 15 yards for the score. That turned out to be the first time since 2019 that Prescott had thrown a touchdown on a screen.

The common theme with these three plays is the Cowboys attacking the underneath areas of the defense with players that aren’t the priority for a defense. Ferguson was open on his touchdown because the defense gravitated more towards the receiver, while Dowdle had room to run against a defense that was working to defend against shots to the receivers.

The fourth touchdown came on a handoff to Hunter Luepke against the Patriots, which was really just a combination of good blocking and a good cut from the rookie. That’s a big element of all of this, too: offensive line health. The Cowboys have been without one starter on the left side of the line for all four games, making it more difficult to have diversity of their run game. And they were also without their center and right guard against Arizona, which further reduced their options inside the red zone.

Against the Giants, two of the Cowboys’ three red zone touchdowns saw Tony Pollard running behind the duo of Zack Martin and Terence Steele while the other had KaVontae Turpin on an outside run that was helped by Tyron Smith. Missing Martin and Smith and also Tyler Smith for various games thus far has played a big part in the red zone woes.

What’s not working

When looking at the film of all the Cowboys’ red zone failures, it’s hard to really pinpoint any specific problem. Rather, it’s just a calamity of errors that boils down to poor execution. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest blunders in the red zone this season:

  • Giants: Jake Ferguson drops a sure touchdown on third and goal from the two
  • Jets: Dak Prescott has Ferguson in the back corner of the endzone but sails the pass on third and goal from the three
  • Jets: Tony Pollard gets dropped for a loss of four on first and goal at the nine; Michael Gallup missed the block on a quick toss play
  • Jets: Pollard’s touchdown gets brought back by holding call on Tyron Smith
  • Cardinals: defender bats pass away as the ball gets to Brandin Cooks on third and seven at the eight
  • Cardinals: holding on Chuma Edoga pushes it back from the four to the 14
  • Cardinals: Peyton Hendershot whiffs on chip assignment before going out for a route on play-action boot concept on third and goal at the eight
  • Patriots: Pollard runs the wrong way, slams into Prescott for a loss of four on third and goal at the one
  • Patriots: ball gets tipped at the line on shot to Luke Schoonmaker on second and seven at the eight
  • Patriots: defender blows right past Edoga to sack Prescott as he turns around from play-action fake

So much of this boils down to execution. Don’t commit penalties that back the team up; don’t miss key blocks; execute the play properly; run to the correct side; don’t let defenders get their hands up to swat balls. These are simple things, really, and the Cowboys don’t make these mistakes for 80 yards of field. However, when they get inside the red zone it’s almost as if they forget how to play football.

Some of this is to be expected. Edoga isn’t a starter, and both Schoonmaker and Cooks are new to the team. Ferguson is in his first year as a starter. The offensive line has been in flux all season. In fact, there were a handful of plays the Cowboys have run where Cooks in particular has been a second or two away from getting open in the endzone, but his timing hasn’t been quite right. That, and other things, will get better with time.

The bright side here is that the Cowboys’ red zone issues don’t appear to be scheme-related. Many of the concepts they’re running are working, but poor execution is leading to the play getting blown up. Really, the offense is just shooting themselves in the foot here. That’s also frustrating because there’s no easy fix, aside from the players simply doing better. However, the more time these players get with each other in practice and in games, the faster they will get on the same page with each other.

Of course, the process might need to be expedited with the undefeated 49ers up next on the schedule. The Cowboys will not beat the 49ers with field goals, so they’ll need to put the ball in the endzone. As luck would have it, San Francisco is allowing a touchdown on 66.7% of their appearances there, 23rd in the NFL. That doesn’t make it any easier, but the Cowboys should rest at least somewhat easy in knowing that their problems in the red zone are something that is easily correctable.

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