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Dallas Cowboys: Fixing the Cowboys’ offense: Dallas’ red-zone woes could improve with these changes from within its own roster

Editor’s note: This is the first in a five-part series looking at ways to fix the Cowboys’ offense heading into the 2019 season. Find the entire series at the conclusion of this post.

The red zone turned into a realm of frustration for the Cowboys in 2018.

A seasonlong problem, once they crossed inside the opponent’s 20, they performed like one of the worst offenses in the NFL.

By late in the season, after a stretch of three games when Dallas scored touchdowns on only 2 of 11 red-zone possessions, the team was forced to spend more time on fixing the fault in practices and talk surfaced of players and coaches pressing when the field constricted and they neared the end zone.

In these days of high-powered offenses, settling for field goals too often won’t cut it.

The issue won’t necessarily evaporate now that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has moved on — though many fans would like to think so.

While a new playcaller in Kellen Moore can reveal welcome tweaks or approaches in the area to get the most out of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, et al., the Cowboys’ execution also must improve.

The problem

The Cowboys scored touchdowns just 24 times out of 50 trips to the red zone in 2018. The 48 percent success rate ranked better than only the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers. Getting in goal-to-go situations didn’t help matters. Dallas scored touchdowns on them only 52 percent of the time (13 of 25), dead last in the NFL. The ineffectiveness can’t be boiled down to one source.

At times, the plan was too predictable — yes, the jumbo package means Elliott, an All-Pro back, is going to run the ball, usually into a waiting stacked defensive front.

Other times, it was too cute — why put seldom used fullback Jamize Olawale in the position to catch the ball, even if he was wide open?

Speaking of misses — take the pass from Prescott to receiver Noah Brown near the goal line that should’ve been a score but was errant. Or the time Cole Beasley, one of the most reliable receivers on the team, dropped a sure TD on first and goal at Atlanta.

The offensive line’s status also affected the success rate. A unit that had to be shuffled because of injuries contributed to a handful of holding penalties in the red zone, not to mention being partly responsible for some costly sacks of Prescott.

The solution

Prescott’s ability to run the ball should be used more. All six of his rushing touchdowns in 2018, not surprisingly, came in the red zone. No, the Cowboys don’t want to risk their franchise quarterback to injury — he’s experienced some dicey, yet acrobatic, moments on such plays. But use his ability and toughness and keep defenses guessing.

Keep feeding Zeke in the red zone — believe it or not, the Cowboys do understand his value close to the goal line and use him often. He could also benefit from a more stable offensive line in 2019, with All-Pro center Travis Frederick expected to return after an autoimmune disorder forced him to miss all of 2018. That could help decrease the number of runs and catches for negative yards or no gain.

Find a go-to tight end target. The Cowboys didn’t necessarily have a player that could go up and fight for contested balls in the end zone last season, something former receiver Dez Bryant specialized in. Tight end Rico Gathers remained on the roster because of the chance to use his big frame as a target in the end zone, but he only got two targets in the red zone. Few passes went to tight ends inside the 20, period, though second-year TE Blake Jarwin broke through with three touchdowns in the regular-season finale, including two in red-zone situations.

Make better use of the offensive weapons at your disposal. WR Cooper is a gifted route runner, but that didn’t seem to have as much of an impact in the red zone. Only two of his six touchdowns came in the red zone. With an offseason to scheme plays for Cooper, that could improve.

Prescott is very comfortable with Beasley, the slot receiver who is set to be a free agent, but Beasley was targeted only 10 times in the red zone.

Rookie Michael Gallup and Prescott’s connection improved as the season went on. In the wild-card playoff win over Seattle, they missed on a red-zone attempt on a fade pass to the end zone. But they went back to it on the next play, determined to make it work. It did, with Prescott dropping the ball in just right to Gallup.

Twitter: @khairopoulos

TD production

The worst red-zone TD percentages in 2018 (Pittsburgh topped the NFL at 73.47 percent):

Rank Team Pct.
29 Cowboys 48.0

30

New York Jets

44.4

31

Jacksonville

44.12

32

San Francisco

41.18

Missing the goal

The worst goal-to-go TD percentages in 2018 (New Orleans topped the NFL at 84.62):

Rank Team Pct.

29

Houston

61.29

30

Jacksonville

58.82

31

San Francisco

57.69

32 Cowboys 52.0

Efficiency rate

Cowboys’ inside 20 efficiency (regular season):

Opp Pos. TDs TD pct.

at Carolina

1

1

100.0

NY Giants

3

1

33.3

at Seattle

3

1

33.3

Detroit

3

1

33.3

at Houston

2

1

50.0

Jacksonville

5

4

80.0

at Washington

1

1

100.0

Tennessee

4

1

25.0

at Philadelphia

5

3

60.0

at Atlanta

2

1

50.0

Washington

3

2

66.7

New Orleans

5

1

20.0

Philadelphia

4

1

25.0

at Indianapolis

2

0

0.0

Tampa Bay

3

2

66.7

at NY Giants

4

3

75.0

Totals

50

24

48.0

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