Examining the Cowboys’ offensive woes — red zone issues, play calling and more

GLENDALE, Ariz. — For two weeks, the defense carried the Dallas Cowboys. The offense made enough plays and, most importantly, did a great job staying out of the way by taking care of the ball.

Sunday in Arizona was different. The defense needed support. The offense failed miserably trying to provide it.

“The biggest thing in this league is sustaining success,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “That can be from one play to the next, one series to the next, one week to the next. I think you saw that in the first half. When you’re getting stops on defense, when you’re scoring touchdowns, there’s a flow to it.”

The offense didn’t have flow and wasn’t scoring touchdowns. Let’s examine what went wrong.


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Red zone issues

Two of the Cowboys’ final three drives reached the Cardinals’ 4- and 6-yard lines, respectively, and the Cowboys came away with zero points. Sandwiched between that was a drive that got to the 8-yard line and ended with a 26-yard field goal.

“There is a quick fix,” CeeDee Lamb said. “We’ve been terrible right now, though. Looking forward to (fixing) it. Got to get in the end zone. That’s the quick fix. … We’ve got to go score touchdowns. We ain’t going to get nowhere with three points.”

In four trips to the red zone — all inside the 10 — the Cowboys came away empty-handed twice and with field goals the other two times. The Cowboys have too much talent for these issues at this magnitude. Part of it is play calling (more on that momentarily) and the other part of it is understanding how to utilize personnel. Dalton Schultz was an experienced tight end who could be a weapon in that area, as was Ezekiel Elliott out of the backfield. The two combined for 17 touchdowns (Elliott 12, Schultz 5) last season all in the red zone. Both are gone and the Cowboys have failed to adjust.

Michael Gallup is the lone big-body wide receiver among the primary trio yet he hasn’t gotten many opportunities — fade routes or jump balls — to make a play. The one look he did get on the final drive created a good look that probably should have resulted in a pass interference penalty in the end zone. The Cowboys haven’t turned to him much, despite the status quo not producing results either.

“We’ve got to do better,” Dak Prescott said. “Just as a team, as a unit, myself. Got to make some throws, maybe use my feet more. Obviously, that’s an area we haven’t been good in these last two weeks. Even with the win last week, that was the sore spot in the win. Obviously, look at this loss, move the ball up and down the field a little bit. Just couldn’t score. That’s the reason for this loss. We’ve all got to get back to the drawing board. It starts with me and making some throws and making some plays with my feet and trying to get it done.”

Late in the third quarter, the Cowboys faced fourth-and-goal from the 4 and Prescott rolled to the right. In that situation, he either needed to find an opening to tuck the ball and run (on this play, there was a defender screaming downhill at him once he broke the pocket), or throw a desperation pass that gives a receiver the chance to make a spectacular play to bail him out (or McCarthy could call a run play, or opt to take the three points in a 21-13 game, but those are separate discussions from Prescott). Prescott did neither. Instead, he drilled the ball into the dirt as one would do to live another play. On fourth down, there is no next play.

The final play on offense Sunday ended with Prescott’s first interception of the season to punctuate the red zone woes. Prescott tried to fit the ball into a very tight window to Brandin Cooks in the back of the end zone.

“Cooks is boom-boom, getting back behind the linebacker,” Prescott said. “Backer did a good job of playing it. Tried to look him away and just put it by his ear. I knew it was going to be a tough throw. … We didn’t convert in the red zone. That’s the story of this game, period.”


“Quite honestly, this game, we had a lot of self-inflicted wounds,” Lamb said. “I mean, they didn’t beat us one bit. They had two touchdowns and the rest were field goals. We didn’t score any (touchdowns). Maybe one. I don’t even remember.”

The offensive line was largely available last week against the New York Jets and the Cowboys still had issues punching the ball in the end zone. The Cowboys have an issue of figuring out how to make things work in the red zone with their skill positions.

Play-calling selection

This issue carries over from the red zone, but extends beyond that. For a sample size from the game, let’s look at the last three Cowboys drives — each got inside the 10-yard line but combined to produce three total points.

The first began midway through the third quarter, with the Cowboys trailing, 21-13. On this eight-play drive, the Cowboys had six first or second downs. Only twice on those six plays did the Cowboys throw the ball, even though the results were favorable — a 27-yard catch by Gallup on the first play of the drive and a 10-yard catch by Lamb two plays later. The big play came when Tony Pollard ran 31 yards to the Cardinals’ 11. From there, once again, it was a run on first and second down to set up a third-and-3. A holding penalty made it third-and-13, and Prescott found Jake Ferguson for a 10-yard gain. The Cowboys went for it on fourty-and-3 from the 4, which was the aforementioned Prescott incomplete pass into the ground.

The next drive began early in the fourth quarter with the same score. On this 12-play drive, there were nine plays of first or second down. Once again, only two passes. One was incomplete to Cooks while the other was a 10-yard catch by Gallup in the red zone (Prescott also had a 1-yard scramble earlier in the drive on a called pass play). Once it became first-and-goal, it was a similar formula: first- and second-down runs, third-down pass (incomplete) and settling for a field goal attempt.

The final drive of the game began midway through the fourth quarter with the Cowboys trailing, 28-16. This 13-play drive had 11 first- and second-down plays (only five were pass plays). There were two incomplete passes, a 21-yard completion to Gallup and a couple of 9-yard tosses to Gallup and Rico Dowdle. On first-and-goal, Pollard lost two yards. On second-and-goal, he got back one yard and Prescott was intercepted on third down.

“We’re not executing the way we’d like to,” McCarthy said of the red zone issues. “I’ve got to do a better job, obviously. That starts with me. They were playing us really high in coverage so that’s why we were committing to the run.”

Wide receiver disconnect

Another issue become hard to ignore is that wide receivers are not getting into the end zone. The last time Prescott threw a touchdown to a wide receiver was the fourth quarter of last season’s wild-card game, when he hooked up with Lamb. Since then, it’s been all tight ends and running backs. No receiver caught a touchdown in the divisional round against the San Francisco 49ers, and none through the first three weeks of the season, bringing the drought to 16 consecutive quarters.

“Just haven’t done it,” Prescott said. “You go to the one to Gallup, I’ve got to make that throw, get it out there in front of him a little bit earlier. The one to CeeDee is close, would like to get the call on that one as well. We’re taking attempts, just got to convert. Simple as that.”

This isn’t the 2018 stable of receivers. Lamb, Cooks and Gallup are too talented for this sort of drought to be taking place. It’s not all on Prescott; there’s plenty of blame to go around, from the injuries up front to Prescott to the receivers and to the play calling. The pass to Gallup on the last Cowboys drive of the game was one of the better chances, and it had a controversial result. The officials initially threw the flag for defensive pass interference, as the defender clearly did not look back for the ball and made premature contact with Gallup. However, officials picked up the flag.

Screenshot 2023 09 24 at 7.56.08 PM

Marco Wilson defends Michael Gallup in the end zone.

“When you come into somebody else’s house, you know you’re going to be playing against the refs and the other team, regardless,” Gallup said. “Of course, we’re the Dallas Cowboys so ain’t no getting those calls. It is what it is, got to play through them. … That was a tough one. He didn’t even play the ball. He never turned around. It is what it is. Like I said, you playing against both of them. Just got to overcome.”

Offensively, the Cowboys had three pre-snap penalties, including two false starts on Terence Steele and a delay of game on the first drive right after Steele’s first false start.

Altered and condensed play sheet

Dallas was decimated up front, playing the game without three of its five starting offensive linemen. Right guard Zack Martin (ankle) and center Tyler Biadasz (hamstring) were inactive. Tyron Smith was active but did not play after being added to the injury report Saturday with a knee injury.

“It changes a lot of things,” McCarthy said. “But I’m proud of our young linemen. Not only did they step up and play today but they did it on very little reps throughout the week. That’s a challenge that everybody has.

“When you have an injury on a Sunday, you have a full week of prep to go into it. When you have things that are not clear until the end of the week, it’s a challenge on the guys that have to step in. … There are reps that go into wrinkles. Your variation of your base concepts and protections. There are some things that were taken off but like I said, I’m proud of those guys. They stepped up and did what was asked of them.”

Clearly, an offensive line that has Chuma Edoga, T.J. Bass and Brock Hoffman in for Smith, Biadasz and Martin is going to have its limitations, which extends to the rest of the roster. That played a role in how the offense performed against Cardinals from an execution perspective and what plays were available to run, but it was not the primary culprit.

(Top photo of CeeDee Lamb: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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