One of the major reasons the Cowboys lost to the Arizona Cardinals 28-16 on Sunday was their defensive effort. The run defense was obliterated (222 yards) and the Cardinals were able to hang plays of 69, 45, 44, 26, 23 and 20 yards on a defense that had given up points in just one of their first eight quarters.
But once again, the red zone failures on offense -- one touchdown in five trips -- stand out.
Just ask Dak Prescott.
“You look at this loss, we moved the ball up and down the field and just couldn’t score,” the quarterback said. “So that’s your reason for this loss.”
Last season, the Cowboys scored touchdowns on 40 of 56 red zone drives (71%). The only time they were worse than 50% was against the Los Angeles Rams when they went 0-for-2 with backup quarterback Cooper Rush as the starter. And they still won 22-10.
With a new playcaller in head coach Mike McCarthy, the red zone work has been slow to come around.
“We’re not executing the way we’d like to,” McCarthy said.
In the first two weeks, Prescott completed 9 of 15 red zone passes for 36 yards and two touchdowns.
Against the Cardinals in the red zone, he completed just 2 of 9 passes for 25 yards with a touchdown -- a 15-yard screen pass to Rico Dowdle -- and an interception, which came in the end zone with three minutes left to seal the defeat. The Cardinals flooded the red zone with their coverage, according to McCarthy, which is why he was running the ball so much.
One trip in the third quarter ended on downs when Prescott scrambled free but could not find an open receiver in the end zone. Prescott dropped a snap on one play, which contributed to a holding penalty. Through three games, Prescott has yet to throw a touchdown pass to a wide receiver.
Earlier on the drive that ended in Prescott’s first interception of the season, the officials picked up a pass interference flag after a fade throw to Michael Gallup. Five plays later, four of which were runs, Prescott was picked off.
“He didn’t play the ball,” Gallup said of the defender. “He never turned around.”
But relying on fade throws in the red zone is a risky strategy.
“We’ve got to do better,” Prescott said. “Just as a team, as a unit, myself. Got to make some throws. Maybe use my feet more. Honestly, that’s an area that we haven’t been good in the last two weeks. Even in the win last week, that was the sore spot in the win … We’ve all got to get back to the drawing board. Starts with me. Making some throws and making some plays with my feet and trying to get it done.”
Whether it starts with McCarthy or Prescott, the Cowboys need it to end in a touchdown, especially when their defense is having an off game, which they did against the Cardinals.
The New England Patriots, the Cowboys' Week 4 opponent, have allowed three touchdowns on five red zone trips to the Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins and Jets. But the Jets were so poor on offense, they did not even have a trip inside New England’s 20-yard line.
When the Cowboys last faced the Patriots in 2021 -- an overtime win for Dallas -- they were 2-of-5 in the red zone. Scoring touchdowns against a Bill Belichick-coached defense is always difficult. At 1-2, the Patriots have not given up more than 25 points in a game. They limited a Dolphins offense that scored 70 against the Denver Broncos Sunday to 24 points.
The Cowboys need to get better in a hurry.
“There is a quick fix,” said wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass in 2021.
“Got to get in the end zone,” he said. “That’s the quick fix.”