FRISCO, Texas – Dak Prescott isn't focused on outside chatter about the offense's recent struggles, having scored a combined 24 points in the last two games after averaging 28.7 in the first 11.
"It just wasn't my best game," the rookie starting quarterback said Wednesday coming off a season-low 45.4 passer rating in the Cowboys' 10-7 loss to the New York Giants that snapped an 11-game win streak. "I didn't play clean at all."
All Prescott and the offense can do is focus on better execution – and a major component is third down.
The Cowboys have dropped from second to 12th in third down efficiency in the last two weeks (48.5 to 42.3 percent) after converting 2-of-24 against the Minnesota Vikings and Giants (1-of-9 and 1-of-15, respectively).
"We've been one of the better third-down teams in the league all year long," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "It's been a strength of ours; it's been one of the reasons we've been able to stay on the field as much as we have. But there's no question the last couple of weeks it's been an issue, so you go back and you look at it and see if you can find something about what we're doing, about how we're executing, about what position we're putting the players in and you make the adjustments if you need to."
The key isn't just what happened on third down – it's what happened on first and second down to make third down unmanageable.
Simply put, the Cowboys have gotten behind the chains in these last two road games. They were in third-and-long (third-and-7 or worse) in nine of 15 situations against the Giants. They were in third-and-long in five of nine situations against the Vikings.
Not an ideal environment for a quarterback – rookie or veteran – on the road.
"We've been getting behind in down and distance," said running back Ezekiel Elliott, who ranks second in the NFL with 91 first downs. "We were very good at converting third downs because we were converting third-and-medium and third-and-short. We've had a lot of third-and-longs because we've been getting behind because of penalties and just not really doing well."
Sunday's opponent at AT&T Stadium, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, trail only the Miami Dolphins in third-down defense. Opponents are converting third downs against them only 34.2 percent of the time.
Prescott said he's looking to improve his communication with the rest of the offense this week, making sure everyone is on the same page. He also knows he can't force passes downfield trying to make a big play. Taking what the defense allows is a big reason he has the league's third-best passer rating (102.7).
"I've got to be better, just throwing the ball, communicating and every aspect of the quarterback position," he said.
More manageable third downs would help.