Good & Bad: Red-Zone Offense Among Best; First-Down Woes


IRVING, Texas – As with all 8-8 seasons, the good goes hand in hand with the bad.

The Cowboys fixed some of their past problems from their previous two 8-8 seasons, while new ones popped up in the latest .500 finish in 2013.

This series takes a look at both the good and the bad, analyzing some of the positive, more promising aspects of the 2013 season alongside the negative, more troubling traits as the team prepares for a new year.

Our second edition focuses on some situational football. The Cowboys have had issues in the red zone in the past, but not in 2013. They were among the best in the league at cashing in on their opportunities. As for the defense, the Cowboys were one of the worst units in NFL history and certainly the worst in the league this past year. And there was one particular down-and-distance that seemed to plague this team the most.

Promising: In the two years leading up to the 2013 season, the Cowboys struggled mightily in red-zone production, particularly scoring touchdowns. In 2012, Dallas ranked 20th in the NFL in touchdown average on trips inside the 20. In 2011, the club was also 20th.

But this past year, the Cowboys became one of the NFL's best in scoring down in the red zone. The Cowboys ranked third, just behind Denver (76.1 percent) and Cincinnati (73.9), with a 68.6 touchdown average. Of the 51 possessions that ultimately went inside the opponent's 20, the Cowboys scored 35 touchdowns.

Their overall scoring average was 92.2 percent, their 12 field goals marking 47 of 51 times they came away with some kind of points. That percentage ranked fourth in the NFL.

So why the sudden success? Well, two of the reasons could be the increased touchdowns scored by Jason Witten and DeMarco Murray, two players who were both invited to the Pro Bowl.

Murray had six total rushing touchdowns in his first two seasons but finished with nine in 2013, and that was including two games missed because of a knee injury.

Witten's touchdown numbers have never matched his overall productivity, but he did increase his scoring this year with eight, which also equaled his number of touchdowns in the previous two seasons combined.

Let's not forget Dez Bryant, who tied for third in the NFL this year with 13 touchdown catches. More than half of them came as a result of a jump ball, a play considered by most as low-percentage. Bryant was able to haul in that pass more often than not, and it's likely that helped open up the middle for Witten and Murray to find the end zone as well.

Troubling: Of course, this category is going to be defense most of the time. The defense was one of the worst the NFL has ever seen, statistically. Had it not been for turnovers, the Cowboys would've been way worse defensively and probably would of had no shot at even earning a .500 record.

But one trend that was troubling all year was the defense on first downs. The Cowboys ranked 29th in the NFL in first-down defense, yielding 6.20 yards per play. What that signals is there was also a problem with the base-defense, since typically the defense will be in that scheme on first down. [embedded_ad]

It's not like they struggled more in nickel or goal-line, but in their standard 4-3 defense is where the root of the problems seemed to be.

Also, just as bad as the average per play on first down was the amount of first-down tries and yards. The Cowboys faced the second-most first-down plays in the NFL with 515, just one behind the Eagles, who averaged only 5.49 yards to teams on first downs.

The Cowboys led the league with 3,191 first-down yards allowed, but before you assume the bulk of those yards occurred on long pass plays, consider the Cowboys gave up 5.12 rushing yards on first-and-10 plays for 1,034 yards. On first-and-10 passing plays, the Cowboys surrendered just 7.81 yards.

Clearly, this team had issues stopping the run, even when it was somewhat expected opponents would be handing off.

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