IRVING, Texas – For the second straight week, quarterback Matt Cassel and the Cowboys’ offense are looking for ways to improve.
Last week for Cassel, it was eliminating the decisions that led to three interceptions and 10 Giants points in a 27-20 loss at the Meadowlands.
This week, the list includes simply scoring touchdowns -- and that starts with capitalizing in the red zone. The offense had three opportunities inside the 20-yard line last Sunday and settled for three field goals in a 13-12 loss to the Seahawks.
“We actually had one situation where I misread throwing the bubble (screen) that will set us up to a better situation on third down instead of being third and long. Little things like that,” Cassel said. “We had an offsides early in the game, things that we can eliminate. It’s an easy thing to eliminate, and if we do that, I think we put ourselves in better positions to score points and score touchdowns.”
The Cowboys have reached the end zone twice in the last three games, both against the Giants on Oct. 25, Cassel’s first start. In losses to the Patriots (Oct. 11) and Seahawks they scored a combined 18 points.
Finishing productive drives is key. With Tony Romo under center last year, the Cowboys scored touchdowns on 36-of-56 total red zone opportunities – a 64.2-percent conversion rate.
In five games without Romo (collarbone) – he’s eligible to return to game action Nov. 22 at the Dolphins – the offense has converted 6-of-16 red zone attempts at a 37.5-percent clip, including 0-for-3 against Seattle last Sunday. They also were 4-of-14 on third down.
“It was one of those games where we didn’t have a lot of opportunities on either side,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “There were only nine drives for each team in the game, so you have to maximize them and some of the plays where we didn’t convert third down or convert in the red zone really get magnified in a game like that. There were some good things, but it obviously wasn’t good enough."
Cassel wore a knee brace in Wednesday’s practice and was listed on the official injury report as a full practice participant. He got hit by Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett on the final drive last Sunday, which drew a roughing the passer penalty.
“It’s fine,” Cassel said. “It’s just more precautionary, especially after I got rolled up on in the third or fourth last play of the game.”
Another full week of practice with receiver Dez Bryant should help. Bryant was a limited participant last week in his return from a broken foot, and was listed as a limited participant again Wednesday.
With no turnovers but only 97 passing yards on 25 attempts against Seattle, it would appear Cassel dialed things down after passing for 227 yards and a touchdown (plus the three picks) against the Giants. Cassel reiterated that lower-risk throws were required at times against the Seahawks’ scheme.
“Well, there were times we tried to push the ball down the field. At the same time I think they did a tremendous job trying to stay on top of our receivers,” he said. “You could see if you watch the film there’s a lot of zone drops, deep zone drops, they’re outside the comebacks, outside the deep corners, stuff like that.
“So they gave you nothing but the opportunity to check the ball down. So at that point you’ve got to take what they give because the last thing you want to do against a team a like that, especially in a tight ballgame, is create a situation where you turn the ball over and give them another opportunity.”
Overall the Cowboys’ defense has tightened up the last two games, allowing an average of 13 points. Cassel and the offense must strike a balance between overly aggressive and overly conservative, which means opportunistic.
Next up is an Eagles defense that leads the league with 19 takeaways.
“They’re going to blitz a lot, they’re going to challenge you,” Cassel said. “They have a huge turnover margin, so we’ve got to take care of the football but at the same time we’ve got to be able to take shots and move the ball down the field.”