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What's Stalling The Offense In The Red Zone?


FRISCO, Texas – It's a popular topic this week outside the Cowboys' new world headquarters.

It's also a primary focus for the team and coaching staff inside The Star.

How can the offense do a better job of finishing drives?

"We spent a lot of time talking about it last night," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said, referring to the staff's regular meetings. "Really if you break it down, it's probably a combination of execution and maybe pressing a little bit down there.

"We've got to certainly coach better in those situations and play better and really be a better execution group down there, because we're getting down there. It's not like we're short on numbers of our attempts. It's just we haven't been able to cash in."

Through 14 games, the Cowboys rank 31st in red zone efficiency. They've scored touchdowns on only 44.2 percent of their trips inside their opponents' 20-yard line.

It's a stark difference to the past two seasons when the offense ranked third in 2016 (66.7 percent) and sixth in 2017 (59.6 percent) despite running back Ezekiel Elliott's six-game absence on the NFL's Reserve/Suspended list.

The Cowboys suffered their first shutout loss in 15 years last Sunday against Indianapolis. But the offense had chances. Another long drive stalled in the second quarter when quarterback Dak Prescott and fullback Jamize Olawale didn't connect on an open throw, then running back Ezekiel Elliott found nowhere to run on fourth down inside the 5.

"We're not executing the way we need to execute plays," Prescott said. "You saw last week a couple of those were just pure mis-executions from the players' standpoint."

There are likely other factors. The offensive line's depth has been tested throughout the season. Sacks and minus runs have hurt down and distance.

And, as Linehan said, opponents are keying on "21 and 4" – Elliott and Prescott.

"So really our big challenge as a staff and as a team offensively is having guys take up some specific roles down there and giving them the opportunities to do that," Linehan said. "But we've had some opportunities that we didn't execute very well, and that tends to put you in a position where you feel like you're pressing a little bit. And I think they've just got to go play and let it loose a little more down there."

Friday is typically the Cowboys' red zone work day, and Linehan said they might increase the reps in those situations this week.

Sunday's opponent, Tampa Bay, ranks last in red zone defense. The Bucs are allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 78.4 percent of trips.

But the Cowboys' offense is focused on their own execution. They only had seven possessions against the Colts and converted only 4 of 12 third downs.

For only the third time in his three-year career, Prescott did not have a rushing attempt in a game – a "crazy" feeling, he said, when he realized it afterward. Linehan said the flow of the game and favorable box looks for Elliott were factors, but there's no question Prescott's mobility is an asset inside and outside the 20.

Overall, Linehan views this week as a chance for the offense to "wipe the slate clean" in the red zone. Despite last week's struggles, the Cowboys (8-6) have another opportunity to clinch the NFC East this Sunday at home.

"We've got to get down there and cash in," he said. "Give them a great plan and then we've got to go out and execute better."