Red zone work one reason Cowboys regulars should play in Week 17

FRISCO, Texas -- When Dak Prescott scored on a 7-yard run in the first quarter of last Sunday's victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback flexed his biceps.

It was the rare perfect ending to a red zone drive by the Cowboys, plus it provided an answer to those who have wanted to see Prescott run it more.

In the third quarter, the Cowboys gave the ball two straight times to Ezekiel Elliott (one carry, one reception) to set up first-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 3. On first down, Elliott was stopped for no gain. On second down, Amari Cooper lost 7 yards on a shovel pass. On third-and-goal from the 10, Cole Beasley picked up 8 yards on a reception.

On came Brett Maher for a 20-yard field goal.

A little over a minute later, the Cowboys were at the Buccaneers’ 4 after a Randy Gregory fumble recovery. On first down, Prescott threw a fade pass to Noah Brown, who had three catches on the season entering the game. It fell incomplete. On second down, Prescott hit Michael Gallup with a fade ball on the other side of the end zone for a touchdown.

While the drive resulted in a touchdown, it was curious to see the Cowboys go with fade throws on back-to-back plays.

But the result was two touchdowns on three red zone trips.

That tied for the second-best showing the Cowboys have had this season in games with multiple trips inside the opponent’s 20. The only better performance came in the 40-7 win over Jacksonville, when the Cowboys converted touchdowns on 4 of 5 red zone trips.

“Obviously [it was] better than we did last week and better than we had [been doing],” Prescott said after the game. “We can start there. But we can also get a lot better. We can turn some of those field goal drives into touchdowns. We did a better job executing. Some of them didn’t work, and that’s just how it goes.”

As the Cowboys turn their attention to what needs to improve for a potential playoff run, red zone productivity is at the top of the list.

Maximizing possessions matters in the playoffs. Points matter in the playoffs. Settling for field goals inside the red zone in the playoffs can be the difference between going on and going home.

In the Cowboys’ most recent playoff game, Aaron Rodgers’ wizardry did them in when he converted a third-and-21 pass on the game-winning drive. But what if the Cowboys had scored touchdowns on more than two of their four red zone trips? The Packers scored touchdowns on all three trips inside the Cowboys’ 20.

According to the ESPN Football Power Index, there is a 97 percent chance the Cowboys will play the Seattle Seahawks in the wild-card round. The Seahawks have the seventh-best red zone offense in the NFL. They have the fifth-best red zone defense.

By going 2-of-3 against the Buccaneers, the Cowboys are now 30th in red zone offense. They have scored touchdowns on 21 of 46 red zone chances in their first 15 games.

If there is a reason to play the regulars against the New York Giants on Sunday, it’s to hopefully get some red zone work leading into the playoffs.

“Obviously we’ve been struggling in the red zone a little bit. That definitely should be a point of emphasis,” Cooper said. “Just try to execute in all phases going into the playoffs. Teams will really have an opportunity to game-plan.”

A week ago, the Cowboys dedicated more practice time to their red zone work on Friday -- a total of four more plays.

“I just think concentrating on executing what they do, what we are going to run. We’ve got to execute better,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “We’ve been pretty good up until this year in the red zone. It’s not like it’s a new concept for us. We just aren’t doing as well as we need to, so we’ve got to find solutions to that. I think some of that is just based on what we give them as a plan and them demanding much better execution out of it.”

After Linehan became the playcaller in 2014, the Cowboys ranked No. 2, No. 30, No. 5 and No. 7 in red zone success before this year. The outlier was 2015, as Tony Romo started and finished just two games that season.

This year, the Cowboys’ red zone attack has not had Dez Bryant or Jason Witten. Bryant remained a red zone threat with his ability to go up and over defenders on fade throws or back-shoulder throws. Witten was a threat in the middle of the field. The Cowboys’ tight ends have one touchdown catch this season.

“I don’t think that would be fair to even use that as an idea,” Linehan said of the absences of Bryant and Witten playing a part in the lack of success.

The Cowboys can look back at several missed opportunities.

Beasley dropped a touchdown pass against the Atlanta Falcons. An under-pressure Prescott was unable to get the ball to an open Brown at the goal line against the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving. A Prescott pass to Beasley went off the receiver’s fingertips on first-and-goal from the Eagles' 5 on Dec. 9.

A week later against the Indianapolis Colts, the Cowboys were shut out for the first time since 2003. Fullback Jamize Olawale dropped a sure touchdown pass from the Colts’ 3.

Linehan did not want “here we go again” to creep into the players’ minds.

“I think we’ve got to wipe the slate clean and go down there and start a new streak of playing better down there,” Linehan said. “Because it’s like anything else -- start pressing or you start getting yourself thinking about things that have broken down before. I don’t think that’s the right way to coach and play offense. We’ve certainly got to do better down there.”

Maybe the Tampa Bay success is the start of a new streak the Cowboys can carry over to the playoffs.

"It's important not to overanalyze it,” Elliott said. “It’s important to focus on what our strengths are and just making sure we keep working on it. We just got to make sure we’re locked in when we get down there and really understand how it’s important to come out of there with points.”