Cowboys' matchup with Ezekiel Elliott is a stark reminder of their No. 1 issue on offense right now

Thanks to boosts from their defense and special teams, the Dallas Cowboys have outscored their 2023 opponents 86-38.

Yet coming off their first loss of the season – a surprising upset after they were favored by double digits against the Arizona Cardinals – the Cowboys’ top offensive concern is clear: red-zone production.

Sample sizes are tricky three weeks in, and this one is no different. The Cowboys are very good at getting to the red zone, tying the Chiefs with a league-best 18 trips (half the league has fewer than 10). Success once there, however, has proven trickier. The Cowboys rank 27th in red-zone success rate, converting on just 40% (six of 15) touchdowns.

That number is worse over the past two weeks, when 11 opportunities have yielded just three touchdowns. It’s a schematic weakness (or room for growth, depending on your perspective) that Dallas is well aware of and one the team says it will harp on this week in practice.

“We’ve been down there ample times to execute it,” team owner and general manager Jerry Jones said Wednesday on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “When you get in that red zone, that’s the defensive time. They have the edge. They have the shorter field.

“Do we have the players to get the ball in there? Unquestionably, we have the players. Can we execute better? You can imagine what a focus point it is for our team.

“While that is something to note, it’s not a long-range concern.”

Will it become one?

If the Cowboys struggled in the red zone against the New York Jets and Cardinals, expect them to face still steeper challenges the next two weeks against Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots defense and the San Francisco 49ers.

Against the Patriots, the Cowboys will also meet a clear reminder of why they’ve fallen so quickly in the red zone: the loss of running back Ezekiel Elliott.

The Cowboys rank dead last in rushing yards over expectation in the red zone the past two weeks, per Next Gen Stats. The New Orleans Saints (minus-10), Green Bay Packers (minus-13) and Detroit Lions (minus-16) also have struggled but none as much as the Cowboys’ minus-27.

Dallas released Elliott in March. The Patriots signed him in training camp. The Cowboys will likely welcome their 2016 fourth overall pick to his seven-year home with a tribute, with Jones saying, “I don't want to blow a surprise, and that’s a good enough answer for you.”

Elliott drew critiques in recent years as his efficiency waned with age. After averaging at least 4 yards per carry – and three times at least 4.5 yards per carry across a season – Elliott managed just 3.8 yards per carry last season. Outside voices clamored for running back Tony Pollard to get more opportunities, with his explosiveness evident and his ability to run between the tackles underrated.

But Elliott’s production was also underrated. Touchdowns are worth six points, no matter from how far out they arrive, and Elliott collected 12 touchdowns each of the past two seasons. All 24 came in the red zone. Tight end Dalton Schultz, whom Dallas let walk in free agency this offseason, contributed 11 more red-zone touchdowns across those two seasons.

The Cowboys ranked first in red-zone efficiency last season, converting on a whopping 71.43% of attempts. The prior year, they ranked sixth, with a 63.08% success rate.

The Cowboys have had their challenges in the red zone this season. How can they fix that? And are they about to come face-to-face with the biggest reason for their struggles: the departure of Ezekiel Elliott? (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
The Cowboys have had their challenges in the red zone this season. How can they fix that? And are they about to come face-to-face with the biggest reason for their struggles: the departure of Ezekiel Elliott? (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Is the loss of Zeke the reason the Cowboys are slipping in the red zone?

Jones, often quick to counter criticism for personnel moves, dismissed Elliott’s absence as a limiting factor in the red zone.

“Zeke’s unique physicalness is always nice to have, to be trite about it,” Jones said. “We think about ‘physical’ on short yardage and probably should. But I do not think that physicalness from the running back is contributing to us not getting in the end zone.”

The issue might be less about the Cowboys’ running back room and more about their usage of receivers in the red zone. Through three games, Pollard is averaging 104 yards from scrimmage and has touched the ball a league-high 74 times. He has scored two touchdowns, while running back Rico Dowdle added another. The Cowboys also have two touchdowns from tight ends, one each from Jake Ferguson and rookie Luke Schoonmaker.

Their receivers, meanwhile, have not scored through three weeks.

That, more than general running back production, is where the Cowboys need to get creative. Head coach Mike McCarthy is calling plays for the first time in his four Dallas seasons. He needs to power his precise West Coast principles to scheme open star receiver CeeDee Lamb or big-bodied Michael Gallup or speedy receiver Brandin Cooks.

Even factoring in the extra opportunities the Cowboys have had in the red zone, their passer rating (72.7) ranks 25th the past two games, per Next Gen Stats.

The Cowboys need more from quarterback Dak Prescott, whose red-zone performance against the Cardinals included a costly interception with 3:05 to play. Prescott knows he also needs to use his legs more in the red zone, a tactic that has generated 26 touchdowns in his career. Make defenses respect his escapability, and they’ll need to lighten coverage on his targets.

That’s what the Cowboys will look for this week against the Patriots. That’s what Jones will look for from McCarthy, about whose playcalls he has been overwhelmingly positive – yet Jones stopped short of saying that he’s happy with what he has seen through three weeks.

“I want to see more to use the word ‘happy,’” he said. “But let me be real clear: I think that what we’re trying to do is really doable.

“I am very pleased with the prospects of going from here and what our potential is to correct some of the negatives you saw out there.”