Issues in red zone are broken record for Cowboys

FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Dak Prescott and Tony Pollard collided in the backfield on a botched handoff that forced yet another field-goal try for the Dallas Cowboys inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

Not even the worst loss of New England coach Bill Belichick's storied career could mask a growing concern for the Cowboys going into a showdown with San Francisco on Sunday.

Prescott and company are having trouble turning red zone trips into end zone trips.

Dallas got a touchdown once in four trips inside the Patriots 20, a meaningless tack-on TD late in the 38-3 victory that was the third blowout win in four games for the Cowboys (3-1).

While it's worth noting that the touchdown that put Dallas ahead for good in the first quarter came from the 20 and didn't technically count as a red zone trip, the messy Prescott-Pollard play was emblematic of the issue.

“We won 38-3 so I’m not going to sit here and harp on that,” said Prescott, whose 20-yard TD toss to CeeDee Lamb was his first to a receiver this season. “But that definitely gives us something to work on.”

The Cowboys came out of the rout of the Patriots 29th in the NFL in touchdown rate inside the 20 at 36.8%.

The inefficiency cost them in their only loss, 28-16 to Arizona, which has lost its other three games. It never mattered much in three blowout victories because of a defense that has allowed just 13 points total in those games while scoring an NFL-best three TDs.

“Just got to keep working,” said coach Mike McCarthy, who took over the play-calling this season. “This is a good place to be when you’re winning by a significant margin of victory, and you still feel like you have lot of work to do. I like where we are.”

The upside for the Cowboys: Rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey still hasn't missed amid all the stalls in the red zone. The 28-year-old is 13 of 13, becoming the eighth kicker in NFL history with at least that many makes in a perfect start to a career. The record is 18.

WHAT’S WORKING

Cornerback DaRon Bland had his second interception return for a touchdown this season against the Patriots, after linebacker Leighton Vander Esch scooped up a fumble and scored.

It was the first time the Cowboys had two defensive touchdowns in a game in 10 years, and Dallas has a league-best 12 TDs on defense since defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was hired in 2021.

After the game, a reporter asked McCarthy if he could remember having a cornerback (Bland) and running back (Pollard) tied for the team lead in touchdowns (two) after five games.

“That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” McCarthy said. “We’ve led the league the last two years in takeaways. It’s no surprise for us as far as how our guys play.”

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The mental hurdle of facing the unbeaten 49ers (4-0) is substantial for the Cowboys, who have lost to San Francisco in the playoffs each of the past two seasons.

Prescott had a long pause before his answer to what ended up being the final question he took after beating the Patriots. He said it couldn't be more obvious what the locker room was like after the 19-12 divisional round loss at the 49ers last season. The rematch is in California, too.

“We're so far past that, to be honest,” Prescott said.

Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence was asked when the attention will turn to the 49ers.

“Is that who we play next week?” Lawrence asked, somewhat rhetorically while getting “yes” for an answer. “All right. I'll turn to San Francisco on Tuesday.”

STOCK UP

The health of the offensive line improved after three starters were missing in the loss to the Cardinals. Six-time All-Pro RG Zack Martin (ankle) and C Tyler Biadasz (hamstring) returned against New England.

Now Dallas waits for LT Tyron Smith to come back from a knee injury. He was active but didn't play against Arizona and was inactive against the Patriots.

STOCK DOWN

Although it wasn't an easy catch, rookie TE Luke Schoonmaker couldn't hang on to one of Prescott's better throws of the game in the end zone on the opening possession. It would have been a red zone TD. Schoonmaker was targeted three times without a catch.

INJURIES

The depth at running back will be tested after Pollard backup Rico Dowdle injured a hip against the Patriots. Undersized rookie sixth-round pick Deuce Vaughn had just 9 yards on eight carries.

The bright spot for Dallas was undrafted rookie fullback Hunter Luepke helping the Cowboys feel better about the red zone with a 3-yard touchdown run late in the game.

KEY NUMBER

9-1 — That's the Dallas record after losses since the start of 2021. The .900 winning percentage is the highest among NFL teams coming off losses in that span.

NEXT STEPS

The playoff losses to San Francisco extended Dallas' long stretch without even a trip to the NFC championship game, now at 27 seasons. But the Cowboys have dominated recent regular-season meetings, winning six of seven going back to 2005.

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