3 Biggest Areas the Cowboys Must Improve in Home Stretch of NFL Season
The 2021 Dallas Cowboys have a chance to be a special team.
They aren't a perfect team, but they are one of just seven sides that rank in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency, per ESPN's FPI.
They have almost wrapped up the NFC East. They are two games ahead of the Washington Football Team, and both have nearly identical schedules the rest of the way.
And the Cowboys are just one game behind the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to climb to the No. 2 seed. They're two games behind the Arizona Cardinals for the No. 1 seed and a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
This doesn't mean there isn't room to improve, though. The best teams get better throughout the season, and the Cowboys will need to be one of them if they want to attain their Super Bowl aspirations.
Here are three areas that have to be improved for Dallas to have success down the home stretch and beyond.
Limiting Big Plays
The goal of every NFL offense is to create explosive plays. It's no secret that chunk plays can change the complexion of a game faster than anything.
Thus, games often come down to creating explosive plays and stopping the other team from doing the same. The Cowboys' offense is dynamic enough to create plenty of big gains, but their defense is among the worst in the league at preventing them.
They are currently one of only four franchises that has allowed 50 or more plays of 20 yards or more and surrendered 10 plays of 40 or more yards.
Last week against the Saints, it was a 70-yard touchdown pass to Deonte Harris. The week before it was a 56-yarder to DeSean Jackson of the Raiders. Ironically, the last team that didn't score a big-play touchdown was the Kansas City Chiefs despite having one of the fastest big-play receivers in the game in Tyreek Hill.
Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is in a tough spot. Neither safety Damontae Kazee (4.54-second 40) nor Jayron Kearse (4.62) have elite speed on the back end so putting a lid on the top of the defense is difficult.
The Cowboys will need to find an answer, though, because they are likely to see either Tom Brady and the Bucs or Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the postseason, and both quarterbacks can exploit the weak spots.
Cleaner Offensive Play
There's no denying the Cowboys have one of the most talented offenses in the NFL. When everyone is healthy and everything is clicking, they are nearly impossible to stop.
The problem is that the offense has had stretches where it's its own worst enemy. Dallas is the most penalized team in the NFL after racking up 96 flags for 851 yards in total. The offense has been the worst perpetrator with 48 for 400 yards.
It doesn't help that Cowboys opponents are the least penalized in the league, per TeamRankings.
Dallas hasn't been elite when it comes to taking care of the ball, either. With nine interceptions and seven fumbles lost, it is in the middle of the pack when it comes to giveaways.
By comparison, the Packers are second in giveaways while the Cardinals are fourth. Overall, the Cowboys have been winning the turnover battle because the defense has picked off 19 passes, but that may not be a sustainable model over the course of a full season.
If head coach Mike McCarthy is going to guide this team to a successful postseason run, the offense will have to play cleaner football.
Finishing drives with touchdowns and holding teams to field goals in the red zone can make all the difference when it comes to the playoffs. Right now, that's not a strength for the Cowboys.
On the season, they are 12th in red-zone touchdown percentage (61 percent). However, the last three weeks have been worrisome as they are 28th in that time span (42.9 percent).
The defense hasn't been much more efficient, but it is getting better. The Cowboys are 18th in defensive red-zone touchdown percentage (61.8 percent), but they've tightened up over the last three weeks when they have only allowed touchdowns on half of their red-zone trips.
That number only figures to get better as the defensive line gets healthier. DeMarcus Lawrence made his return to the lineup against the Saints, and he'll continue to play himself into better shape. Neville Gallimore has been designated to return from injury report.
That's a great sign for the defense while the offense is going to have to start adjusting its approach when it gets close to paydirt. With Ezekiel Elliott banged up, maybe it means leaning more on Tony Pollard or utilizing Dalton Schultz and their bigger pass targets.
Either way, the Cowboys have to get better at coming away with touchdowns in the red zone.