NFL

Dallas offense playing down to defense's level

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IRVING, Texas (AP)

Tony Romo is having trouble getting the ball to Dez Bryant, or anyone else for that matter.

The Dallas offense hasn't been the same since Romo had the first 500-yard passing game in franchise history in a wild 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning five weeks ago.

Romo never had much of a chance to keep up with Drew Brees last weekend because the Cowboys haven't stopped an elite quarterback all season and now the offense is playing down to the level of the NFL's worst defense. The result was a 49-17 loss to the Saints.

''As you visit with him, I think he'll be more than honest and tell you what he needs to get done,'' offensive coordinator Bill Callahan said about Romo. ''More consistency overall. It's kind of a generic, general term. But that is true.''

There was no visiting with Romo on Wednesday. He hurried out the door for the bye week without talking to reporters, surely with several issues on his mind heading into a four-day break before returning Monday to get ready for the New York Giants on Nov. 24.

Romo has completed less than 50 percent of his passes in two of the past three games after he hadn't been that low at all since 2009. Before getting just 193 yards against the Saints, the Cowboys had only once failed to gain 200 yards in a Romo start. That was when he was pulled in a meaningless regular-season finale in 2007.

Second-year tight end James Hanna had the most catches for Dallas against New Orleans with three. Bryant was targeted just twice, with one catch.

Romo threw to tight end Jason Witten six times, but for just two catches as the Cowboys were beaten badly enough to raise doubts about their playoff prospects even though they share the NFC East lead with Philadelphia at 5-5.

''It's been tough, Dez and I both,'' Witten said. ''It's been frustrating with the coverage we have seen. The bye comes at a good time to get guys healthy and review and try to get a couple of wrinkles.''

The Cowboys could start with a healthy running game, which they saw briefly against the Saints when DeMarco Murray - playing his second game since returning from a knee injury - had 78 yards rushing three plays into the second quarter before Brees mostly took that option away by building a big lead.

For Callahan and coach Jason Garrett, the explanation for a sputtering offense starts with third-down conversions.

The Cowboys failed on all nine third downs against the Saints, none more critical than when they got 8 yards on first down but couldn't convert just before halftime. Brees got the ball back with 53 seconds left and led a third straight scoring drive for a 28-10 lead.

''Do the math,'' Callahan said. ''It's not difficult when you look at extending three more plays on each drive. Those plays add up. Those are opportunities we have missed and left on the field. We're really disappointed.''

Callahan said the first two days of the bye week were spent researching third downs.

''We've broken it down into every category imaginable,'' he said. ''We've looked at protections, we've looked at formations, we've looked at any kind of tendency we've created.''

The Cowboys have sunk to 19th in total offense in Callahan's first season as Garrett's replacement on play-calling. Dallas was never lower than 13th in six seasons with Garrett calling plays, including the past two as head coach.

Garrett said he could take back the play-calling if warranted, but doesn't think such a move is.

''We don't want to overanalyze and overreact to certain situations,'' Garrett said. ''We've done some good things on offense and we like the structure we have in place. We have to, as a coaching staff, simply do a better job. Everybody has a piece of that.''

Since Romo threw for 506 yards against the Broncos, the Cowboys haven't even had a 400-yard game as a team. The closest they've come is 368 yards in a 17-3 win over Philadelphia that was one of the few bright spots for a porous Dallas defense.

''We're watching film and the stuff we're doing is working,'' receiver Cole Beasley said. ''We're just not executing. Like sometimes we'll have guys open and something in the protection will break down and sometimes they protect really well and somebody runs the wrong route. Just one little minor breakdown just messes up the whole play.''

If the loss to the Saints is any indication, it's messing up Dallas' season too.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

Tagged: Broncos, Saints, Drew Brees, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Cowboys, Tony Romo

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