It was an odd last couple months for Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys offense. Prescott wound up going through the most difficult stretch of games in his short career. During the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, Prescott was sacked 17 times – eight of those came against Atlanta while LT Tyron Smith was inactive – and threw seven interceptions. Dallas finished 3-3 during that span, but majority of that damage was done during the first three games without their Pro Bowl running back. The Cowboys offense mustered a paltry total of 24 points in the first three games of Elliott’s absence, scoring 7, 9, and 6 points against the Falcons, Eagles and Chargers, respectively.
This came as a surprise, because despite the loss of Elliott the team was rolling offensively prior to the RB’s suspension, scoring at least 28 points in six straight games.
Prescott and the rest of team somewhat righted the ship after their three game slide, going 3-0 in their last three games, even if it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing. They were long shots to make the playoffs due to the crowded field of NFC Wild Card contenders, but they had a chance, as long as they kept winning down the stretch and had some luck. Their Week 16 loss to the Seattle Seahawks eliminated them from playoff contention, as Prescott struggled with pressure all afternoon. Prescott was sacked four times and while his offense moved the ball, Dallas wasn’t allowed in the endzone all game.
A bit of context to add, however, for those upset about Prescott’s play down the stretch. As I mentioned, it sure wasn’t top notch, but it was good enough to allow the team to play meaningful games deep into the season with an offense that faced injuries and suspensions weakening the strength of their team – the running game. Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension that began Week 10 was also the same week Tyron Smith sat out with back and groin injuries. Not to make excuses for Dak, but those are probably the Cowboys’ best two players and they were taken out of the lineup at the same time. It’s no coincidence that Prescott was sacked eight total times that day. As it was no coincidence that he was sacked four times against Seattle’s front, six weeks later, when Smith left the game after he aggravated a knee injury that he suffered the week prior on the team’s first offensive series.
Prescott’s passer rating with Smith protecting his blind side, 98.1, drastically declined to 61.1 without the All-Pro LT on the field according to Marcus Mosher. To summarize, the Dallas coaching staff didn’t have a great plan to replace Smith. They rarely chipped or brought help for Smith’s replacements Chaz Green and Byron Bell, who both struggled mightily when ask to block an EDGE rusher one on one. A quality backup tackle should be a position of need for Dallas in 2018.
Keeping all of that in mind I still believe Prescott made strides in his game in year two when Smith was on the field. After a Week 15 win against New York the team had to be regaining confidence in their quarterback. During the previous rough patch of games, Prescott has been tested with pressure by opposing defenses and has had to learn how to move the ball without his “A” personnel on the field. He’s displayed maturity and developmental growth during his second season.
I’ve noted that Prescott has had some of his worst games against teams with top defensive talent. In 2016 Prescott struggled against New York and Minnesota. This season he’s been thwarted by Denver, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles (AFC) and Seattle. All of those teams have a mix of very good to elite pass rushers and good to elite corners. All quarterbacks struggle when presented with extreme pressure versus a quality pass rush and without their receivers creating separation. It’s important, however, for a quarterback to identify where pressure is coming from allowing him to make quick decisions post snap. In recent weeks when Smith is healthy I’ve been impressed with how Prescott’s developed his ability to identify and beat the blitz compared to his rookie season.
Last season during a Cowboys rough patch I outlined the offense’s problems on third down. This play exemplifies the difficulty Prescott had when a defense properly disguised pressure during year one. New York bluff’s the blitz from the middle to left side of the offensive line and sends pressure with Landon Collins to the right. No one picks him up and he gets home to the quarterback forcing an incompletion that leads to a 4th down.
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What happens here is Prescott fails to identify where the blitz is coming from. In context, this is difficult for a rookie to pick up on, but there are possible ways he could try and get New York to show their hand. Like using a quality hard count for example. When Prescott motions Beasley to the left side it leaves Landon Collins across from Jason Witten, but Eli Apple is playing corner to that side of the field. This allows Collins to rush because has help in the form of Apple behind him. The hard count would have possibly made Collins flinch and tell Prescott he’s blitzing, but he holds his ground until late in the play clock.
Nearly a year to the date of that game, Prescott foiled a couple of blitzes from Collins and his teammates. Albeit, the situation is highly different from a year ago. The Giants are slated to be picking 2nd behind the Cleveland Browns in next year’s draft and were missing some of their better players due to injury. Nonetheless, Prescott and his team were still playing meaningful games in December and he was recognizing defenses pre snap to set his team up for success.
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Prior to the snap, the Giants show a blitz to the inside, but if you keep an eye on the safety, Collins (#21), you’ll see him starting to give away his assignment by trying to time up the snap. Originally Collins is standing at the New York 41 yard line and begins to laterally creep forward towards the line of scrimmage. He pauses for a moment around the 42 1/2 yard line before picking up the pass as he believes Prescott is going to call for the snap. However, Prescott sees Collins walking up to blitz and calls him out just before the ball is snapped.
The Giants send seven blitzers with one of them being the slot corner coming from the right tackle side. Pressure is also coming inside from Avery Moss (#91) who slips inside of Zack Martin (#70) on the play. However, Prescott knows Collins is blitzing and now Dez Bryant (#88) is facing man coverage against CB Brandon Dixon (#25) with no safety help to that side. When Prescott hits the top of his drop he throws to Bryant who has inside leverage on the defender. It’s a well thrown ball from Prescott considering there was pressure disrupting the interior of the offensive line in the form of Moss. The ball is also thrown way before Collins is able to get to RB Rod Smith (#45) protecting in the backfield. This is an example of Prescott knowing the coverage pre snap and making a quick decision post snap.
Bryant makes a nice catch, winning with physicality at the point of attack, and rips the defender off of him for a 50 yard touchdown to tie the game at 10-10.
New York blitzes seven defenders once again. The majority of the rush comes from the right side with linebackers Kelvin Shepard (#41) in the A gap and Calvin Munson (#46), but Dallas’s line slides to the right and picks up the rush. Presnap S Darian Thompson (#27) lines up across from slot receiver Cole Beasley (#11), but moves closer towards the left tackle, Tyron Smith (#77). This is a blitz indicator, especially with Collins lined up 10 yards across from Beasley.
Prescott checks the left side of the field before the ball is snapped and he knows Thompson is coming from his left. The RB, Smith, does an excellent job of picking up Thompson on the play. I think the defense thought Smith would focus on the rush coming from the right side and that would allow Thompson to be unblocked, but the line slid to the right and Munson was unable to find a gap to rush. Smith did his job taking Thompson out of the play.
Meanwhile, Prescott throws the hot route to Beasley who gets open on a quick out and then plants and uses Collins momentum against him to turn up field for yards after the catch.
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Here’s a better angle to better understand what Prescott was seeing presnap.
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Prescott went through a baptism by fire without Smith, but with the LT in the game he’s been better recognizing what defenses are trying to do prior to the snap and is getting better at knowing what to do with the ball once the pressure comes. Perhaps that’s due to the security Smith provides his quarterback. Prescott’s development is not complete by any means, but he’s making strides in areas that have hindered his play in the past. Expectations may need to be tempered, but there are signs of Prescott continuing to develop into a quality NFL quarterback at the very least.