-- Rookie quarterback? Dak Prescott?has been hyper-efficient as a passer in his first six starts, ranking first in completion percentage and fourth in passer rating. And it's his combination of skills -- the ability to beat a team with his arm and his legs -- that makes the? Dallas Cowboys are extremely tough to prep for.
Today, let's discuss how the Cowboys are meshing the skill set of Prescott and the offensive call sheet to facilitate production in both the run and pass game.
I'd go so far to say Prescott's ability in the game plan creates more issues for opposing defenses compared to veteran Tony Romo. Here's why:
The opening drive of the Cowboys' Week 6 win over the Green Bay Packers displays the type of multiple play calling utilized by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan with Prescott under center. In that drive, which consisted of eight plays, the Cowboys used four different personnel groupings, mixing both formation and scheme.
It started with running back Ezekiel Elliott in a split-zone scheme out of 12 personnel (2 WRs, 2 TEs, 1 RB). Then the Cowboys brought 13 personnel on the field (1 WR, 3 TEs, 1 RB) to the run the boot pass with Prescott throwing to a wide open Jason Witten. Later in the drive, the Cowboys went to a run-pass option (RPO) -- a counter scheme paired with a wide receiver screen -- to create room for Cole Beasley. We also saw 22 personnel (1 WR, 2 TEs, 2 RBs), the zone-read and the finishing play with Beasley bursting to the flat to catch a touchdown pass. The personnel there? Back to 13 to gain a one-on-one matchup for the receiver. Easy money given the formation, the pre-snap motion and the distance the defensive back is forced to cover in coverage?on a quick throw underneath.
This type of play calling and mix of personnel creates matchups, and that's a major part of the game plan with the Cowboys. But it also allowed Dallas to dictate the flow of that opening drive by thinking outside of the box and catering to the personnel on the field. A combination of pro-style concepts, reduced formations, spread looks and specific schemes that maximize the talent of Prescott.
Smart coaching? No doubt. And with Prescott pulling the strings, you never quite know what to expect as a defense.
Through six games, Prescott is absolutely dealing on throws inside of the numbers: 75.8 completion rate, 859 yards (8.68 ypa) and a 90.5 Total QBR. And the ball is coming out quick. Whether that is leveled reads (think Hi-Lo concepts), crossing patterns, dig routes, option routes or the ability of Linehan to create inside throwing windows, Prescott is working through his progressions with speed to find open targets.
Watching the tape, it's clear the young quarterback is seeing the field really well. And that is contributing to his highly efficient passing numbers. Plus, with the Cowboys' ability to mix personnel and formation in the call sheet, they are also getting solid matchups inside for Prescott to target.
Here's an example from the Cowboys' Week 5 win over the Cincinnati Bengals when they used a pre-snap shift to widen the defense with Beasley as the primary target.
With Elliott shifting outside of the numbers (decoy), the Bengals have to bump out the cornerback. That tells Prescott that Cincinnati is playing some form of a zone with two safeties over the top. But, more importantly, the Cowboys can now create that inside throwing window to target Beasley on the slant route. At the snap, Witten runs a shallow crossing route to occupy the middle linebacker. That gives the Cowboys the matchup they want: Beasley one-on-one with the outside linebacker. Prescott takes advantage of a clean throwing lane and moves the sticks.
This is just one example from the tape, but it highlights how the Cowboys want to script the passing game with Prescott. Similar to the game plans of the New England Patriots or the Green Bay Packers this past Thursday night, Dallas' short-to-intermediate passing game generates both efficiency and rhythm in the offense along with much more high percentage throws.
Through six games, Prescott has thrown only 11 passes more than 20 yards down field (4-of-11 for 112 yards). With Dez Bryant sidelined for the past three games and Prescott excelling with his vision, accuracy and progressions, Dallas hasn't had to take unnecessary risks. That, in turn, has allowed Linehan to use the quick release/eyes of Prescott to script specific concepts that expose defensive weaknesses based on scheme.
To be fair, Romo has proven to be an effective quarterback working the middle of the field too, but the rookie's athleticism makes him tougher to defend in a few key areas.
Play action/movement passes
When you can run the ball effectively -- as the Cowboys do with Elliott -- it opens up opportunities to move Prescott in the boot game and use play action to generate clean throwing lanes.
This season, Prescott is completing 75.6 percent of his passes off play action (second in the NFL) for 383 yards (9.34 yards per attempt) and a Total QBR of 89.8 (fifth overall). This allows the Cowboys to take advantage of poor defensive eye discipline and also cater to Prescott's ability to make throws outside of the pocket. His footwork has been on full display, as he consistently squares his shoulders to the target and quickly reads multiple levels of the field to find open targets. The rookie has gained a first down or scored a touchdown on 45.5 percent of his throws outside of the pocket, the second-highest rate in the NFL.
Take a look at this example from that same drive against the Packers I talked about earlier: 13 personnel in the game. A heavy run-alert for the defense given the personnel and alignment (big wing) with the Cowboys running a boot scheme.
This isn't a complicated scheme with the outside receiver on a comeback route and the two tight ends in a wing alignment running a two-level crossing pattern. Pretty standard, actually. But we have to account for when the play was called (after an Elliott run), the formation and the ability of Prescott to find the open target with an unblocked defender off the edge.
Remember, it's one thing to call play action concepts. Every coach in the league can do that. But you need a running game the defense fears (check) and a quarterback comfortable making plays on the move (check). And Prescott's mobility on the edge -- he's a true running threat if there's open space in front of him -- is just another thing for the defense to worry about.
Ask any defensive back or linebacker about facing an offense with a top-tier running back and a good play-action QB. It can be a nightmare when the quarterback has the athletic ability to extend plays outside of the pocket, pull the ball down to run or light you up with crossing routes.
Not only does that force the linebackers and safeties to play with extreme eye discipline, but it also puts pressure on the defensive end to play "safe" to account for the boot. You can't immediately close down on the run, which is part of the reason Elliott has been gashing defenses left and right (5.13 yards per carry).
That's what I'm seeing with Prescott on the film. He looks comfortable and the Cowboys are picking up free plays consistently with their play action schemes. He's an ideal fit for Dallas' boot game and the film doesn't lie about opposing defenses right now. They are really struggling to limit Elliott in the run game, while also accounting for Prescott on the edge.
The threat of the QB run game
Prescott has carried the ball only 13 times this season on designed QB runs, and his 67 total yards rushing aren't exactly mind-boggling. But numbers don't matter much here, because I can promise you that every defense is well aware of Prescott's ability to make plays with his feet when he wants to.
Let's take a look at how the threat of Prescott keeping the ball opens up more room for Elliott. In this example, with Elliott offset to the quarterback in a shotgun formation against the Bengals, Prescott rides the running back through the mesh point (QB/RB exchange) and freezes the defensive end, who is unsure if the QB is going to hand it off or tuck it around the edge.?
With the defensive end stuck in cement, the Cowboys' O-line outnumbers and overwhelms the Bengals' front seven as Elliott rumbles for a 13-yard touchdown.?
And if the defensive end crashes to take out the running back, Prescott can always pull the ball and keep it himself, which he did later in the game on a 5-yard touchdown run.
Given Prescott's size (6-foot-2, 226 pounds) and running ability, these concepts (especially in the red zone) give the Cowboys a matchup and scheme advantage that they don't have with Romo at the helm.
Prescott's overall production and tape tells the story this season for the Cowboys. But we also have to look at how he is putting stress on opposing defenses. It's a mix of talent and his fit in the Cowboys' system. With multiple personnel groupings, the inside throws, play action and the threat of quarterback designed runs, the Cowboys are much tougher to prep for when Prescott has the keys to the offense.