Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Decoding Linehan - Week 2 - Washington


Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) evades Washington Redskins outside linebacker Preston Smith (94) and other defenders as he completes a pass to Dallas Cowboys tight end Geoff Swaim (87) during the second half of play at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland on Sunday, September 18, 2016. The Dallas Cowboys defeated the Washington Redskins 27-23. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)
Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) evades Washington Redskins outside linebacker Preston Smith (94) and other defenders as he completes a pass to Dallas Cowboys tight end Geoff Swaim (87) during the second half of play at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland on Sunday, September 18, 2016. The Dallas Cowboys defeated the Washington Redskins 27-23. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)
Much has been said about the Cowboys' offensive performance on Sunday.  In fact, I dedicated my entire space Monday to the young QB who was making his first road start and tried to put into perspective what we were seeing.

Now, I want to dig a bit deeper on this positive journey, because I do think there are plenty of readers who are suspicious of his quality.  This might be a defense mechanism to this supposed challenge to the throne of King Romo, but I want to state here that Tony Romo is not losing his job right now.  Romo will get the job back when he is ready, regardless of what Dak Prescott does.  The question will be whether he keeps it for this "five more years" mantra, or whether Prescott is QB1 by next fall.  I think that is a far more complex and nuanced conversation that regards the salary cap situation and improving the roster as a whole.  That can wait.
But, what we do want to analyze is whether Prescott is racking up yards that are easy, or whether he is already demonstrating some skills that suggest this isn't just another dude off the streets.  
The money down in the NFL is clearly third down.  We have written for years how this team is dependent on Tony Romo to move the chains on a regular basis.  In 2014, the Cowboys were second in the NFL on third-down conversions (just a shade behind the New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees and just a shade above the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers) at 47.3 percent.  Phenomenal work from the offense.  
In 2015, New Orleans stayed at No. 1.  Dallas fell to No. 27 at 34.5 percent without Tony Romo for 77 percent of their offensive snaps (interesting to see that Green Bay also fell to No. 28, even though Rodgers was available, but Jordy Nelson was gone for the year at 33.7 percent).  
This year, the Cowboys are back to No. 2 in the NFL.  It is early.  Really early.  But, at 55 percent on third downs, we are already seeing that Prescott and the Cowboys are not afraid of the money down.  
Looking back at the 2015 season, the Cowboys were absolutely brutal on 3rd and long.  If I designate that as 3rd and 8+, the Cowboys were just 15 for 79 -- 19 percent all year!  Let me take it a step further, after Thanksgiving last year, on third downs from any distance, the Cowboys were 13 for 52 (25%).  From any distance on 3rd down.  In those 5 games, they were, in order:  1-9, 1-11, 2-11, 7-14 (the outlier in Buffalo), and then 2-10 to finish the season.  This isn't bad, this is horrendous.  They should have considered some quick kicks on 3rd down.  
So, they couldn't do anything on 3rd down and now, they are No. 2 in the league through two games.  And just to show you this isn't anything to sneeze at, the Cowboys have 16 third-down conversions in these two weeks.  How good is that?  Well, the high last year for any two games was 13 (when Tony Romo was QB against Miami and Carolina) and to find 16 in a 2-game stretch anywhere, you have to go back to 2014 when Romo did it in Week 6 and 7 against Seattle and the Giants (19 for 31, 61%).  So, yeah, Prescott helping the Cowboys get to 16 for 29 (55%) is some very high water.  
And 3rd and 8+, where you separate the good offenses and QBs from the field?  Somehow, the Cowboys are off to a 7 for 14 start.  To recap, in 2015, the Cowboys converted 15 3rd and longs in 16 games.  They already have 7 3rd and long conversions in 2 games.  That's worth mentioning and showing some video.
There were four in Washington:
#1 - 1Q - 13:59 - 3/8/33
On this one, they line Dez up on the left in a bit of a bunch to round off a dig at midfield.  This allows Witten to drag the linebacker with him and opens up an easy throw for Prescott to Bryant on 3rd down and long.  Here is the view from the end zone:
#2 - 1Q - 11:57 - 3/9/48
Here, I think it is pretty obvious that the Redskins -- like in the 1st play -- are convinced Prescott will look for the easy throw to Witten rather than push the ball well past the sticks to Dez.  You can also see Elliott leaking out and the Redskins are pretty sure that Prescott isn't going to try anything but an easy throw here.  Wrong.
You can see Prescott looking around and then seeing Dez winning his route.  But, he is not wide open and I would not call this an easy throw.  This is quality.  
#3 - 3Q - 6:33 - 3/11/22
If you know Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan, you know this is where they protect their field goal.  Yes, they were down 4 points here, but if this is any number of backup QBs, I don't think they authorize empty and this throw all the way down to the 6-yard line.  Too many things can go wrong.  Further, do you really think you can run Dez on the exact same pattern again and the Redskins won't be sitting on it?
You can definitely see Prescott looking elsewhere and then coming back to Dez at the last moment.  Then he fires it in there and sonofagun, he pulls it off again.  This guy is feeling it now.
#4 - 4Q - 6:04 - 3/11/24
Ok, down 23-20, 6 minutes left.  You have to decide here if you trust your QB again.  You are in Dan Bailey's range.  They tell Dak to go empty again and play off Dez to get Beasley to the sticks.  Everything has to be right here including a solid throw.  This is a rookie.  
Even with Ryan Kerrigan blowing by Witten, Prescott locks in and delivers the ball.  I am not sure his performance on 3rd down is getting enough attention, so I wanted to make sure everyone saw these.  I can't tell you how difficult this is, and if you don't believe me, go back to the production on 3rd downs in 2015.  
Just to show you defenses are trying to rattle him and that he can still get better, let's look at one that did get away on Sunday before we move on:
2Q - 4:43 - 3/5/13
This is a Cover 0 blitz for Prescott to look at which means everyone is blitzing unless they are locked in man.  Here is where the Redskins surprise Prescott by sending seven guys.  They over-commit and Dunbar is open out of the backfield for a potential touchdown, but it is all happening fast.  It also looks like Terrence Williams is open on the slant, but instead, Prescott tries to throw into the blitz and find Witten for the first down and he gets away with one when the pass is merely deflected, rather than picked off.  But, man, look at Dunbar.  Easy from here.  But, I bet he wants that one back.
Again, though, I want to credit the coaches and their habitual conservatism to not let this moment scare them into not taking chances with the kid anymore.  They saw this, saw the proximity to disaster, and kept believing in him.  
This is all very unexpected and encouraging.  But, maybe the most unexpected is the immediate trust the coaches seem to have in Prescott.  We should remember that when we discuss things down the road about "when he will be ready" to be this franchise's QB1.  
Once again, a lot of good.  I should spend some time with videos on the constipated running game, but let's give them another week.  If they don't carve up the Bears (or even if they do) we will do more of that next Tuesday.
But, look at the yards per attempt.  Last week it was 5 yards per attempt.  Last season it was 6.1 for the whole year.  8.2 is all-pro status.  Plenty of big plays, despite a passing chart that shows below that they weren't throwing it deep at all:
Lots of Deep-Ins to Dez, lots of waggles and bootlegs in space to tight ends, and other than that, it was safe and high-percentage throws that put guys in a position to get YAC (yards after the catch). 
Here, my buddy John Daigle wanted us to note the the Dez vs Norman battle.
Now, the man/zone elements and the fact that Norman doesn't travel (much) makes this pretty revealing.  I hear a lot of people saying they want Norman to travel, but if they are playing as much zone as they are, then putting Dez in motion before the snap is the best way to get these two apart.  In other words, this is a lot of talk that is not overly practical.  In other words (again), it may not make much sense to pay that much for a cornerback if your main hope is that he will lock down on the opponent's #1 guy.  
Here we can see the Cowboys' offensive production based on personnel groupings.  This tells us a few things, including any new additions to the offense or things they are doing more often.  That seems to be the empty shotgun sets.  They can do this out of S11 or S01, but it spreads out the defense and this is definitely something that dual-threat QBs can really hurt you with because of the threat that they can run.  
Also, let's look at the running game from two perspectives.  Multiple tight ends or fullbacks in the game vs not.  Because when you have multiple tight ends or fullbacks:  21, 22, 23, 12, 13 personnel packages, you are declaring power or "run" to your opponents.  This is when they might be stacking the box against you and now there is the potential for tough yards.  In these scenarios, the Cowboys ran the ball 13 times for 28 yards for 2.1 yards per carry.  
When they were in lighter groups:  11 personnel - it was 16 carries for 68 yards.  That is 4.25 a carry.  Last week, it was 12 carries for 35 yards in bigger sets (2.91) and 16 for 66 in 11 personnel (4.13).
So, 2-week totals:  Big - 25 carries for 63 yards (2.5) and little 32 for 134 (4.2).  Something to keep an eye on there.  
I think the Cowboys' offense is in a pretty good spot, to be honest.  They are moving the ball and scoring.  They are showing that they can run, but they are having more trouble with larger groups -- telling you the issue might not be with the OL as much as it is with the TEs getting everyone blocked.
But, I would love to focus on the QB play and what I think is a coaching staff that is figuring out that while he is not Tony Romo, he is also not Matt Cassel.  
They realize they can do some things and now Dez is involved and they are realizing that he can push the ball down the field.  Next, I bet this week they start to try to take more vertical shots to Brice Butler or Terrence Williams -- complementary WRs.  That home run shot is the one thing that is missing.
But, with the ability on 3rd down and the potential of the running game, I think Scott Linehan and Dak Prescott are showing this offense can be plenty competitive moving forward.  
I want to thank the good guys at Hudl.com for their help with the statistics and analysis this season.

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