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The engine of the Cowboys offense is undoubtedly the offensive line, Ezekiel Elliott, and the dominance of the running game. However, some would have you believe that Dak Prescott is nothing more than a game manager. A quarterback who doesn’t have to do anything besides convert on second and two while the offensive line gives him enough time in the pocket to sip coffee and browse the Wall Street Journal before making a throw. That is entirely untrue, and in all honesty it is very unfair to a quarterback who has consistently converted in third and long situations the entire season. Sure, the offensive line and running game makes everything easier for Prescott, that much is football common sense, but there are situations in every game where Prescott is asked to sit back in the pocket, read a defense, and make on-time, accurate throws in difficult down and distances, often times without the luxury of pristine pass protection. Let’s take a look at a few of those instances from this past Sunday’s game.
This is the 50-yard touchdown to Dez Bryant. It’s third and 11 at midfield, a holding penalty had just wiped out a third-down conversion, and the Cowboys trail by two late in the third quarter. The Cowboys go shotgun with three receivers, keeping a back and a tight end in to block. The Steelers line up with two down linemen flanked by two outside linebackers, with two inside linebackers and a safety lurking in the box:
The outside linebackers drop into zone coverage while the inside linebackers come on a twisting blitz with the safety crashing right down the middle behind them. The line generally does a good job of picking up the blitz but isolating Lance Dunbar in pass protection against Ryan Shazier is not an ideal scenario for the offense. Dunbar barely slows down Shazier, who bursts through the middle of the pocket directly towards Prescott who sees it, subtly shifts to his left, re-sets his feet, keeps his eyes downfield and delivers an absolutely perfect pass that hits Bryant in stride 50 yards downfield. This is a play you’d expect to see from the best quarterbacks in the league, from an Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, and here is Prescott making it on the road, third and 11, trailing late in the game and under pressure. It doesn’t get any better than this.
It wasn’t just this though, check out this play down one with under three minutes to play in the game. Elliott just got stuffed for a six yard loss, turning a second and 2 into a third and 8. The Cowboys were clearly in field goal range and three would give them the lead. What do they do?
Shotgun, five wide, but this is a far from pristine pocket. Cameron Heyward and James Harrison both push Ronald Leary and Tyron Smith into Prescott’s lap on the right side of the screen, and even Stephon Tuitt pushes Zack Martin back into Prescott, although to a lesser extent than the other two. Often times quarterbacks will say the most difficult thing to deal with is pressure directly up the middle, which doesn’t allow them to step up in the pocket, and that’s exactly what happens here. Prescott has plenty to deal with here as the pocket collapses and he has players at his feet, yet he maintains his mechanics and delivers an accurate, on-time throw to Witten who is covered by Shazier. The window is starting to close as Witten breaks his route outside because the speedy Shazier is gaining ground quickly, if the pass is a quarter second late, it’s likely incomplete. Here is an overhead view:
Look at the top of the screen, Witten is in the slot and you can see how quickly the window is closing as Shazier gains ground. There is also a cornerback in zone coverage along the boundary so Prescott can’t lead him too far in that direction either. With the pocket closing around him and the game on line he delivers a perfect throw to convert the first down. On the next play Elliott would give the Cowboys the lead with a 14-yard touchdown.
Now let’s take a look at two plays from the final drive, both of which also went to Witten. Here is the second completion of the drive, a first and 10 that went for 13 yards:
Heyward again pushes Leary back into Prescott’s lap while an airborne Lawrence Timmons is pursuing from behind on the opposite side. Prescott stands in and makes another pinpoint throw, although to truly appreciate the accuracy here take a look at the overhead view:
Witten is bracketed here in zone coverage at the top of the screen and you can see that the window is not particularly large. Yes, Shazier slips and makes the throw a bit easier, but it is an impressive play from Prescott who maintains his mechanics by climbing the pocket and delivers an accurate throw despite the pressure. There is no threat of the running game here, the defense knows for certain that it will be a pass, yet Prescott still comes through with an on-time, accurate throw.
And here is Prescott’s last throw of the day, it’s only a five yard gain to Witten, but we all know the ramifications of this play on the game:
Look at the pressure coming off the left side of the screen, Shazier comes in unblocked with an unblocked safety right behind him. With Shazier’s arm around his waist Prescott is still able to get the ball off to Witten, and even without the penalty the Cowboys would’ve been in a position where they only needed about 10-12 yards to get into reasonable field goal range. It must be noted that Prescott throws off his back foot here with his momentum going away from the receiver; that’s a habit of his that hurt the team against the Eagles and will likely haunt them at some point in the future if he doesn’t clean it up, but he got away with it here and made the play. You know what happens on the next play.
So while the Cowboys offensive line is likely to go down as one of the best of all-time, they’re still human. They still get beaten, they still miss blitz pick-ups, and despite Ezekiel Elliott having one of the most impressive rookie seasons for a running back ever, the down and distance isn’t always second and 3, or third and 1. There have been plenty of times this season where Dak Prescott has had to make a play with his arm when everybody in the stadium knew a pass was coming, and he delivers, and while it may be a shock to some, he doesn’t always have the benefit of perfect protection on those plays. Not only that, but he often displays traits that are well beyond his years and experience level while doing so.
Of course we as Cowboys fans are used to people underrating our skill position players based on the dominance of an offensive line (the 90s anyone?), let’s just hope this group can have a fraction of the success of the last group that evoked such opinions.