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By this point it has become crystal clear, not only is Dak Prescott the quarterback of the future for the Dallas Cowboys, he is the quarterback of the present as well. Setting rookie records in loads of statistical categories, navigating a nearly unprecedented eight-game winning streak, guiding a top five offense as it leads the charge on a team with the best record in the NFL through 10 weeks will create that type of opportunity for a player.
If you look at Dak's performance on a macro level, or through the lens of the type of expectations carried by a rookie chosen with the 135th pick in the draft, filling in for a stretch of games while your franchise quarterback recovers from a somewhat serious injury, he has been nothing less than absolutely outstanding.
But that's not what he is anymore, at this point, he's the starting quarterback for the 8-1 Dallas Cowboys, America's team with perhaps their best chance in two decades to make a run to the Super Bowl. As such he needs to be evaluated not as a rookie, but as a quarterback with a Super Bowl run likely resting on his shoulders.
Understanding this, it is time to take a deep look at his play at the micro level, and examine the intricacies of his game, and find the areas he MUST improve upon to be the quarterback the team will need him to be in January and February in order for them to turn their 8-1 start into the Super Bowl championship that's evaded them for so long.
We've studied every game of course, but for the purpose of this examination we'll focus on the Cowboys Week 10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. We have all seen the highlights, the 50-yard touchdown throw to Dez Bryant, the 3rd and 8 conversion with under three minutes left in the game to set up a very important touchdown, among others. Each of which showed flashes of the makings of an absolutely elite quarterback. But were these plays the exception, or the rule?
I examined every drop back of the game, 34 in total, taking notes on Dak's performance on each play, evaluating the mental and physical components of his play, and to be frank, I found more to be desired than I hoped.
One of the things that sets high quality quarterbacks apart from their lesser counterparts is the ability to see a receiver who is going to be open as opposed to one who is already open. Windows of opportunity open and close very quickly in the NFL and the ability to anticipate those windows and act accordingly putting the ball in those windows often before the intended receiver even breaks off the stem into their route. Absent this ability, a quarterback's effectiveness, and the overall effectiveness of an offense is limited.
On this play, Dallas has a two-man route off play-action designed to isolate Dez Bryant on rookie corner Artie Burns. Terrance Williams runs a crossing route out of the slot designed to keep the deep safety in the middle of the field. Dez runs what is likely a simple option route, run a go vs tight man coverage or convert it to a comeback if the corner plays "on top". The read is extremely easy for Dak on this play, if Dez runs by Burns throw it deep, if Burns stays on top, throw the comeback, he never has to look anywhere else, no progression, just a simple if/then.
You can see when Dez reaches the top of his route, at a depth of about 15 yards, he turns, expecting the ball to be there. Instead as the still below shows, Dak has only begun his release at the time Dez is turning.
This may seem like a very small, almost nit picky problem. However, this delay gave Burns the chance to regain his balance, and get back in position to limit the gain for Dez who comes back for the ball. With a player as dynamic as Dez, this split second difference could be the difference in a 14-yard gain, and a 50-yard touchdown.
This play is another example of a simple two-man route concept built off play-action. Dak's first look on this play is likely to the post route by Terrance Williams, but as early as before the snap he has a clue (single-deep safety), that the post wouldn't be open. After making the fake, Dak confirms that the middle of the field is closed, and looks to Dez on the out route. However, rather than recognizing the one-on-one matchup and the poor leverage from the corner, and throwing the ball on time, Dak holds the ball an extra tick, meaning the ball had to be much closer to the sideline, thus eliminating any run after catch opportunity.
From the end zone view you can see Dak make the fake and then complete his five-step drop, and then take two hitch steps, which should time up precisely with the out route run by Dez, however, rather than releasing the ball on the second hitch, Dak resets one more time, needing to verify that Dez would in fact come open before pulling the trigger. Against a corner like William Gay, the only negative is some missed yards after catch, but do that on a route against a really good corner and this exact play could be an interception, likely returned for a touchdown.
Understanding how to recognize defensive coverages, their respective strengths and weaknesses, and how to attack them, is vital to high-level quarterback play. This skill allows a quarterback to anticipate which receivers should be open on a particular play based on the responsibilities of defenders within it. Additionally, this allows a quarterback to avoid critical errors.
The coverage recognition on this 1st and 25 play is extremely straightforward. This is day one of OTA type stuff. Pittsburgh starts in a 4-3 over front, with two deep safeties, and plays old school "Tampa" Cover Two. Luckily for Dak, the play called by Scott Linehan happens to feature the single, most simple Cover Two beater in any playbook. To the near side, the flat route by Jason Witten and the corner route by Terrance Williams is designed to put the cover two corner in a bind and create an easy read for the quarterback.
However, rather than recognizing the coverage, and immediately turning near side, and unleashing the ball down field to Williams as the coverage says he should, Dak looks to the opposite side, and does what the defense wants him to do, throwing underneath to Cole Beasley, who is promptly tackled for a short 7-yard gain.
This play is a little more nuanced. This is a 3rd and 3 situation, one in which Pittsburgh knows that Dak wants to target Cole Beasley on an option route just past the sticks. At the snap it looks like more Cover Two to Dak, but they've made a "Gold" call to Beasley's side, also called Cover 2-Trap. On this coverage, the outside corner, reads the release of the inside wide receiver, and jumps in front of any out-breaking route from that receiver.
On this snap, Williams runs a go route on the outside, and Beasley runs his option route. Beasley reads the coverage and stops his route. Dak however fails to see the corner driving downhill, leaving Williams wide open, and leads Beasley outside, bringing the corner into play, and as he tried to turn away from that coverage and get up field to convert the third down, he was unable to hold on to the ball. This is a play we see Beasley make very often, but is an example none the less of the quarterback leaving yards and ultimately points on the field, as Dallas settled for a 53-yard field goal on the next play, with an explosive play available on the field on third down.
Accuracy and ball placement are key to quarterback play. Inaccurate throws can turn completions into incompletions or interceptions, and big plays into short gains by limiting yards after catch.
This is a 3rd down and 8, extremely simple "stick" concept, Dak makes the right read, and throws the ball on time. But a high throw behind Witten slows the tight end's momentum, allowing the linebacker to make the tackle immediately, limiting him to a 7-yard gain. A proper throw nets a sure first down.
Here Dak misses a simple bubble screen throw badly. Make a throw like this and get a bad bounce? That becomes six points the other way.
This is a play that's hard to criticize Dak for too much as it's pretty clear his throw was impacted by the pressure in his face. However, this is the type of throw you need to make occasionally if you want to win a Super Bowl. This is a route we have not seen Dak attempt to throw often in the first half of the season, but even back to something as simple as Dak's episode of the Gruden Quarterback Camp pre-draft, you see him attempt multiple deep dig throws, and they all went high over the receiver's head.
All In One
This play is a combination of all of these issues that showed up above. Based on alignment it should be very clear pre-snap to Dak that Cole Beasley will be matched up on a linebacker in the middle of the field, this is a mis-match he should look to exploit every time he has it.
However, rather than taking the easy throw over the middle on this 2nd-and-10, Dak looks immediately outside to Jason Witten matched up wide against safety Sean Davis. But instead of making the throw as his back foot hits the ground as he should, he hesitates a tick, waiting to see Witten break. Davis drives downhill on the ball, and in this case, only Dak's inaccurate throw over Witten's head saves him from a pick-6.
The end zone view of this play shows just how much green was in front of Beasley, a first down for sure, and potentially a touchdown. The next play, a 3rd & 10 screen to Williams that gained five yards, and after that, another field goal. Dak's inability to anticipate the coverage and mismatch pre-snap cost the team four points, and could have cost them a 14-point turnaround if the ball was thrown well and Davis makes the interception.
Throughout the game, I charted four coverage recognition problems, five throws with poor anticipation, and 14 inaccurate or poorly placed throws. That means that on 32 throws, Dak made 23 mental or physical errors.
These are things that must improve for Dallas to go where they hope to go this season.