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Dak Prescott saved his most-aggressive performance for Detroit, his toughest secondary matchup yet

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Dak Prescott may take a backseat to Ezekiel Elliott’s huge day against the Lions, but his feat was greater.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Being the Cowboys quarterback means dealing with high expectations and relentless criticism when you don’t get the job done. Troy Aikman has admitted avoiding public places like the grocery store following poor performances. Tony Romo spent years being called ‘overrated’ by his critics while the undrafted-turned-Pro-Bowler just may be the most under-appreciated quarterback in NFL history.

Nobody is spared from the wrath and the same is the case for Dak Prescott who started his Cowboys career going 18-6 in his first 24 games. Up until this past week’s win over the Lions, Prescott was 5-6 in his last 11 games. He also failed to reach 200 passing yards in nine of those games with an 8-11 touchdown-to-interceptions ratio. That’s why the importance of his performance against the Lions cannot be overstated though it’s been slightly overshadowed by arguably the best player on that field.

Ezekiel Elliott’s 240 total yard performance was easily the best outing of his 29-game career. His 152 rushing yards was his third-best on 25 carries, which was only his eighth-most in three seasons. Elliott was outstanding and he showed exactly why he was drafted fourth overall. Still, in context, Ezekiel Elliott did what he was supposed to do against the NFL’s worst rushing defense... he dominated them. Even though Elliott saw eight or more in the box 32% of the time (fifth-most in Week 4), he gashed the Lions all day long for over six yards per carry. It’s certainly impressive but that’s what you expect from the league’s leading rusher by nearly 90 yards.

What Dak Prescott did though was not only fantastic but also one of the most unlikeliest of feats.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that a good day for total offense is 300+ yards, and a great day is anything over 400. Passing for 200+ yards is an expectation for NFL quarterbacks. On the surface, 255 passing yards for Dak ranks 18th for the week, five quarterbacks had 400+ passing yards and eight others went over 300. It wasn’t the amount of passing yards that we should be impressed with, it was the way he got there and everything in between.

Dak’s composure, the poise that we’ve all been waiting to see, returned in terms of his confidence and he looked like that 18-6 Dak Prescott again. Here’s the NextGen breakdown of Dak Prescott over these four weeks:

Dak's 2018 TT Agg. % Comp % Exp. Comp % Comp. +/- Pass. Rate AYTS
vs. DET 2.86(8) 48.1(1) 63(18) 53.5(28) 9.5(3) 118.6(5) 2.8(1)
vs. SEA 3.04(2) 11.8(22) 54.5(30) 70.3(6) -14.4(31) 54.5(30) -4(28)
vs. NYG 2.82(6) 24(6) 64(25) 55.3(32) 8.9(9) 95.4(22) -0.1(12)
vs. CAR 3.1(5) 13.8(22) 65.5(14) 69.8(7) -4.3(16) 81.1(18) -2.4(23)

Dak is clawing his way out of the slump he was in.

Three weeks in, Prescott’s expected completion percentage was 53.5% but he exceeded that by 9.5% which was only usurped this week by Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford. His time to throw shows that he was attempting to not hold the ball as much. Prescott was throwing well-short of the sticks, as high as four-yards short against the Seahawks, but against the Lions he was throwing it almost three yards past the marker... best of the week.

Here’s where we get to the best part, the “aggression percentage” which determines how many passing attempts are made in tight windows with a defender one-yard or less away from the target.

Often times those with a high aggression percentages can also correlate with quarterbacks that turn the ball over a lot such as Eli Manning or Jameis Winston; however, great quarterbacks are often mixed in that list as well. You have to be aggressive, take shots, and make tight-window throws to be among the best in the NFL. Through his first three years, Prescott ranked middle of the pack in aggression percentage. As a rookie, Dak attempted three passes of 20+ yards on average per game. That number dropped to 2.8 last season and as low as 0.75 per game this season. To see that 48% of Dak’s attempts were also of the “big boy” variety was a pleasant surprise. Considering he accomplished this versus the previously top-rated Lions’ pass defense was shocking. Dak Prescott was ‘pea-cocking’ at it’s finest.

Darius Slay, Quandre Diggs, and Glover Quin are all among the top defensive backs in the league. This Lions’ unit held Tom Brady to 133 yards, Jimmy Garoppolo to 198, and Sam Darnold to 206. All three of those quarterbacks would likely finish ahead of Prescott in most passing categories yet Dak outperformed all of them against this Lions defense that averaged only 152 passing yards surrendered per game. By the way, Prescott did this at the same time that Matthew Stafford carved up his defense for over 300 yards with only six incompletions.

Dak’s day against the Lions showed his willingness to fight through the adversity of the last few weeks and not go into a shell against a great secondary. Dak gets criticized for not taking chances or for bad ball placement but some of these throws were outstanding. In fact, Next Gen has a stat called “improbable completions” where it considers everything from receiver separation to air yards and gives the probability of the pass being completed. Prescott only has four of the top improbable completions on the season, three of which came in this game:

Tightest Throws Improb. Comp. % Weekly Rank
12 yds to Hurns (DET) 23.70% 7
34 yds to Zeke (DET) 29.40% 18
37 yds to Gallup (DET) 30.30% 20
15 yds to Austin (NYG) 28.40% 18

Dak Prescott’s 255 yards isn’t going to convince critics to back off, he’ll need to prove that he can be consistent after his recent slump. As the old cliche goes, the devil is in the details. The details of Dak’s performance showed that he does have quality quarterbacking in him and hopefully it’s a sign of things to come. Without question Dak Prescott was beyond bold to save his most aggressive performance for his toughest matchup and it couldn’t have come at a better time.