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There is a reason Dak Prescott might be in a ‘slump’ and it’s not his calf injury

Defenses are just playing the Cowboys differently in the second half of the season.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

While the Dallas Cowboys defense has come to life and is looking like championship material, the Cowboys offense is headed in the other direction. Plenty of reasons go into that decline like injuries, the shuffling of the offensive line, some curious play-calling recently, and other things like suspensions and COVID.

That’s a pretty long list, but much of the attention for a failing offense usually centers on the quarterback. And so it is with the 2021 Cowboys. Earlier today we discussed the fact that even the Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, thinks his QB maybe in a slump.

So what has happened to Prescott? It may be better to ask the question of what is happening on the other side of the ball with the opposition defense. Prescott has a reputation for beating the blitz, and through the first part of the season most teams were blitzing the Cowboys at a high rate.

That all stopped when the Cowboys played the Broncos. There was probably more to that blueprint thing people were claiming than we gave credit to at the time.

Check out the stats.

First, let’s deal with the outliers. The Los Angeles Chargers didn’t blitz Prescott much in Week 2, but that was also Prescott’s worst game in the first six, the pre-Broncos games. It was the only game among those six early games where his passer rating was below 100 (87.8) and he didn’t throw a touchdown in that game. He had an interception and only 237 yards. If you go back, it was really the Cowboys defense that rose up and had much to do with winning that game. So that actually kind of fits the mold.

The Eagles game is the true outlier. Prescott torched Philadelphia even though they didn’t blitz much. And Dak did have a lot of production against the Atlanta Falcons and the Las Vegas Raiders, but still, it does seem like there is somewhat of a blueprint here. It doesn’t always work, but it seems to work better than other alternatives.

Teams look like they are satisfied with rushing four, and sometimes they create pressure and sometimes they don’t. But what they are doing is sitting back and letting the linebackers fill the holes if it’s a run, or dropping into shallow zone coverage if they see pass. That may be one reason the running game has slowed, teams are loading up the interior with linebackers/safeties, and using their ends to turn off-tackle runs back inside.

Using zone coverage in addition to not blitzing also seems to be a key factor. Check out these stats from CBS Sports.

For whatever reason, this combination of defensive moves seems to have had a profound effect on the Cowboys offense. And it’s not as simple as Prescott can’t read a defense, because that is patently false.

But, Prescott seems to work better when he is playing fast and processing his options quickly. When he takes in too much information he can become hesitant or start trying to aim his throws. He is better at hitting guys who are moving instead of slowing up and finding holes in zone coverages. Go back to Mark Schofield’s Dak Watch this week to see him hesitate on two throws to Dalton Schultz, one near the goal line and one that led to the pick six. If teams line up in zone, they also negate the rub routes and mesh points more than in a straight man alignment, and they can force Prescott to wait on his initial read.

This isn’t to suggest that no team has ever lined up and not blitzed the Cowboys and Prescott before. Or used zone coverages to slow things down. But the lack of blitzing in the past six games by the opposition definitely tells you that they think they have found something to slow down the offense. And it looks like they have.

The Cowboys have other issues contributing to all of this as we discussed above. An uncertain offensive line, injuries to the wide receiver and tight end groups, COVID problems, etc. But it also looks like they just haven’t figured out this puzzle yet.

They could try some things over the next few weeks to jump-start the offense. One is to speed up Prescott without the other team blitzing. They could use flood concepts to one side and roll him out to force a quick read and throw against zones. They could also just go into hurry-up more often because Prescott has always excelled at that and it gets him moving faster and playing quicker. That actually seems to help Prescott’s game.

It does appear that there is somewhat of a blueprint now on how to play the Cowboys. Now it’s up to Dak Prescott and Kellen Moore to burn it to ashes.

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