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Scouting the Signal Callers: Breaking down Dallas QB Dak Prescott

Why has he been struggling? What is he still good at?

Dallas Cowboys v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

From time to time this season Mark Schofield will give a scouting report on an upcoming quarterback. Scouting the Signal Callers starts with a look at Dak Prescott.

After spending a week debating Eli Manning’s Week 2, it is time to turn to the New York Giants’ Week 2 opponent, the Dallas Cowboys. While both Giants fans and media members alike are grousing over the play of Manning, things were not better for Dak Prescott in his 2018 debut. In a 16-8 loss to the Carolina Panthers Prescott completed 19-of-29 passes for just 170 yards and was held without a touchdown pass. In addition, he was sacked six times, including a sack and lost fumble on the Cowboys’ final offensive play. As the film shows us, some of the sacks could be put on him, some of the decisions and throws were misses on his part, but there are still some dangerous aspects to this Dallas passing game.

Climbing into sacks

Six sacks is a big number, but like snowflakes every sack is different. Not every sack or pressure can be laid at the feet of the big guys up front. Many times the quarterback himself plays a big role in a sack, whether by putting himself in harm’s way or failing to get the ball out on time within the structure of the play. This third quarter sack from the Panthers is an example of a QB running (or in this case, climbing) into pressure.

The Panthers were able to generate pressure Sunday often with just four pass rushers, allowing them to drop seven defenders into coverage consistently and still move Prescott off his spot in the pocket. On this second-and-10 play they pressure the QB and bait him into a sack with just the four guys up front. They use a matching tackle-end exchange stunt, or TEX stunt, to accomplish this goal:

As you can see, the defensive tackles widen their alignment pre-snap. Kawann Short (No. 99) aligns as a 4i technique on the inside shoulder of the left tackle, while Dontari Poe (No. 95) aligns as a 5 technique, head-up on the right tackle. Their jobs on this play? Occupy both the guard and the tackle to their side of the formation. Attack the B-Gap between them, so the defensive end can loop around to the inside and hopefully find a vacant A-Gap.

The Cowboys’ offensive line does a pretty good job switching off the loopers here, as you can see:

Right guard Zack Martin (No. 71) helps tackle La’el Collins (No. 71) on Poe, but keeps his eyes trained on the looper to his side, and is in good position to handle him. On the other side, center Joe Looney (No. 73) is free thanks to the wide alignment of the defensive tackles, but he has his eyes trained on the looping DE coming his way.

However, Prescott sees grass and climbs right into the loopers, getting himself sacked:

If the quarterback stands in the pocket here, trusts his blockers, and isn’t so quick to drop the eyes and run, he can make a throw. Instead, he takes himself right into the path of danger.

Getting the ball out

This next play was Prescott’s longest completion of the day, but when studying a quarterback the process is often more important than the result. Facing second-and-8 early in the second quarter the Cowboys empty the backfield, with Prescott in the shotgun. He has three receivers to the right and two receivers to the left, and Dallas runs a mirrored passing design with vertical routes along each boundary, in-breaking cuts from each slot receiver, and the tight end sits down over the middle. The Panthers, who are usually more of a Cover 3 team, play Cover 2 here:

As you can see, the Panthers drop Poe into an underneath zone and he helps take away the sit route from tight end Geoff Swaim (No. 87). The Panthers only rush three on this play, but they manage to flush Prescott from the pocket, who makes a throw very late in the play in a scramble drill situation to Allen Hurns (No. 17) for a 20-yard gain:

But let’s look at this play before Prescott bails the pocket:

Both in-breaking routes from the slot receivers are finding that sweet spot in the coverage, behind the linebackers and in front of the two deep safeties. If Prescott makes an anticipation throw to either of these receivers, the Cowboys have a first down. Instead he bails on the pocket, facing just the three rushers, and is forced into a scramble drill situation. Good result, questionable process.

Missing on the move

If you were following along on Twitter during the Cowboys-Panthers game, you likely saw this play posted multiple times on your Timeline:

Prescott is an athletic quarterback who often thrives in these scramble drill situations, but here he misses on a potential big throw to reserve tight end Blake Jarwin (No. 89), who has gotten free up the seam against the Panthers’ Cover 3 look.

The problem is one of mechanics here from the quarterback. As a self-professed football nerd, an almost unhealthy amount of playbooks, coaching manuals, and books on playing the quarterback position are strewn all over my house. Consult any one of them, from “Coaching Quarterback Mechanics” from Steve Axman, who coached Troy Aikman at UCLA, to “The Art of Quarterbacking” by Ken Anderson, a book I used to teach myself the position when I was 9, and they will all tell you that when a right-handed quarterback is moving to his left to throw, proper shoulder involvement is critical to maintaining velocity. First, the left shoulder must get turned and pointed directly at the target. But the right shoulder involvement is crucial as well, and the QB must make sure to follow through with the right shoulder pointed in the direction of the intended receiver. That is how you make sure the sufficient amount of velocity is on the throw. Otherwise, the pass likely dies short of the target.

Watch now from the end zone camera as Prescott’s right shoulder fails to properly come through. This causes a loss of torque in the upper body, and a corresponding lack of velocity on the throw:

Torque. It’s not just for Ford F-150s.

What he can still do

I’m proud to call Dan Hatman a friend and a colleague. A former NFL scout and current director of the Scouting Academy, Hatman stresses that when evaluating players it is easy to just crush a guy. What’s tougher -- but more important -- is to find what he can do. It’s a lesson he learned under current Giants’ general manager Dave Gettleman, and you can see teams such as the New England Patriots apply it when they sign free agents or veteran players. They don’t stress about what they cannot do on the football field but they find things they can do and if they can help New England win, they’re in Foxborough via the next flight to Providence.

On run/pass option designs, Prescott shows the quick decision-making necessary to make those plays work. Here, he makes the right decision to pull and throw the slant route to Beasley behind the linebackers:

Slant routes to Beasley might be Dallas’ best offensive passing play right now, and Prescott usually puts these throws in the best spot for either yardage after the catch or, depending on coverage, to protect his teammate:

Here Prescott puts the throw on the back number of Beasley’s jersey, which is how Bill Walsh taught his QBs to throw the slant route.

On this play, Prescott throws it as “low as possible” so he can protect Beasley somewhat form contact, which is how Brian Billick taught his QBs to throw the slant route.

This is probably my favorite play from Prescott’s game last Sunday. When a quarterback can use his eyes to influence a defender and make a throw attacking that spot, he is doing a good job. Here, Prescott uses his field of vision to move Luke Kuechly (No. 59) before finding Beasley on yet another slant:

By keeping his eyes trained on Swaim for an extra step Prescott freezes the talented LB, before finding Beasley behind him for a big gain.

Giants fans right now are likely taking solace in the fact that Prescott had his share of struggles in Week 1. There are areas where he can improve and there are things he can still do well, but if the Giants have answers for those they can force Prescott into a second-straight difficult outing.