In a recent piece from Pat Leonard from the New York Daily News, it was posited that the New York Giants have the secret weapon to tilt their rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys in their favor over the next few years: Rookie quarterback Daniel Jones. He’ll get his first crack at the Cowboys as a starter on Monday night, when Dallas comes to MetLife Stadium.
While time will tell whether Jones does indeed alter the balance between these NFC East rivals, of more immediate importance for the Giants is handling quarterback Dak Prescott. By any number of metrics the Cowboys passer is having a stellar season. His Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 7.94 is sixth in the league, his QBR of 81.1 is the best in the league, his Expected Points Added per Play of 0.35 is second most among quarterbacks, and his Completion Percentage Over Expected of 10.0 is second best in the league.
Studying the Cowboys offense, you can see up close how well Prescott has been playing. What you can also see is how new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has helped with some quarterback-friendly designs. One of the things that Moore does well is “layer” the offense, giving his quarterback an area of the field to read while stressing the defense down the field. Whether on designs (and their variations) such as sail, flood, Mills, levels or shallow cross. Moore gives his QB an area of the field to read while still challenging the defense, and then Prescott more than often carries through his part of the bargain.
This play from Dallas’s Week 4 game against the New Orleans Saints is one such example. Facing a first-and-10 early in the third quarter, the Cowboys line up with Prescott in the shotgun and align three receivers to the right, putting tight end Jason Witten (82) and wide receiver Randall Cobb (18) in a stack look in the trips:
Moore calls for this route design:
Witten and Cobb run a variation of an old West Coast staple: Flanker (Z) Drive. Cobb runs a shallow crossing route, but he will sit down after crossing the middle of the field. Witten runs a deeper dig route. Here, the Cowboys catch New Orleans in a Cover 2 look, and when the middle linebacker breaks down towards Cobb, Prescott throws the dig route to his TE in front of the two-deep safeties:
This is a look at how the offense can be “layered.” Prescott is working the middle of the field between two receivers of varying depths, and he can condense the area he needs to read while the route design still stresses the defense at multiple levels.
Incorporating the use of pre-snap movement and motion is another way Moore has helped his quarterback, and on this play he pairs shifting and motion with another layered concept. Early in their Week 5 contest against the Green Bay Packers, the Cowboys face a second-and-8 on their own 27-yard line. They have a 12 personnel package on the field, and initially line up in a 3x1 alignment with Prescott in the pistol formation:
Then they adjust, moving both tight ends to the right and the quarterback under center:
Then before the play, Michael Gallup (13) comes in motion towards Amari Cooper (#19) to form a stack at the snap:
This is the route design:
Working off play-action, Prescott again reads the middle of the field. This is a variation of the Mills concept, which pairs a post with a dig. Gallup runs the post route, which is tweaked a bit to come underneath the nearest linebacker and then split the safeties. Cooper runs the dig.
Green Bay runs Cover 4 here, and with both safeties converging on Gallup in the middle of the field, Cooper is wide open in front of them, and behind the linebackers:
Prescott hits him with a good throw and the Cowboys have a big gain.
Sail, a three-level flood concept, is another big part of what Dallas does on offense. This usually pairs a vertical stretch with two routes underneath it, either out patterns or crossing patterns. The design enables a quarterback to read one side of the field, while still layering the routes so the defense is forced to cover from the line of scrimmage deep into the secondary.
This first example comes from the second half against the Packers. On this play the Cowboys pair a deep post route with a flat route below it, and a deep out pattern between the two:
After chipping Witten releases to the flat. Cooper runs the deep post pattern, while Cobb executes the deep out route. Prescott can work his eyes from the post to the out to the flat, all while reading one side of the field.
On this play, Dallas catches Green Bay in a Cover 3 match look, with some zone principles but man coverage over Cobb. The post route opens out the sideline as the cornerback squeezes that window between the outside third and the middle of the field, so Prescott makes an impressive throw on the deep out as it breaks free:
Against the New York Jets, the Cowboys used a similar concept, this time off of play-action, again using motion to help the quarterback pre-snap. Dallas breaks the huddle with 12 offensive personnel, putting both tight ends and wide receiver Tavon Austin (10) to the right:
Austin then goes in motion across the formation, and will align in the slot on the left:
Did you notice the defensive response? A defender trails Austin across the formation, letting the QB know man coverage is in effect.
Here are the routes Prescott will have to choose from:
Cooper is split wide to the left, and he runs the go route along the sideline. Austin runs a deep out pattern out of the slot. Prescott carries out a play-action fake to Ezekiel Elliott (21), and he will release to the flat, setting up the three-level stretch along the left side for the QB to read.
Knowing that man coverage is in play, once Prescott rules out the vertical to Cooper, he comes to Austin on the out route, making a good throw under duress ... and picking up a roughing the passer penalty along the way:
After looking at some concepts that work outside, we can close this out by returning to where we began: Route combinations in the middle of the field. Against the Philadelphia Eagles two weeks ago, Dallas converted a third down late in the first quarter with this layered design attacking the middle of the Eagles’ defense. The first element? Pre-snap motion into a bunch formation:
Then, Dallas runs this route combination:
Four receivers layer the middle of the field here, first with a mesh element underneath pairing a crossing route from a wide receiver with another crossing route from the back out of the backfield. Then Witten and Cobb run a pair of dig routes, with the tight end following the WR. Once more, Prescott just needs to read what is happening between the hashmarks. Here, he makes a nice throw to Cobb splitting a tight window to move the chains:
Prescott is playing at a high level, and some of the throws we have seen in this piece are made at an elite level. But his offensive coordinator is doing a very good job as well, giving him condensed areas of the field to read while still taxing the defensive coverage. Put those together, and you have a recipe for offensive success.