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Film room: Dak Prescott and the Dallas passing game

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What the Cowboys do well in the air begins with their quarterback.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots continue their spin through the NFC East this weekend when they host the Dallas Cowboys and quarterback Dak Prescott. The passer is playing at an MVP level right now, and while their win/loss record might not reflect it, Prescott is the real deal.

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 his quarterback with some QB-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.

In addition, Prescott has shown tremendous feel for some routes, in particular those along the boundary. His relationship with both Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup has been a boost to the Cowboys’ offense.

Finally, Moore has done a great job with pre-snap movement and motion. Similar to how Josh McDaniels structures his offense for the benefit of Tom Brady, Moore gives Prescott information before the snap that helps him execute the called designs.

Here is some of what the Patriots need to be ready for this weekend.

Layering

We can start with how Moore looks to layer the middle of the field This play from Dallas’s Week 4 game against the New Orleans Saints is one such example. Facing a 1st and 10 early in the third quarter, the Cowboys line up with Prescott (#4) 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.

Prescott had a huge game against the Detroit Lions last week, completing 29 of 46 passes for 444 yards and a trio of touchdowns in the victory. One of those came on a concept that again layered the middle of the field with a shallow, a dig and a post:

This is a route combination sometimes called NCAA Mills, which has elements of the Mills concept (a post route and a dig underneath it) but a third route, a shallow crosser. Here, Prescott hits running back Tony Pollard (#20) who is wide open on the shallow:

Again, with the middle of the field layered the quarterback reads one area and makes a good decision with the football.

Here is just one more example of this concept. Against the Philadelphia Eagles a few 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:

Since we added motion into the mix, we can go there next.

Adding Motion

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 2nd 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:

Very impressive, indeed.

Throwing to the Boundary

Another area where Prescott has shined this season is on throws towards the sideline. Coming out of Mississippi State, ball placement was not a strength in his arsenal as a passer. But over the past few seasons Prescott has matured in this area, and now in 2019 some of his throws are delivered with crisp precision.

This really stands out on routes to the outside, such as deep out routes and comebacks. Prescott has shown an ability to deliver on time and in rhythm, with a combination of anticipation and precision placement. Take this first example against the Minnesota Vikings to Cooper:

Working off of play-action, Prescott has a pair of comeback routes to choose from. He looks in the direction of Cooper along the right sideline, and makes this pass with crisp placement and perfect rhythm.

This pattern continued last week against the Lions. Prescott showed great anticipation and placement on a variety of comeback routes and throws along the sideline, such as these two in the direction of Gallup. First comes a throw along the left sideline:

And then another comeback route along the left sideline from late in the first half:

Prescott’s precision and timing on these throws is not only impressive, but it poses a concern for the Patriots on Sunday. Given how much man coverage the Patriots employ, these routes stress cornerbacks by threatening them with a vertical route before working back down the stem. Stephon Gilmore and company will need to be ready for these this weekend.

Feel With Cooper

When the Cowboys acquired Cooper last season, their offense began to improve almost immediately. The impact of Cooper on Prescott and the lineup can be attributed to a few reasons. First, for a quarterback who sometimes struggles with ball placement like Prescott, having a receiver who consistently gets good separation on his routes is an asset. Secondly, the presence of Cooper generated more favorable matchups for the rest of the Dallas skill players.

You can now add to that list the relationship that has developed between receiver and quarterback. The feel that Prescott has for where Cooper will be on the field, combined with the trust that Prescott has in his receiver, has led to some huge plays for the Dallas offense. On this throw against the Vikings to convert a 3rd and 12 their symbiotic relationship is on full display:

Cooper does not get a ton of separation here, but Prescott trusts that his receiver will win at the catch point. That trust is rewarded as the WR comes down with the football to move the chains.

Last week Prescott and Cooper connected on one of those deep comeback routes, and again we see the feel between passer and target:

Perhaps of importance to you, dear reader, is this aspect of the play. The Lions bring pressure and play man coverage behind it, and Cooper is the player that Prescott looks to in that situation and under duress. Given New England’s penchant for bringing man pressure schemes this season, making sure there is sticky coverage on Cooper is going to be of import.

We can close out with this touchdown to Cooper against the Vikings:

Once more, perfect feel for the route, the coverage and even the sideline.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying expect to see Gilmore on Cooper Sunday afternoon.

This is a lot to get ready for, but if the Patriots defense is going to continue putting its stamp on this season, a big performance against Prescott and everything the Cowboys bring to bear will be a huge step.