Watching Dak Prescott’s film from this season brings a thought to mind:
What are they putting in the water down there in Dallas?
The fourth-year quarterback is having an unbelievable passing season that few saw coming. Prescott, who never threw for 4,000 yards in his first three NFL seasons, is suddenly the next coming of Drew Brees, on pace for 5,153 yards this year.
Prescott leads the NFL in passing yards (3,221), yards per game (322), and yards per attempt (8.8). He is second with 21 touchdown passes (career high is 23), eighth in passer rating (104.1), and ninth in completion percentage (67.7).
Prescott and the 6-4 Cowboys come to Gillette Stadium Sunday ranked No. 1 in total offense, No. 1 in third-down offense, and No. 4 in scoring offense (28.6 points per game). The Patriots have faced a couple of good quarterbacks this year — Lamar Jackson and Carson Wentz — but Prescott and the Cowboys will offer the toughest challenge in terms of defending a pocket-passing offense.
Prescott picked a good time to have a career year, as he is set to become a free agent in March.
“He’s super impressive,” Belichick said. “Best third-down team in the league, best passing team in the league, most big plays in the league. I mean, I don’t know where you want to start; they do it all. And he does it all.”
Two things stand out about Prescott when watching his All-22 tape: His poise in the pocket and his refusal to give up on a play.
Prescott has good mobility and athleticism; he has run for 193 yards and three touchdowns this year. But few, if any, quarterbacks are better at keeping their eyes downfield, buying time, and still looking to throw.
When there isn’t pressure, Prescott is really clean and calm in the pocket, shows excellent patience in going through his progressions, and throws with a nice, tight delivery.
And at 238 pounds, he has some Ben Roethlisberger in him, with his ability to dance around, shake off defenders, wait for receivers to come open, and fire downfield. In last week’s 35-27 win over Detroit, Prescott patiently looked for a receiver, kept his eyes downfield, shuffled to his left, and finally uncorked an awkward throw across his body, hitting Jason Witten for 5 yards.
Of all Prescott’s impressive stats, the most remarkable is his sack total — just 12 in 10 games, for a pace of 19 this year. Prescott was sacked 56 times last year. But this year, the only quarterback with fewer sacks is Patrick Mahomes (11), and he has played one fewer game. Former Jets quarterback Luke Falk had more sacks in three games (16) than Prescott does in 10 this year.
Of course, Prescott’s refusal to give up on a play occasionally comes back to bite him. Against the Dolphins, he danced around in the backfield for a full eight seconds before throwing into traffic, and got picked off by Bobby McCain. Against Washington, he sidestepped a pass rusher but didn’t reset his feet and made a risky throw on the run that was behind Randall Cobb, leading to a tipped pass and an interception.
Prescott has thrown nine interceptions this year (though two came on Hail Marys), and sometimes he takes too many risks. But he throws with great touch, and he is certainly not afraid to put a ball up to a receiver in tight one-on-one coverage, as he did on a tremendous 22-yard touchdown pass to Cobb two weeks ago against Minnesota. In the same game, Prescott zipped a slant pass into Cobb among three defenders, an incredibly tight window.
Prescott also has a little bit of Philip Rivers in his game, in that he doesn’t necessarily have a laser arm but he gets the ball where it needs to be, often with excellent touch and accuracy. Prescott showed this off last week in completing the toughest pass in the NFL — from the left hash all the way to the right sideline, a perfect 15-yard out to Amari Cooper.
The Cowboys surround Prescott with dangerous personnel, as four receivers have at least 35 catches (Cooper, Cobb, Michael Gallup, and Witten). The Patriots, by contrast, have just two (Julian Edelman, James White). And the Cowboys’ list doesn’t include Ezekiel Elliott (28 catches), one of the top all-purpose players in the NFL. Add running back Tony Pollard and tight end Blake Jarwin to the mix, and the Cowboys have seven quality skill players who can win one-on-one matchups.
The Cowboys throw a little bit of everything at a defense — screens, quick hitches, deep outs, deep posts, back shoulders — but they love criss-crossing two receivers over the middle to create separation. The Lions had all kinds of issues defending the crossers last week, leaving receivers wide open on a couple of occasions.
The big question for the Patriots in defending Prescott: To blitz or not to blitz? There are good cases to be made for each.
In Week 6, the Jets blitzed Prescott on 20 of his 41 pass plays, and held him to 278 yards and no touchdowns as they pulled off a 24-22 upset. In Week 5, the Packers blitzed on only three of his 44 passes, and while he did throw for 463 yards, they picked him off three times and won, 34-24. In Week 4, the Saints blitzed just five times on 33 passes, and held him to 223 yards and no touchdowns as they won, 12-10.
Of course, the Packers and Saints also have elite pass rushers who can generate pressure without blitzing, and the Patriots do not. The Patriots’ sacks are usually a result of scheme, not defenders winning one-on-one matchups.
The Lions blitzed on 12 of 47 dropbacks last week, but most of it was situational, and for most of the game, they were content to send only four rushers at Prescott and drop seven men into coverage. But this gave Prescott far too much time in the pocket, and he carved them up for 444 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Prescott’s numbers against the blitz are good, but he is 14th in passer rating (101.5) and has only four passes of 25-plus yards, suggesting that the blitz forces him to get rid of the ball quickly and check down.
So I think the Patriots have to attack Prescott, but they must do it carefully. Instead of traditional blitzes, I would expect a lot of zone blitzes out of the “amoeba” front, in which they rush only four or five defenders but disguise it well and try to bait the quarterback into bad decisions.
The Patriots also need to sprinkle in a healthy amount of zone coverage. One of Prescott’s worst plays this year was an interception against Green Bay in which the Packers dropped into zone coverage and Prescott’s pass over the middle was snagged by a cornerback he never saw.
When the Patriots are in man coverage, they need to patrol the middle of the field to defend the crossers, either with a safety coming down into the “robber” role or with Jamie Collins dropping back.
I know Cooper is dealing with a knee injury, but I would still put Stephon Gilmore on him when the Patriots play man coverage, just to ensure that Cooper is taken out of the game. The Patriots can then double-team Gallup with Jason McCourty and a safety. And Jonathan Jones will have an important role in slowing down Cobb, who has gone for 106 and 115 yards the last two weeks, with two touchdowns and 22.1 yards per catch.
The Patriots can’t afford to let Prescott sit in the pocket and wait for receivers to get open. Prescott will find them, and he will march right down the field and into the end zone, as he has proven all season long.