Sunday Night Football: How Dak Prescott can make third time a charm vs. Giants

In 2016, Dak Prescott put together what was arguably the single best season by a rookie quarterback in the 97-year history of the NFL

A fourth-round rookie prematurely thrust into the most high-profile starting job in the league due to injuries to first the Cowboys' primary backup (Kellen Moore) and then their 10-year incumbent starter and all-time leader in nearly every statistical passing category (Tony Romo), all Prescott did was complete 67.8 percent of his passes while averaging 8.0 yards per attempt, throwing 23 touchdowns against only four interceptions, and adding 282 additional yards and six more touchdowns on the ground.

He set the all-time record for most consecutive passes without an interception at the start of a player's career; he engineered five fourth-quarter comebacks on the way to a 13-3 record, NFC East title, and a first-round bye, playing so well that the Cowboys ended the Romo era before he even made it back from his latest back injury; and he nearly brought the Cowboys back from the dead in their heartbreaking playoff loss to the Packers, only to be felled by last-minute magic from Aaron Rodgers.

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Dak's Kryptonite: Giants

In an otherwise exemplary debut season, there were but a few blemishes on Prescott's ledger. He struggled for a while before leading the Cowboys to a rollicking comeback win over the Eagles on "Sunday Night Football." He never really found a rhythm in a low-scoring post-Thanksgiving win over the Vikings on "Thursday Night Football." And famously, he never quite figured out the defense of the New York Giants -- the only team to beat the Cowboys in a game where their starters played more than two series.

While the popular consensus has become that the Giants' defense battered and bruised Prescott on the way to forcing him into dreadful performances in both matchups last season, a film review of every passing play in both games paints a slightly different picture.   

Dak made his NFL debut against the Giants, and all things considered, he actually played fairly well. He obviously wasn't nearly the electric playmaker he was throughout most of the rest of the season, but he wasn't exactly bad, either. He completed 25 of 45 passes for 227 yards, and did not throw either a touchdown or an interception. He mostly played as though he was simply trying not to lose the game for the Cowboys, repeatedly checking down to Jason Witten (14 targets) and Cole Beasley (12 targets) if his first read was covered on the play. 

Though it would eventually become a staple of his quarterbacking later in the season, the opener did not often see Prescott standing tall in the pocket, coming down off his first read to his second, third, or even fourth, and then delivering the ball to whichever of those players popped open. It's not as though he failed to do those things because he was under constant pressure, however; Pro Football Focus noted that Dak was pressured 13 times on 45 throws, and wasn't sacked at all. That's a pressure rate of 28.9 percent, which is seven percent lower than his season-long 35.9 percent rate. The issue was largely his performance on those passes where he was pressured -- he completed just 3 of 13 passes for 28 yards. 

The second matchup against the Giants saw Prescott have what most would call a more conventionally bad game. There were scant few signs of the confident, assured, accurate passer we saw for most of the year; instead we saw a hurried, erratic, check-down machine that missed high and wide even on several of his completions. He connected on just 17 of 37 passes and totaled only 165 passing yards, while also throwing one touchdown and two interceptions, the latter of which was easily his single worst play of the season:

Prescott was pressured on 19 of his 40 throws in this one (a sky-high rate of 47.5 percent), but it was actually his performance when working from a clean pocket that proved his downfall. He was skittish even when operating with good protection, often drifting to his left and firing off his back foot, or looking to escape from nonexistent pressure. As a result, he completed just 9 of 21 passes for 92 yards, a touchdown and two picks when working out of a clean pocket. There were also multiple instances of Prescott misreading the defense and shifting his protection such that a rusher wound up in his face after coming around the edge unblocked. That actually happened on the Cowboys' very first pass play of the game:

Even amidst the mixture of overly-cautious and erratic play that dotted his performance against the Giants in these two games, there were, however, some signs of encouragement, particularly in Week 1. It's in those plays where the Cowboys could find a road map to putting Prescott in position to have greater success against the Giants when the two teams meet in a season-opening edition of "Sunday Night Football."

The formula for a successful Dak

Let's start with something that's not so much a sign of encouragement as it is an acknowledgment of new roster realities. There is simply no way that La'el Collins can do a worse job of pass protection in the season opener than since-retired right tackle Doug Free did in the two matchups with the Giants last season. The extent to which Jason Pierre-Paul (Week 1) and Romeo Okwara (Week 14) dominated Free is almost indescribable.

During the Week 1 matchup in which Prescott was pressured on 13 pass attempts, 11 of them saw Free's man among those close enough to hit, hurry, or otherwise bother the Cowboys' quarterback. Dak was pressured on 19 drop backs in Week 14; eight times Free's man was among those that made it into the backfield and close to Prescott's throw. Collins will have his struggles against Pierre-Paul, as any tackle does, but the likelihood of him performing as poorly as Free did in those two matchups is vanishingly low. Those were the two worst performances a Cowboys lineman had all last season. 

One way the Cowboys can help ensure that Collins doesn't suffer Free's fate is by working in more of their play-action game. Prescott was one of the most efficient play-action quarterbacks in the NFL last year, ranking third in the league with a 119.0 passer rating on throws after a run fake. He was even extremely effective on those throws against the Giants, completing 8 of 10 play-action passes for 84 yards in the first game, and 5 of 9 for 76 yards and a touchdown in the second game. (Had he not misfired on what should have been an easy 15-plus-yard completion to Cole Beasley in Week 1, those numbers would be even better.)

The Cowboys saw particular success when faking a wide run before having Prescott boot out to the other side of the formation, often winding up with two different open receivers for Prescott to choose from. He scored several completions to Beasley, Jason Witten, and backup tight end Geoff Swaim off that action, as well as this touchdown pass to Terrance Williams:

Incorporating more play-action into the game-plan isn't as simple as just having Dak fake more runs before passing, though. Ezekiel Elliott needs to have a game more like he did in Week 14 (24 carries, 107 yards) than he did in Week 1 (20 carries, 51 yards). Considering the latter game was more in line with what he did throughout the rest of the season, when he led the NFL in rushing, the safe bet seems to be on a performance closer to that level. If he can manage to break for a long gain at some point and force the Giants to drop an additional defender down into the box, thus opening up Prescott's throwing lanes when he drops straight back on plays without play-action, that'd be even better. The run game and the pass game often go hand in hand, but that might be more true in Dallas than anywhere else, given how much they base their offense on the fact that Elliott can seemingly get 5-6 clean yards behind their offensive line almost at will. 

In connection with that, the Cowboys should figure out a way to get Prescott on the perimeter in designed runs more often. Dak had only two designed carries against the Giants last season. He took off on a zone-read around the left side of the formation for 13 yards on a second-quarter drive in the first game, and he misread his cue on a one-yard zone-read carry in the third quarter of the second game.

According to PFF's tracking, he only had 12 designed rushing attempts during the entire 2016 season, most of them in the red zone. (Those 12 carries went for 69 yards and three touchdowns.) That's obviously the safest area of the field for him to run because he can't get hit once he makes it into the end zone and he can just slide and give the Cowboys another chance to score otherwise, but they might benefit from giving him some more middle-of-the-field rushing attempts against a defense that will obviously be keyed up to stop both Elliott and the Cowboys' quick-hit passing game. Building in more RPO (run-pass option) plays, which the Cowboys did not really use with any sort of regularity against the Giants last year, would also help. 

Another area the Cowboys should be able to attack is by moving Dez Bryant into more favorable position on the perimeter. Much has been made of the fact that Dez managed only two catches for 18 yards in two games against New York last season, but a review of the tape shows he was actually fairly close to have a huge game in Week 1, with several passes coming within mere inches of resulting in completions.

Three times in last year's opener, the Cowboys lined up Dez as the inside receiver, then took a shot deep down the field on a fade switch. He beat his man off the line of scrimmage all three times, and was open all three times. The first throw wound up inches short after Dak moved slightly off his spot in the pocket and threw off his back foot, despite not being under heavy pressure; the second throw was completed but Dez couldn't get his second foot down in-bounds; and the third throw was ever-so-slightly short, allowing it to be jarred loose by two defenders closing on the throw simultaneously. 

If one, two, or even all three of those passes end up completions rather than falling to the ground, the conversation about how Dez Bryant fares vs. the Giants is probably very different. If he doesn't slip on a slant route, leading to an interception early, or fumble immediately catching after a slant route, leading to a stalled attempt at a game-winning drive late in the rematch, the conversation about Prescott vs. the Giants is probably very different as well.

The Cowboys would do well to move Dez inside and give him more room to operate against Janoris Jenkins and/or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie more often on Sunday. They don't have to force-feed him the ball like other teams do with their No. 1 receivers -- that's not their style. But they do need to get more creative in how they align him within the formation, and with what kind of routes they allow him to run. It was all slants, deep ins, and straight go-routes in game No. 2 last year, for the most part; and that won't cut it against a team with a pass rush and a secondary as good as New York's. 

But can they do it?

All of this, obviously, is easier said than done. There's a reason the Giants were the No. 4 ranked pass defense in the league last year, per Football Outsiders' DVOA, and the No. 2 ranked defense overall. They're strong up front and on the back end, on the perimeter and on the interior. They have stars at every level of the field.

But the Cowboys are the rare team that has stars on the offensive line, they have a star (for this week) at running back and a star wide receiver. They have one of the greatest tight ends of all time and they have one of the NFL's shiftiest slot receivers. And they have a budding star quarterback that they badly need to put in better position to take advantage of his star teammates this time around, or else they're going to come away with yet another loss against their hated division rival. 

CBS Sports Writer

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He joined CBSSports.com in 2014 and has since spent far too much of his time watching film and working in spreadsheets. Full Bio

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