How Dak Prescott can overcome the worst stretch of his career for the playoffs

Well, that didn’t work.

Last week, I wrote a detailed tape piece about the multiple reasons behind Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s unusual interception stretch in the month of December. Prescott threw eight interceptions to 12 touchdowns in five games last month, though he seemed to believe he had that issue on the run in time for the regular-season finale against the Washington Commanders on January 8.

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“I don’t worry about that,” Prescott said after the Cowboys’ 23-17 Week 17 win over the Tennessee Titans, in which he threw two interceptions — both to safety Kevin Byard. Now, the questions were about this affecting his team in the playoffs.

“I don’t sit there and think of that, ‘Oh, this is going to continue to happen.’ As much as anything I have got to fix the ones on my end and I’ve just got to make sure the receivers and everybody that may take part in them are focused and understand that we don’t have a lot of opportunities as we move forward these last games and all these playoff games. Every drive matters, and we have to play every play, every drive, like it is to win the game and that’s the reality of it when you get to the postseason. So, it is just heightening our focus, and understanding, for me, the risk versus the reward, rather it is a tight window or not. Everybody being on the same page understanding the magnitude of each play.”

Well, nobody is on the same page at this point. In Dallas’ 26-6 Sunday loss to Washington, Prescott completed just 14 of 37 passes for 128 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and a passer rating of 45.8.

This marked Prescott’s seventh straight game with an interception; the most for any Cowboys quarterback since 2004. when Vinny Testaverde (!!!) threw picks in nine straight games for Dallas… at age 41. Prescott tied with Houston’s Davis Mills for the NFL’s most interceptions with 15, and the most pick-sixes with three — and Prescott only played in 12 games in the regular season. All three of Prescott’s pick-sixes have come since Week 15, including one against the Commanders that could have easily happened twice.

Since Week 12, when this interception festival really started? Well, it’s not just the interceptions. Among quarterbacks with at least 100 passing attempts over that span of time, Prescott ranks 17th in passer rating (88.0), and 12th in EPA (-0.99),

In that Commanders loss, the Cowboys went three-and-out on 12 of their 17 drives. This is obviously not a recipe for playoff success.

Prescott, who has been asked about these issues all along, was more frank about them following the regular-season finale.

“For me, shi**y, not to use the language but simple as that. Defense I thought gave us a chance, did enough. I mean, obviously put them in some bad positions, us and special teams did. But to hold them to a field goal, get a touchdown. I gave a touchdown on an interception, so defense did enough obviously. For offense, just completely not who we are. I don’t think I’ve seen us like that in damn sure the last two years. Something that as much as you want to burn the tape and move forward, there’s a lot we can learn from and get better and use this tape.”

Now, the Cowboys have to travel to Tampa to face a Buccaneers team that beat them 19-3 in Week 1. In that game, Prescott completed 14 of 29 passes for 134 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 47.2. He suffered a thumb injury in the fourth quarter that cost him the next five games, and outside of fits and starts through the season, Prescott has struggled to string together the kinds of performances we’ve expected from him throughout his career.

In my prior piece on Prescott, I did my best to detail everything that’s wrong with Dallas’ offense, and its quarterback. Now, with Prescott set to take the field against his Week 1 nemesis, it’s time to look at how any of this can be corrected.

(All advanced metrics courtesy of Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, and Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise indicated). 

Prescott needs to stop pressing.

(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Prescott’s pick-six to Washington’s Kendall Fuller with 12:43 left in the second quarter was one of the worst decisions he’s made all season. He was fixated on receiver Noah Brown running the quick out, outside, when he had CeeDee Lamb open in the slot. Yes, it was third-and-six from the Dallas 24-yard line, so you want to try and get an explosive plat here, but this is not the way. The Commanders had Prescott on lock here.

What you don’t see enough in Prescott’s current game is a quarterback throwing receivers open with timing and rhythm. There’s something in his head that has him delaying throws, and this could be a case of Prescott pressing to make perfect throws and to create explosive plays when he should just take the profit and get back in the swing of things.

Prescott must become a master of disguise.

(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Prescott’s tendency to throw late into the teeth of coverage (something Russell Wilson was clearly doing too often in 2022, as well) is compounded by his propensity for throwing against what he thinks the coverage is, as opposed to what it actually is. It’s odd to say about a player of Prescott’s generally great ability throughout his career to process what’s happening pre-snap, but regression it what it is, and it shows up on tape.

Six of Prescott’s 15 interceptions this season have come against defenses that showed one kind of coverage pre-snap, only to roll to something else once the play began. His first interception of the season, against those very Buccaneers he’ll face on Monday night, was one such debacle.

The Buccaneers are playing Tampa-2 here (go figure), but their pre-snap look is amorphous. Safeties Logan Ryan and Mike Edwards aren’t defining their looks pre-snap, and neither linebacker (Devin White or Lavonte David) looks like he’s going to drop into coverage. But both linebackers drop post-snap, with White taking anything across the middle and watching Prescott as a runner, and David heading deep into drop coverage, taking Lamb all the way up the seam.

Unless Prescott gets the ball out early, he’s hosed as a passer here. Slot defender Antoine Winfield Jr. has hook/curl coverage to his side, which takes Noah Brown out of the equation (or so you’d think). White gives Prescott a muddy look to Dalton Schultz as the backside Y-iso tight end, and unless Prescott wants to just dump it off to Ezekiel Elliott out of the backfield, he’s probably best off hitting a lane and seeing how much he can get as a runner on thitd-and-10. Instead, Prescott tries to fit it in to Brown against converging coverage, ignoring Winfield’s placement on the play, and the result is predictable.

As a passer, Prescott has more than enough on the ball to adjust to coverage switches pre- and post-snap; he just has to do it. He did it against the Eagles in Week 16 on this 36-yard touchdown pass to Lamb, who finally got the ball! Here, the Eagles flipped from a two-high look to Cover-3. They did it early enough for Prescott to read it, understand that deep safety Reed Blankenship wasn’t up for crossing back to Lamb after putting an eye on Michael Gallup’s post route to the other side, and that was that.

Prescott needs to create volume plays out of scheme.

(Syndication: Florida Times-Union)

That Prescott has been incredibly effective overall and in creating explosive plays out of play-action and hasn’t been able to benefit from it a lot is one of those facts you wonder about.. and then, you remember that Mike McCarthy is in charge of the offense (offensive coordinator Kellen Moore notwithstanding), and things then become clear. But if the Cowboys are to beat the Bucs and head to the divisional round of the playoffs, they might want to give this an uptick.

Prescott has completed four of eight passes of 20 or more air yards this season with play-action for 114 yards, 94 air yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 135.4. Overall this season, he’s completed 67 of 106 play-action passes for 741 yards, seven touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 102.0. Without play-action, Prescott has completed 194 of 288 passes for 2,119 yards, 16 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, and a passer rating of 87.1.

Sometimes, these things aren’t hard to figure out.

Also: When the Buccaneers face play-action overall this season, they’ve allowed 88 catches on 138 attempts for 935 yards, nine touchdowns, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 102.2. Now, if you split that into passes of 20 or more air yards, Tampa Bay has allowed four completions on 17 attempts for 148 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 38.8 — second-best in the league behind New England’s ridiculous 6.5.

Prescott’s efficiency splits with and without pre-snap motion are about equal, and I think that has a lot to do with his iffy consistency in reading what’s in front of him. But the play-action splits for Prescott, and Tampa’s vulnerabilities on the short-to-intermediate stuff, should be educational.

Prescott’s two explosive touchdowns with play-action this season show different version of the same thing. The very threat of running Tony Pollard housing it causing linebacker to cheat up, and overall defensive hesitation in coverage. Not every team benefits from it to this degree, so when it’s a thing in favor of your offense, you should be exploiting it as often as possible.

Both touchdown passes were to CeeDee Lamb (throwing the ball to your best receiver is also an optimal construct). Here’s what play-action did to the Chicago Bears in Week 8:

McCarthy isn’t exactly the second coming of Sid Gillman, but in this case, he shouldn’t need to be to suss it out.

Prescott must have selective amnesia... and a long-term memory.

(Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

“No, this won’t linger,” Prescott said after the Commanders game. “It’s easy to go back and look at our body of work and what we’ve done. Especially when this isn’t anywhere in those past 16 games. When you have a performance like this, whatever it was, whatever the reason may be, we’ve got to individually look at it, take accountability, learn from it and then understand that when that plane touches down we’re on to Tampa. We know who they are, played them twice in these last two years and it’s going to be a good one.”

It’s all well and good for both Prescott and McCarthy to mention “burning the tape” after this game if it’s a short stretch of small sample size. But it isn’t, we all know that it isn’t, and the Buccaneers certainly know that it isn’t. They saw a lot of this in Week 1.

So, the extent to which Prescott and his coaches are able to both learn from mistakes that have been happening all season, and avoid being tied to prior negative results, will have a lot to do with the outcome of this game. It sounds like a lot to engineer that kind of turnaround in a long week — and it is — but the Cowboys have no other hope right now.

They will ride or die on what Dak Prescott does for them… or to them.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire