Inside Cowboys’ plan of attack to limit INTs, where Dak Prescott isn’t the only one with a new set of rules

OXNARD, Calif. — Dallas Cowboys players keep hearing the question about pass plays.

“What’s the step count?” coaches ask, wanting to confirm how many steps quarterback Dak Prescott will take when it’s time to execute the pass concept they’re discussing.

But the question is not being directed only to Prescott, his fellow quarterbacks or even meetings that include at least one QB.

Cowboys receivers, rather, are now tasked with tracking this information.

“This is the first year we’ve really had to key in on how many steps he’s taking so we know how fast the ball is coming out,” sixth-year receiver Michael Gallup told Yahoo Sports. “They harp on that every day.”

The Cowboys are shifting their offensive system more drastically than they have since Prescott earned his starting role in 2016. To say Prescott’s league-high 15 interceptions last season prompted this move would oversimplify the Cowboys’ direction. But as head coach Mike McCarthy assumes play-calling for the first time since arriving in Dallas in 2020, he’s evolving from the principles that he had allowed now-Chargers offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to maintain as they prioritized system continuity for Prescott’s development.

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Dallas has worked to still incorporate some principles and terminology from Prescott and teammates’ productive recent years. But McCarthy and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer believe introducing more West Coast principles will bolster ball security and decisiveness.

They believe this shift will increase how often quarterbacks and receivers are on the same page.

More than five weeks remain before that principle will truly be tested in the Cowboys’ season opener at the New York Giants. But Prescott, Cowboys coaches and Cowboys receivers this past week explained the source of their optimism in a series of interviews with Yahoo Sports.

“I can run my routes more comfortably knowing that he’s done with his drop or that he’s not getting touched or that he’s protected,” two-time Pro Bowl receiver CeeDee Lamb told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like the speed that we have in this room, the guys that can track the ball, the mentality [will help us] get open, create separation. It just can’t be too early. Because then it’s quickening up his steps and it’s a whole different situation.

“Being on the same timing as the quarterback is very important for us.”

Mike McCarthy, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys are trying to cut down on the interceptions this year. Here's how. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Mike McCarthy, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys are trying to cut down on the interceptions this year. Here's how. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Prescott, Cowboys explain where offense will look different this year

Schottenheimer understands what can trigger pass-game imprecision.

Picture a receiver who’s tasked with running his route 12 yards deep. He then sees a cornerback hovering at 12 but open space at the 9. The receiver breaks 3 yards early, convinced the decision will help him get open. But the quarterback expects his receiver elsewhere.

“The No. 1 mistake a receiver or skill player will make is they’re short on their route,” Schottenheimer told Yahoo Sports. “They’re open. They want the ball, they all do. So, ‘I’m going to look.’

“If a receiver doesn’t understand how many steps the quarterback is taking, then there’s no time clock in his brain.”

The difference between Prescott taking a three-step drop that will launch the ball to its target in 1.678 seconds versus a five-step drop that skews closer to 1.921, Schottenheimer gives as an example, can be the difference between a completion and interception.

As a fourth-round rookie in 2016, Prescott supplanted 10-year starter Tony Romo in large part because of the ball security that accompanied his productivity. Prescott threw 23 touchdowns to just four interceptions as the Cowboys finished the regular season first in the NFC. Ball security gave Prescott job security.

While his game would oscillate more over the next five years, Prescott’s 1.7% interception clip from 2016-21 still ranked 12th among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts.

Then came 2022. No quarterback threw more interceptions than Prescott’s 15; none with four starts or more delivered to the other team more frequently than Prescott’s 3.8% interception rate. Each interception, including two more in a divisional-round playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, was undoubtedly costly. And yet, PFF data call into question how concerned the Cowboys should actually be about their quarterback.

The advanced analytics site discerns between turnover-worthy plays (plays with a high-percentage chance to result in turnovers) and interceptions. While turnover-worthy plays resulted in interceptions 77.3% of the time across the league last season, Prescott’s turnover-worthy plays were intercepted 88.9% of the time. Further, since Prescott entered the league, no quarterback has had more dropped passes intercepted than his nine (Matt Ryan tied). Is Prescott’s decision-making the sole concern?

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that the Cowboys don’t emerge from their giveaway-happy season wanting to play conservatively. They instead want to streamline quarterback and receiver processing and to better integrate situational awareness into aggressiveness as McCarthy returns to play-calling.

“I keep saying ‘aggressive nature,’ but it’s aggressive in the play calls with a great purpose in it,” Prescott told Yahoo Sports. “‘Hey, if that’s not there, you know the reads, just get down to it. Very clear and concise about getting to a play that I feel most comfortable with. If I don’t like that look, whether it’s a run play or a pass play, I have so many plays and things in my back pocket that I’m almost obligated to get to because I know what he’s looking for in his plays.

“If the [expected look] is not the defense that I get, I’ll feel comfortable and know: ‘Hey, I need to get to this play because it’s better for everybody.’”

Why Cowboys think ‘Texas Coast’ offense can cut down INTs

When new information is introduced into a game plan, there are two most likely outcomes. The first: Players better understand their responsibilities, they communicate accordingly and they produce more efficiently. The second: Players better understand their responsibilities, but the influx of information is nonetheless overwhelming in the heat of the game, so players can’t play as fast because their thinking impedes their ability to play freely.

The danger of slowing down is even more pronounced when the West Coast system — or the “Texas Coast” system, as Prescott jokingly called the Cowboys’ West Coast blend — is tied as heavily to precision in timing as it is.

CeeDee Lamb and the other Cowboys receivers bear some responsibility in the team's potential fixes to their interception issues. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
CeeDee Lamb and the other Cowboys receivers bear some responsibility in the team's potential fixes to their interception issues. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Cowboys will be tested early with a Week 2 matchup against the New York Jets’ pass defense, which ranked third in the NFL in 2022. The Los Angeles Chargers’ No. 7 pass defense follows in Week 6, and soon after a pair of division games each against the Philadelphia Eagles’ No. 1 pass defense and Washington Commanders’ No. 4.

So the Cowboys are drilling receiver route depth intensely at training camp, Prescott and his receivers communicating extensively in post-practice film review sessions about what each saw on a play and how that translated to success or failure. They’re discussing how a new set of pass-protection rules influences the time Prescott has to throw.

Prescott and his receivers realize that while McCarthy and Schottenheimer believe this structure will better align them, they’ll still need to stay nimble and communicative when games’ imperfect realities hit.

“We're going to coach in the classroom, but also out there I don't want them saying, ‘Oh, I got to get to 20 every time,’ ‘I got to be in the alley’ or ‘I got to be on the inside edge,’” Schottenheimer said. “This is still people moving, and so we want them to play free and play fast.”

That’s where chemistry and reps will come in, Prescott saying he “trained his ass off this offseason” working this summer in at least four different states with a talented receiving corps highlighted by Lamb, Gallup and veteran Brandin Cooks, who has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in six of his nine career seasons. The Cowboys also tout the jump second-year receiver Jalen Tolbert has made. They praise rookie seventh-rounder Jalen Brooks as a training camp standout. Expect three tight ends in their first two career years to compete for further snaps.

The combination convinces Schottenheimer that Prescott’s interceptions constitute “a storyline that I expect is not going to be a storyline this year.”

And Prescott is energized by the shift in approach, saying he’s as confident and happy as he has been in the league.

“Just crazy amount of details,” Prescott said. “Guys are on the same page, just being very open and communicating.

“That has been a world of difference.”