Analyzing Linehan’s Use of Shotgun & Prescott’s Success (vs MIN)





Before the season began, I posed a bunch of questions about how Dak Prescott would play and how Scott Linehan would call plays without T. Romo (click here to read to read that post). Each week, I continue trying to answer those questions.

General Observations and Stats

The Dallas Cowboys pulled off their most impressive victory of the season. Winning a game on the road when the offense struggles, players commit costly penalties, you lose the turnover battle and fail to control the time of possession is a luxury afforded only to well coached teams. Rod Marinelli and the defense deserve a lot of credit for holding the Vikings to a mere 15 points.

In terms of his stats, this was by far Dak Prescott’s least impressive performance of the season. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 139 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs.

For the season, Dak has completed 67.9 of his passes (243 of 358) for 2974 yards, 19 TD’s, 2 INT’s.  He also has 217 yards rushing (47 attempts) and 5 TD’s.

Prescott has the 3rd highest QB rating at (108.6) for a starting QB (after Brady and Ryan).

For the first time this season, ESPN has Dak Prescott rated as the best QB in the NFL. Dak has a Total QBR of 85.2, and Brady has fallen to 82.

PFF still has Dak as just the 10th rated passer at 84.6 (Brady leads the NFL at 95.4).

One of the criticisms of Dak is that he can not throw the long ball accurately. If that is true, then Prescott must be extraordinary on the medium throws: he is 2nd in the NFL in yards per attempt (8.3) behind only Matt Ryan (9.2), and he is a respectable 7th in yards per completion (12.2). Matt Ryan leads the league with 13.4 yards per completion.

Similarly, Dak doesn’t benefit from long runs after short throws as much as most people think. YAC account for 42.5% of his total yards passing, which means that 57.5% of his total passing yards are “air yards”. QB’s with that have a lower percentage of “air yards” than Dak (in descending order of “air yards”): Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Derek Carr, Drew Brees, Carson Wentz, Aaron Rodgers, Blake Bortles, Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Eli Manning.

It is difficult to overstate how incredibly well Dak Prescott is playing. The offense struggled against the Vikings, but Dak never looked like a confused rookie, not did he make any rookie mistakes. He has thrown 19 TD’s, run for 5 TD’s, thrown just 2 INT’s, and lost four fumbles. He has been sacked just 18 times (Derek Carr has the fewest sacks with 12 amongst QB’s who have started all 12 games).

After 12 games, the Dallas Cowboys are:

  • 5th in the league at converting 3rd downs (46%). Saints convert 50%.
  • 4th (395.7  yards per game) in total offense after Atlanta, New Orleans and Washington.
  • a sub-par +2 in turnover differential.
  • 1st the NFL in time of possession (32:39).
  • the 10th least penalized team in terms of yards (down from 6th a few weeks ago).
  • 3rd in the NFL in points per game (27.8). Falcons still lead NFL with 32.2 point per game.
  • 2nd the NFL in rushing yards per game (155.8), Buffalo averages 161.9.
  • 2nd in rushing TD’s (20), Buffalo has 23. The 3rd place team has just 14.
  • only Buffalo (18) has more runs of 20+ yards than the Cowboys 13.
  • 2nd in the NFL in point differential with +105 behind the Patriots (+112). The 3rd place team is Seattle (+70).  The Falcons, with all of their scoring, have a point differential of 55.

The Raw Data (Shotgun vs. under center)

Where my stats are different from the official ones, it’s because I included plays that were nullified by penalty. Similarly, if a play was a designed pass, but Dak took off after being under pressure, I included that as an attempt to pass, not a rush. The idea here is to try understand Scott Linehan’s play-calling.

Given the frequency that Dallas runs when Dak is under center and throw when he is in the shotgun, offensive balance starts with limiting to the use of the shotgun to around 50%.

In the beginning of the season, the Cowboys were using the shotgun more often than Dak was lining up under center. Then there were a few weeks when Scott Linehan used the shotgun about 50% of the time. Even against the Ravens when they were trailing and had to punt on their first 4 possessions, Linehan maintained close to a 50% balance.

Against the Redskins two weeks ago, Linehan went heavy with the shotgun (34 times versus 22 under center).

Against the Vikings, despite being a tight game, Scott Linehan was able to continue a good balance between the run and pass.

The Cowboys ran 51 plays against the Vikings. The previous low for the season was the 56 offensive snaps against the Redskins.

Dak Prescott lined up under center 31 times and in the shotgun 20 times.

Of the 31 times that Dak was under center, they ran it 23 times, attempted 7 playaction passes, and threw the ball once.

That one throw (no real drop-back, just a quick throw to the outside immediately following the snap) is something the Cowboys rarely do. They have never asked Dak to attempt a tradition 3-5 or 7 step drop from directly under center and throw the ball. Linehan has only called this kind of passing play 5 times so far this season on 1st down (11 times in total), and I am pretty sure this is the 1st time they have tried it to D. Bryant. Defenses expect a run or play-action when Dak is under center – Linehan broke that tendency and it resulted in a very significant touchdown.

Of the 20 times Dak was in the shotgun, they passed the ball 18 times, ran it 2 times, and did not try any play-action passes. This is the first time in several weeks that the Cowboys have not used the play-action at least a few times from the shotgun.

Coming into the game against the Vikings, the Cowboys had run the ball on more than 80% of the plays that Dak lined up under center. In Minnesota, the Cowboys only ran the ball on 58% of the plays that Dak was under center (7 play-action attempts on 31 snaps). More on the play-action aspect of Prescott’s game in an upcoming post.

Remember in September when people were convinced that Dak’s inability to drop-back from under center would be an indomitable obstacle to success? Scott Linehan deserves some credit for creating game-plans that can be successful despite such a fundamental limitation. The players also deserve a ton of credit for being able to execute well enough that the rather glaring limitation has never seemed to affect their overall efficacy.


We will post the rest of this weekly series (1st downs, 3rd & short, play-action, and Dak under pressure) in due course.


As always, we encourage you to review the original questions posed (click here to read) and then provide your answers below, especially if you disagree with the observations offered above. We would also like to hear what specific things you will be watching for when the Dallas Cowboys play the New York Giants.

Click here to follow C. Joseph Wright on Twitter.

Series Navigation<< Dak Prescott: Adroit Play-Action and Beating the Blitz (vs WAS)Cowboys Struggle on 1st Down and With Play-Action (vs MIN) >>
C. Joseph Wright

C. Joseph Wright

Analyst, Editor, Writer at SportsTalkLine
C. Joseph Wright began his professional life as a litigation attorney. He left the profession when it started to resemble "The Wire". He is now traveling the world working as a lecturer at international universities. Currently editing with occasional specials for

One Reply to “Analyzing Linehan’s Use of Shotgun & Prescott’s Success (vs MIN)”

  1. Dak explained after the game that the pass to Dez at the goal line was an audible he initiated due to X. Rhoades playing way off of him, the call in the huddle was a run to # 21…… great call and it was the second most important play of the game after the muffed punt recovered by Wilber

Comments are closed.