Small Wrinkle Significantly Alters Cowboys Offensive Balance (vs DET)





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 played a spectacular game offensively. They scored an impressive 6 offensive TD’s against a Detroit Lions defense that was playing well their previous games. In addition to Dak Prescott throwing touchdown passes of 19, 21, and 25 yards, WR Dez Bryant threw a touchdown to J. Witten, and Zeke added a 55 yard TD scamper. It seems like an understatement to say the Cowboys offense is “firing on all cylinders”.

After two subpar performances against the Vikings and Giants, Dak Prescott has bounced back with two very impressive outings against the Bucs and Lions. Following his ridiculous 32 of 36 for 279 yards against the Bucs, Dak had arguably his best game of the year against the Detroit Lions.

Dak was 15 of 20 for 212 yards (more than 10 yards per attempt), 3 TD’s, no turnovers, and 35 yards rushing (20 from scrambling, 15 on designed run) against the Detroit Lions.

For the season, Dak has completed 68.1% of his passes (307 of 451) for 3630 yards, 23 TD’s,and  4 INT’s.  He also has 273 yards rushing (56 attempts) and 6 TD’s, and 4 lost fumbles.

Prescott has the 3rd highest QB rating at (105.6) for a starting QB (after Ryan and Brady).

ESPN has Dak Prescott rated as the 2nd best QB in the NFL. Dak has a Total QBR of 81.9 (tied with Brady) and Matt Ryan is rated at 82.2.

PFF still has Dak as just the 10th rated passer at 84.4 (Brady leads the NFL at 98.3).

The 3 TD passes of 19+ yards should suffice to quash the “dink and dunk” claims. But just in case: Dak is 4th in the NFL in yards per attempt (8.05) behind only Matt Ryan (9.26), Tom Brady (8.22) and Kirk Cousins (8.11). The Cowboys are a respectable 8th in the NFL in yards per completion (11.3) – Atlanta leads the league with.12.7 yards per completion.

Against the Lions, Dak was accurate downfield: on passes over 10 yards, Prescott went seven-of-nine for 138 yards and three touchdowns; that’s a perfect 158.3 passer rating.

Dak doesn’t benefit from long runs after short throws as much as most people think. YAC (yards after catch) account for 39.5% of his total yards passing, which means that 60.5% of his total passing yards are “air yards”. Only 5 QB’s with more than 3000 yards have a higher percentage of “air yards” and none of them are having elite seasons (Carson Palmer, Marcus Mariota, Tyrod Taylor, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston).

With just one game remaining in the regular season, Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys are:

  • 11th in the NFL in converting  3rd downs (42%) after hovering around 50% for the first 12 games.
  • 4th (388  yards per game) in total offense after Atlanta, New Orleans and Washington.
  • a vastly improved +7 in turnover differential (tied for 6th best in NFL).
  • 1st the NFL in time of possession (32:25).
  • 4rd in the NFL in points per game (27.2). Falcons lead NFL with 33.5 point per game (Saints 2nd, Raiders 3rd).
  • 2nd the NFL in rushing yards per game (155.1), Buffalo averages 170.8
  • 2nd in rushing TD’s (24), Buffalo has 28. The 3rd place team (Cardinals) have just 19.
  • only Buffalo (26) and Oakland (18) have more runs of 20+ yards than the Cowboys 16.
  • 2nd in the NFL in point differential with +129 behind the Patriots (+170).

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 fact that the Cowboys  run about 80% of the time they line-up under center and throw more than 80% of the time they are in the shotgun, the Cowboys quest for offensive balance begins with limiting their use of the shotgun to around 50% or less.

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. .

Against the Vikings, despite being a tight game, Scott Linehan was able to continue a good balance between the run and pass (under center 31 times and in the shotgun 20 times).

Against the Giants, Scott Linehan was forced to utilize the pass more frequently than other games (26 snaps under center, 42 in the shotgun).

Against the Buccaneers, they got back to being balanced (35 snaps under center and 38 from shotgun).

Given that the Cowboys scored 6 TD’s, it is a bit surprising that only ran 58 offensive plays against the Detroit Lions. Only three times this year have the Cowboys run fewer plays (CIN 53, WAS 56, MIN 51).

This week, versus the Detroit Lions, Dak led another balanced attack: 36 snaps under center (24 runs, 5 passes, 7 play-action attempts) and 22 snaps in shotgun (4 runs, 16 passes and 2 play-action attempts).

In the first 13 games, Prescott did not attempt a single pass on a straight-drop from under center. Prior to the Tampa Bay game (the first 13), the Cowboys had only thrown the ball 11 times when Dak lined up under center without using play-action.That means that when the Cowboys lined up with Dak under center, they either ran the ball or used play-action every time except the aforementioned 11. All 11 of those “passes” were quick throws immediately following the snap, i.e. no drop-back from under center (11 times out of 396 snaps taken under center).

The Wrinkle

In his first 13 games and 396 pass attempts, Dak did not attempt a single pass after a traditional 3-5 step-drop from under season; every pass attempt came from the shotgun, after play-action, or immediately after the snap.

Against the Bucs, Dak attempted 4 passes after a genuine drop-back from under center: on 2nd & 3, Dak hit Williams for 9; on 1st & goal, Dez dropped it; on 1st & 10, they lost 2 yards on a screen; on 1st & 10, Dak completed a pass to Williams for 9 yards. On 4 drop-backs from under center, Dak was 3 of 4 for 16 yards.

This week, against the Detroit Lions, Dak only tried one drop-back from under center: it was a 9 yard completion to Dez on a 2nd & 7 play.

It took 13 games for Linehan to ask Dak to attempt a traditional drop-back from under center, so tt will be very interesting to watch how he uses this new “wrinkle” in the playoffs.

It may not seem like a big deal (5 passes attempted on genuine drop-backs from under center), but the drop-backs,  coupled with the quick-throws from under center, add significant balance to the Cowboys attack when they line-up with Dak under center. In the first 13 games, Dak took 424 snaps from under center: 322 of those plays were runs, while just 11 were passes (no real drop-backs) and 80 were play-action attempts. This means the Cowboys ran the ball 78.3% of the time they lined up with Dak under center.

Compare that to the last two games: the Cowboys have run 71 plays with Dak under center, but only 47 of them were runs (24 passes or play-action attempts).  In those two games, the Cowboys have only run the ball 66.1% of the time that Dak has been under center – this is much less predictable that the 78.3% over the first 13 games.

If Linehan can continue to use the occasional drop-back from under center with moderate success (4 of 5 for 25 yards and two 1st downs) along with quick-throws and play-action, he will have successfully reduced the most predictable tendency of the Dallas Cowboys (running close to 80% of the time that Dak lines up under center and throwing more than 80% of the time he is in the shotgun).

So far, Dak has not thrown the ball more than 9 yards on a pass-attempt after dropping back from under center. In the playoffs, if not this week, expect Linehan to try a pass or two downfield on a drop-back from under center.


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 Philadelphia Eagles.

Click here to follow C. Joseph Wright on Twitter.

Series Navigation<< Dak Prescott Under Pressure and Play-Action (vs NYG)Dak Prescott Beats the Blitz but Struggles Under Pressure (vs DET) >>
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

3 Replies to “Small Wrinkle Significantly Alters Cowboys Offensive Balance (vs DET)”

  1. Hopefully Linehan will continue to ask more of Prescott in the playoffs…if he can do it without taking exorbitant risks. Defenses will be less likely to key on down, distance and formation.

  2. This is a great breakdown. You do an excellent job of contextualizing how this wrinkle affects the offense today and going forward. This is the wrinkle I have been waiting to see all season. It points to Dak’s continuing development as a passer, a long term good, and gives the Cowboys back some of the uncertainty they lost with the Swain injury, a short term good. I hope to see more dropbacks in the playoffs.

  3. The low grade from PFF for Dak has puzzled me for months, but this week they offered this:
    “The only things currently keeping Prescott out of the MVP conversation at Pro Football Focus are two disastrous games inside the division this year. Take those two away, and he’s firmly in contention for the second-highest grade behind Patriots QB Tom Brady this year.”

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