Breaking Down Dak’s Debut

Dak Prescott dazzled in his debut in the Cowboys preseason opener vs. the St. Lou… Er, Los Angeles Rams on Saturday. Was Prescott’s performance truly praiseworthy or is it overshadowing some defects in the rookie QB’s play?

In the interest of full disclosure, I evaluated Prescott in the pre-draft process and I saw a quarterback who had an immense physical skill set but lacked the ability to get through a progression. He was a QB who both survived and succeeded because he was so physically gifted, but in my opinion, lacked the polish in the pocket to be a good NFL QB – at least initially.

With that being said, Prescott displayed a lot of these characteristics in his first NFL preseason game. The one thing that stood out was that Prescott didn’t seem outmatched at all at the higher level. His poise and wherewithal in the pocket was much better than anticipated as evidenced by this 32-yard dime for a touchdown.

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 12.48.48 PMPrescott hung in the pocket and delivered a strike down the sideline over a defender knowing he was going to get hit. It helps that the rookie QB is 6’2″ and pushing 230 lbs. His big body can take the blow and recover.

But not every throw was a shot down the field. Out of Prescott’s 12 throws, 4 were at or behind the line of scrimmage and 6 were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Those numbers shouldn’t take away from the impressiveness of Dak’s throws down the field that he completed, but it’s important to note that half of his throws (and both incompletions) were on throws 5-yards and in. Two of the throws that Prescott made were 50/50 balls to Dez Bryant along the sideline. Prescott had good placement on both balls that allowed Bryant to adjust, and he did a good job of identifying the mismatched coverage.

It’s also important to note that the Rams defense wasn’t exactly throwing a lot at Prescott in terms of complexity or aggressiveness. Check the video above again and watch the linebackers drop deep into coverage on nearly every throw. Prescott didn’t face the type of pressure or disguised/mixed coverages that he’ll face in a regular season game.

Here are just a couple of the “coverages” that Prescott threw into. The first is a 2nd and 34 that the Rams are playing a prevent defense. The second is on 2nd and 9 with the Rams rushing a cornerback from 5 yards off the line of scrimmage. Prescott does a good job of throwing in behind the blitz but the blitz is both late and picked up well by the offensive line.

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 1.15.07 PM Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 1.10.17 PM

Prescott didn’t face a ton of pressure due to both the quality of the Dallas offensive line and the lack of aggression from the Rams defense. When he did, he stood tall in the pocket and delivered the ball well. He had a couple poorly placed balls but he mostly put the ball where it needed to be.

The one glaring element that I kept seeing from Prescott that concerns me is that most of his throws were 1-read and throw. Only on 2 of Prescott’s throws is there a clear progression through more than 1 read. There is one other throw where Prescott checks the safety in the middle of the field and holds him there for a second before a deep throw down the sideline that he connected on.

Overall, it was a solid performance from Prescott. He did a lot of the things that he did in college – both good and bad – but he also did them against a vanilla defense that didn’t throw much at him. He utilized his matchups well, delivered the ball with confidence, and used his physical gifts to his advantage. But I would take this performance with a grain of salt. Don’t let the hype get too big and raise the expectations above the level that they should be for a rookie QB that showed the same issues identified in his college game that he’ll need to correct before he is ready for the NFL.

 

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NFL Week 7 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Washington Redskins Game Preview

While this game may not be important to most of the NFL world since it’s two 2-win teams facing off, it’s quite interesting to me. I live in Tampa and follow the Buccaneers closely. I also follow Scot McCloughan closely because I believe he’s the best talent evaluator in the NFL. A couple of years ago I did a roster evaluation of the Buccaneers’ roster. This offseason, I did one of the Washington roster. That’s why this game is interesting to me.

This week, I’ve crowbarred in some time to take a look at this specific matchup.

Last year, the Bucs only won 2 games. One of those games happened to be against Washington. It wasn’t a close game either. The Bucs won by a score of 27-7, mostly on the back of wide receiver Mike Evans who had 207 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Bucs’ leading rusher in that game was Charles Sims with 36 yards on 13 carries. For Washington, Alfred Morris had 96 yards on 20 carries while Robert Griffin went 23/32 for 207 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTs. While the numbers weren’t atrocious, it was one of the worst games I’ve ever seen Griffin play as he seemed to have zero field vision and missed tons of open reads and couldn’t pull the trigger on a number of easy throws.

This year, both quarterbacks are different. For Washington, it’s Kirk Cousins. For Tampa Bay, instead of Josh McCown, it’s rookie Jameis Winston.

Winston has been incredibly inconsistent in his play this year, just as you would expect from a rookie. For the most part, he makes the correct presnap reads and that translates to mostly the correct decisions. The problem is that Winston has been precise in his throws. This is mostly due to poor mechanics in his feet and his throwing motion. Winston also tends to panic a bit when he’s in traffic in the pocket. When the pocket begins to close in around him he makes large elaborate movements instead of subtly sliding forward by a step and maintaining his eyes downfield. If he can maintain calm in the pocket, he’s a much better passer.

One of the biggest things that I’ve noticed on film is that contrary to how Winston played in college, vs. Jacksonville, Winston lacks anticipation, timing, and confidence in his arm and/or his wide receivers. There was a throw down the left sideline to Evans beat his CB by 2 steps on a go route, and Winston put too much loft on the ball and it allowed the CB to recover and knock it down. That’s a throw that Winston normally puts some zip on downfield and puts on the money. There are also other throws on comeback routes that Winston delivered late but completed because the Jags’ secondary isn’t very good. I don’t know where the old Winston went, but he surely wasn’t what I saw in college vs. Jacksonville.

It may have a lot to do with his offensive line. The Bucs may have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. LT Donovan Smith is a big body that’s a solid run blocker but has slow feet. He can be beaten with speed – especially when a fast edge rusher can get him to overset vs. the outside speed rush and then cut back across Smith’s face to the inside. In the absence of LG Logan Mankins, Kevin Pamphile has been filling in. He’s another big body that lacks athleticism. The rest of the OL has its own set of problems with Joe Hawley at C, Ali Marpet at RG, and Gosder Cherilus at RT. Marpet is an athletic rookie that shows promise but lacks the functional strength to play at the NFL level right now.

The Washington defensive line has shown that it can’t be overlooked. Jason Hatcher, Chris Baker, and Stephen Paea are disruptive upfront to even good offensive lines. Terrance Knighton is a big body in the middle that eats up space. Ricky Jean-Francois has proven that he can still stop the run as well. The problem is that this front seven lacks a true quick-twitch pass rusher. Ryan Kerrigan is a Pro-Bowl level player as an all-around edge player. He’ll tally double digit sacks this year but he’s not Justin Houston or Von Miller on the edge. Trent Murphy lacks the closing speed to be that guy. Rookie Preston Smith has showed promise and could have a major impact on this game if Washington will give him the snaps I think he deserves today.

On the back end of the defense, ILBs Riley and Robinson may be two of the best LBs in the NFL that you’ve never heard of unless you’re a Washington fan. These guys are smart and fly all over the field. Robinson is better in coverage than Riley while Riley fills down with a little more oomph than Robinson. These guys are fun to watch together.

Bashaud Breeland is a guy that I said had the potential to be a shutdown corner in my preseason roster evaluation. He looked rusty in his first couple of games but he’s shown me exactly what I’ve expected in his last 3 games. He’s still young and he still makes mistakes, but Breeland still looks like the real deal.

Aside from Breeland, the Washington secondary has been wholly inconsistent. The best player to this point in the secondary may be safety Dashon Goldson. DeAngelo Hall and Chris Culliver have played decent but are out for this game. That leaves Will Blackmon, Deshazor Everrett, and Quinton Dunbar to fill in against Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. That’s not an ideal matchup.

On a side note, I’d really like to see Jeron Johnson get some more snaps to see what he can do at safety. Trenton Robinson has been all over the place and Johnson was a guy I really liked in Seattle.

For the rest of the Bucs offense, Mike Evans has had a slow start to the year but this could be the game where he breaks out. It really depends on how Washington decides to defend in the secondary. Vincent Jackson has been the Bucs’ best receiver by a longshot this year so they may decide to focus on him instead of Evans, but it seems most teams are still guarding Evans more than VJax.

Doug Martin has been the Bucs’ best player this season – Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy included. Martin has the burst he had a few years ago and the agility is back. He’s also a strong runner. He really is a complete back and if he had a better line he’d have a shot at 1500+ yards this season. I’m surprised Bucs’ OC Dirk Koetter hasn’t relied on him more considering the struggles of a rookie QB. Sims has been the “3rd down” back. The Bucs are figuring out how he’s best used – in space, on the edge, and as a WR and he’s benefited in recent weeks from it. He’s not a between the tackles runner and he goes down too easy on contact (and as evidenced in his 1st quarter toss play vs. Jacksonville, sometimes without contact).

Washington will continue to roll with QB Kirk Cousins. It’s important to understand what Cousins is and isn’t before throwing him under the bus. Cousins is a limited QB who needs to get rid of the ball quickly and on-time to be efficient. His mechanics deteriorate quickly when he’s pressured and he doesn’t do well when plays breakdown. This is why he’s effective when throwing to guys like Garcon and Crowder who are good route runners who understand how to stem routes to quickly get leverage against a defender.

In front of Cousins, the Washington offensive line is a very big, but athletic-for-the-size, group. Trent Williams is still a Pro Bowl-level LT. The guy I’ve been most impressed with is RT Morgan Moses who has shown a ton of promise. He’s been Washington’s 2nd best offensive linemen this year. Rookie Brandon Scherff has been solid as well. I still lean that he’d be a better tackle than guard, but he’s beginning to figure it out at guard after a few games. The sky is the limit for his potential. Kory Lichtensteiger is out for this game which means the beleaguered Josh LeRibeus will be at center. LeRibeus is a liability and could solely be responsible for Washington losing this game. OL coach Bill Callahan better have a plan to protect LeRibeus against the defensive tackles of Tampa Bay as McCoy, Clinton McDonald, and and Henry Melton will dominate LeRibeus one on one.

On the edge, the Bucs’ Jacquies Smith gets a lot of credit for small bursts of production. Smith owns lesser players at LTs but struggle against anyone who is above average. He’ll likely be very silent against LT Williams. (All of this is assuming Williams is active as he’s passed concussion protocol.) Perhaps the most intriguing matchup is RT Moses vs. DE William Gholston. Gholston is a physical freak who can physically dominate but it doesn’t always seem to “click” for him. He’s played well this year but he often gives up on plays or makes the wrong move when needed. Too many times I’ve seen him shoving the tackle into the space of the QB and then stop to try to get around his blocker. I’d love to see him just continue that push straight into the lap of the QB. Moses is the type of guy that can give him trouble. He’s physically a strong match for Gholston but all it takes is one misstep and a guy like Gholston can win.

This feels like a good game for RB Matt Jones. Both he and Alfred Morris should have good run lanes. I like Jones more because he gets downhill in a hurry and his physicality is a bad matchup for the slow and soft defense of the Bucs.

Lavonte David has played well this year – contrary to what you might have heard anywhere else. David is asked to do different things in this defense so he’s not making as many splash plays as he did in Schiano’s defense but that doesn’t mean that he is any less of a player. Rookie LB Kwon Alexander looks like a legit star in the making at MLB.

In the secondary, the Bucs have played pretty poorly. Banks and Verner aren’t solid fits for Tampa 2. The safety position has been pretty atrocious. Chris Conte is a smart player but lacks the speed and athleticism to make plays when necessary. He’s always just a step shy and in the NFL at the safety position, that means he’s giving up points. Bradley McDougald has his moments but he’s still not terrific. Again, consistency is everything at the safety position. Any mistake there means that the backend of the defense falls apart and points are likely scored.

Getting into the scheme relations and matchup problems, there are a couple of things that stick out to me. Washington could have serious trouble on the interior OL vs. the Bucs’ DTs. This means that Cousins could have guys in his face all day. I would expect Jay Gruden to realize this could be the case and they could neutralize this will rollouts, tunnel screens, and draw plays to keep the DTs honest. They should also use hard counts to get the Bucs’ DL to jump offsides and slow their get off. With time, I think Cousins could have an easy go of it when passing because of the soft defense of the Bucs. Look for the Washington RBs to have success running off the edge and B gaps.

One intriguing matchup is how Gruden decides to us his RBs in pass pro. Will he have them focused on the interior to protect there and leave RT Moses on an island vs. Gholston, or does he split the help amongst the right side. He can leave LT Williams on an island vs. DE Smith and feel comfortable.

On the other side of the ball, I’m curious as to how DC Joe Barry decides to distribute coverages between Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. My sense tells me that he’ll still focus on Evans until Jackson proves that he can beat them. With that being said, he has multiple ways to try to manage this dynamic. He may be able to put Breeland on Jackson and roll coverages over to Evans’ side. I think that’s probably the best way to handle it until Jackson proves he’s the guy that Barry should focus on.

I also think the Washington DL dominates the Bucs offensive line. Winston should be under pressure all day as his OL is facing a DL that is both stronger and more athletic across the board. Preston Smith could have 2 or 3 sacks today if given the appropriate amount of playing time.

It’s important to note that the Bucs are using more coverage disguises in their last couple of games and are playing more Cover 3 and single high safety than at any point since Lovie Smith took over. Even with an extra guy in the box, I expect Tampa Bay to have trouble stopping the run.

If played correctly, Washington should rush for over 200 yards, have 4 or 5 sacks, and win pretty handily. The only way that doesn’t happen is if OC Dirk Koetter can get Winston in a groove early and get the Washington defense on its heels and force Cousins into throwing more than Washington would like. This would increase opportunities for turnovers and could put Washington in a position where they have to play a close game.

I don’t think that happens and Washington wins by 14+ points.

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The Blame Game – A Tale of an Interception

While going through the Washington vs. Miami game from Sunday, I ran into a play that serves as a good learning lesson. It helps to illuminate that for the most part, plays – good or bad – are rarely ever one player’s fault. It’s a combination of a lot of different elements that play into it.

In the 2nd quarter, Washington QB Kirk Cousins escaped a bit of pressure and rolled to his right. Targeting TE Jordan Reed, Cousins released the ball only to have Miami CB Brent Grimes undercut the pass and pick it off. At first glance, it looks like Cousins made a poor decision and was wholly at fault for the throw. Taking a closer look, that may not necessarily be the case.

Presnap, Miami is showing a quarters look with Grimes playing closer to the line of scrimmage than any of the other DBs.

Cousins INT Presnap

Washington is in 11 personnel with Reed and a running back on each side of him. Pierre Garcon is singled out to Cousins’ left, while Andre Roberts is in the slot right and Ryan Grant is out to Cousins’ wide right. Both outside receivers are running routes that break back to the QB, with Roberts running an in from the slot, and Reed leaking out into the flat from his position next to Cousins.

The Miami defense is showing quarters and stay true to that look after the snap. This means that the DBs are playing a 4-deep coverage and making sure to stay over top of any receiver that comes into their zone. The nickel cornerback is aligned over the slot and squatting on the short route knowing he has help over top.

Cousins INT Eyes

Cousins’ first read is to his left and he predetermines that Garcon isn’t going to be open when he breaks off his hook route (which turns out to be incorrect). He then moves his eyes to Roberts in the slot. Roberts’ in breaking route is bracketed by the underneath defenders yet Cousins stays locked on.

Grimes, from his off-position over his receiver, has his eyes in the backfield on Cousins. Reed has leaked out into the flat and is wide open. Had Cousins seen this presnap, he could deliver this ball and Reed would likely pick up a healthy gain. As it is, Cousins has his eyes affixed to the middle of the field and won’t pull them off until he has to break containment and scramble.

Cousins INT Grimes Eyes

This is the point where Cousins breaks contain and begins to sprint out to his right. This is also the point where Cousins sees Reed open out in the flat. The problem is that Grimes still has his eyes on Cousins and has good position to break down on any pass.

We’ve already shown that Cousins is late to recognize his open receiver and is partially to blame already for the oncoming interception. This is where Jordan Reed and Brent Grimes both put their impact, for better or worse, on this play.

Cousins INT Release

This is where each player is when Cousins releases the ball. Because Grimes has his head up and eyes in the backfield, he sees the throw coming instantly and is already breaking on the route. Not many cornerbacks can read and react like Grimes and this is a terrific play on his part.

Reed actually helps Grimes out here while hurting his QB. At the release, Reed is around the 20 yard line. As you’ll see in the next screenshot, Reed drifts upfield and is beyond the 25 yard line by the time the ball reaches him. Those 5 yards allow Grimes to further undercut the route. If Reed were to stop or to come back to the football, he may have been able to break up the interception or even make the catch. It doesn’t help that there isn’t much juice on the throw and Grimes can really cover some ground when breaking down on a throw.

Cousins INT Catch

Here is the point where the ball meets Grimes. Reed has drifted out beyond the 25 which eliminates him from being able to get in and make a play on the ball. Grimes’ momentum ends up taking him out of bounds or else this would have been a pick-six and changed the entire complexion of the game early on.

It’s easy to say that Cousins made a late decision and a poor throw, but if Reed had turned back to the ball instead of drifting upfield, this INT probably never happens. A lot of credit also goes to Grimes who broke off of his initial coverage to drive underneath a mark who wasn’t even his to cover. His superb vision and closing speed allows him to get to a ball that most CBs would maybe only be able to swat away.

The blame (or credit) is shared here among the 3 players. How heavily it rests on each player is debatable, but it can’t be attributed to just one player. Most interceptions in the NFL have this element of complexity to them but it’s easier, more exciting, and frankly there isn’t enough time in the broadcast for announcers and analysts to pick apart the intricacies of the play as it happens.

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