Welcome back to Establish the Fun, where football is fun and I am continuing to establish that. We’re at the end of the season, which is quite frankly mind-blowing. However, as teams prepare to make a playoff push, more players and units are stepping up to elite levels. As the playoffs get closer, we’ll see which players are in peak form and which units are playing at their best, which is why football is fun.
So let’s establish some fun, starting with an elite QB in Dallas.
Back with Dak
Since Cowboys QB Dak Prescott returned from injury in Week 7, Dallas hasn’t been held under 20 points in a single game, and are fourth in EPA per play. Their success rate on all dropbacks in that time span? Third in the NFL. Dak has been on fire, with an EPA/play of 0.262, third in the NFL over that timespan. Oh yeah, and he’s thrown 20 touchdowns to go along with it.
Against Philadelphia in a pivotal game for the division, Dak was on another level after a pick-six early in the game. He shredded the Eagles defense, and in the process showed why he is one of the best QBs in the NFL, full stop.
Just think about this stat:
Against zone coverage, processing post-snap is crucial, and that’s where Dak is at his best. He’s a computer at QB, and rarely gets fooled. Against the Eagles, he was on point in every aspect of the game.
On this play, the Cowboys motion the RB over to the boundary side along with the TE and WR, with WR Ceedee Lamb in the slot (all of Lamb’s 120 receiving yards came from the slot—probably an issue!). This is a stick concept with double slants to the backside, but the Eagles are in Cover 4, meaning Dak has to influence the LB to move away from the hole Lamb is running to. It looks simple, but watch Dak’s head from the end zone view. He gets the LB to open up towards Schultz and throws a rope to Lamb. This eye manipulation is all over the film for Dak.
The first TD Prescott threw to CeeDee Lamb was well designed and executed by the Cowboys. Dallas lines up in a trips bunch formation, and the outside receiver runs an out route, the TE runs a hook route, and Lamb runs a corner. The Eagles try to fool Dallas by spinning a safety down post snap and playing Cover 3, but Dak does such a great job with his eyes that he holds Darius Slay on the out route before layering a throw not only where Lamb can get it, but where Lamb can continue to run away from the safety.
An area where Prescott has been inconsistent in for the Cowboys is throwing and working outside the pocket. This year, however, the Cowboys QB has the fourth most dropbacks outside the pocket since 2018, and his completion percentage is the second highest of his entire career. Dak has dealt with a few lower body injuries in his career, but now that he’s healthy, you’re starting to see a good mixture of the Dak we see now and the mobile, running QB Prescott was at Mississippi State. This TD is the perfect example. This is a QB playing the game on easy mode.
Any debates about whether Dak Prescott is an elite QB need to be put to bed. He is elite, in fact he’s playing like one of the eight best QBs in the NFL right now. The Cowboys are on a fast track to the NFL playoffs, but if they want to go to the Super Bowl for the first time in my lifespan, they’ll need Prescott to continue playing at a high level.
“Nevermore offensive yardage,” quoth the Ravens
Since Lamar Jackson went down with a knee injury, the Ravens are 2-1, yet haven’t scored over 20 points during that timespan. The reason?
Their defense has finally turned the corner.
Early in the season, the Ravens defense was riddled with coverage busts and missed assignments. From weeks 1-9, Baltimore was 24th in defensive EPA per play and 14th in total defensive DVOA. Since week 9, however, they’re second in total defensive DVOA and second in EPA/play. You really can’t contribute it all to only one person because defense is so unit-oriented, but one of the biggest changes for the Ravens defense came in the middle of the year when they traded for Pro Bowl LB Roquan Smith.
Hamilton is a much more impactful player around the ball, when he can make plays vs the run and cover curl to flat areas of the field. On this jet sweep, Hamilton stacks the tight end, and forces the play back inside to Hamilton’s teammates. He doesn’t get credited with the tackle here, but he makes a pivotal play.
On this Ohio concept by the Falcons (outside go paired with an out), Hamilton is able to get on the inside hip of the tight end and use his length to get a PBU. His impact plays have come far more often in this alignment.
Many people, including myself, left the Ravens for dead after Jackson got injured. However, they’ve clinched a playoff spot on the strength of their defense, and now that the defense is firing on all cylinders, Baltimore can be a dangerous team in the playoffs.
Carolina runs towards the playoffs
Excuse me, what?
The Carolina Panthers, three months after firing former head coach Matt Rhule, control their destiny in the NFC South.
Which means that if the Panthers beat the Bucs on Sunday, then the Saints next weekend, they are going to the playoffs.
That is a real thing I just wrote.
The Panthers are riding high after rushing for 320 YARDS against the Detroit Lions last week, and whenever you have that much success on the ground, you get Establish The Fun’s attention. Since week 12, the Panthers are second in EPA per rush and 19th in rushing DVOA.
Carolina’s offense is getting good inputs from everyone on the roster, and it’s making their run game work extremely well. This is a windback concept, a counter to all the duo that offenses run. The offensive line run blocks like duo, but then a receiver will come back across the formation and the back will follow the receiver. Watch the block here by Panthers WR LaViska Shenault. It helps spring this big run.
This time, the Panthers actually run duo, and watch how the double teams along the offensive line help the line get vertical displacement. The line of scrimmage is at the 27 yard line, and the Lions defensive front gets pushed all the way back to the 30. That’s moving people against their will, something the Panthers have done extremely well in the run game.
Even when they’re not executing at the highest level, they’re getting good play from one of their most important pieces: left tackle Ikem Ekwonu. Ikey has been playing at an extremely high level. He struggled early in the season, but as time went on, the Panthers have started to see the athleticism and nastiness in the run game. Watch him send Derrick Barnes to West Virginia on this TD run.
One thing that I am keeping my eye on is how many run option plays the Panthers are running with Sam Darnold at QB. Darnold isn’t the best athlete, but he’s athletic enough to run these concepts and add some flavor to the Panthers offense. According to Sports Information Solutions, the Panthers have run more option based plays in their run game since week 12 than they have from weeks 1-11.
They scored a TD using a speed option with a “freeze” component. It’s designed to look like inside zone to freeze the defense, and then they run the speed option. It’s a really cool trick to run the option that a lot of college offenses are running now.
I don’t think the Panthers are a team to be feared if they make the playoffs. Shoot I don’t even know if they’ll beat Tampa on Sunday. But what they are doing is creating offense that is sustainable, while highlighting the greatest qualities of their best players. And that’s fun!