Week 1 is always full of shocking results, but I’m not sure anyone saw this coming. On the first NFL Sunday of the 2019 season, the league’s most effective passers were … Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott? Jackson bombarded the Dolphins secondary, completing 17 of his 20 passes for 324 yards and five touchdowns in a 59-10 drubbing of Miami. Not to be outdone, Prescott followed that up with 405 yards on 25-for-32 passing and four touchdowns in a 35-17 victory over the Giants. Both quarterbacks were virtually unstoppable, raining down deep shot after deep shot until both games got out of hand—and stunning those who had raised doubts about both as passers.
Following a lackluster showing against the Chargers in last season’s playoffs, the question of Jackson’s viability as a thrower was verging on an existential crisis in Baltimore. For Prescott, there were concerns about whether his past two seasons warranted the market-setting contract he was reportedly seeking. And beyond the skepticism surrounding their own abilities, what made Jackson and Prescott such unlikely air-it-out candidates is all the attention that was paid to their teams’ running games this offseason.
Most of the Dallas talk over the past month was about Ezekiel Elliott’s contract dispute. Yet less than a week after Elliott signed a six-year, $90 million deal (with $50 million guaranteed) that made him the highest-paid running back ever, the Cowboys’ quarterback stole the show with the best performance of his career. The Ravens coaching staff spent the past six months crowing about the run-heavy offensive revolution it was orchestrating around Jackson. But after averaging 17 carries in his seven starts last season, Jackson ran the ball just three times against the Dolphins. Both teams’ strategies on Sunday were surprising, yet encouraging. The biggest question for both the Ravens and Cowboys this offseason was whether their new offensive coordinators could build systems to get the most out of their young quarterbacks. Through one game, the returns couldn’t be better, and if Sunday’s results are an indicator of what’s to come, it drastically alters the ceiling for both of these franchises in 2019.
Opening weekend provides the perfect chance to ambush an opponent with an unforeseen approach, and the Ravens did just that to steamroll an overmatched Miami secondary. After barely playing him in the preseason, Baltimore unleashed rookie speedster Hollywood Brown, who took his first two career catches to the house for touchdowns of 47 and 83 yards. Brown’s 4.3-second 40-yard dash wheels make him one of the fastest players in football, but that kind of speed wasn’t required to be a big-play threat for the Ravens on Sunday. Willie Snead hauled in a 33-yard score. Tight end Mark Andrews was a beast running up the seam. In all, Jackson completed seven passes of 20-plus yards against Miami. The Ravens completed just 11 such passes over Jackson’s seven starts in 2018.
After all the hemming and hawing about Jackson’s throwing this offseason, he looked excellent on Sunday. His ball placement and decision-making were consistently on point throughout the game, and he showed clear improvement over where he was last season. Still, there are plenty of caveats to that performance. The Dolphins are actively trying to tank, and they feature less defensive talent than any other roster in the AFC. And moving forward, Baltimore won’t be able to catch defenses off guard and pounce on them with deep throws. But the Ravens’ showing on Sunday is still worth commending, because this was the culmination of a plan that the franchise spent an entire offseason instituting.
As teams around the NFL obsess over what their quarterbacks can’t do, offensive coordinator Greg Roman has embraced Jackson’s unique skill set and expertly tailored an offense to fit it. With defenses devoting so many resources to stopping the run, the Ravens used heavy personnel packages and their new speed element to push the ball down the field. A vertical passing game is the ideal complement to the Ravens’ ground-and-pound approach, but the key on Sunday was where those long passes were aimed. Nearly all of Baltimore’s big plays came in the middle of the field, where Jackson excels most as a passer. His touch and accuracy on deep shots between the numbers are his two biggest strengths as a thrower, and both were on full display on the long touchdowns to Snead and Brown. Baltimore also showed a commitment to run fakes against Miami, something that should be a fundamental component of its offense after Jackson led the league in play-action rate last season. Andrews had multiple chunk gains after hard fakes out of a shotgun set, which caused Miami’s linebackers to barrel toward the line of scrimmage and in turn gave Jackson cleaner throwing windows.
As the Ravens get deeper into the season, smart defensive coordinators will do all they can to take Jackson out of the comfortable surroundings this system provides. The long, arcing throws to Brown and Snead on Sunday may have been gorgeous, but they weren’t particularly refined. Defenses will try to force Baltimore into difficult down-and-distance situations that limit the use of play-action while shutting off the middle of the field and forcing Jackson to shape throws to different levels and areas. Of course, with the combination of Jackson and Mark Ingram (who ran for 107 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday) as rushing threats in the backfield and a back-breaking speed threat like Brown on the field, that’s easier said than done. And there were already indications on Sunday that Jackson has made strides with the types of throws that gave him trouble last season. Brown’s first touchdown came on an RPO that required a well-placed, short throw, and Jackson put the ball on the money. He also fit a pair of quick passes outside the numbers to Brown and tight end Hayden Hurst that showed much improved accuracy to that area of the field. Baltimore may not have the luxury of playing the Dolphins every week, but Sunday’s aerial display did show that Roman has created the right blueprint to get the most out of Jackson.
The same was true for the Cowboys, who unveiled a new-look approach—designed by first-year coordinator Kellen Moore—that seemed to reinvigorate Dak Prescott. Last season, Dallas finished 26th in passing DVOA, and Prescott threw just 22 touchdowns for the second straight season. Instead of embracing progressive ideas about how to make their QB’s job easier, last season the Cowboys stuck with the same stagnant, unimaginative approach they’d used since Prescott’s rookie season. Enter Moore, whose approach features a dizzying array of motions, formations, and play-action concepts—and his quarterback wasted no time taking full advantage.
Prescott’s first touchdown throw came after a hard play-action fake on a second-and-10 that left tight end Blake Jarwin running wide open down the middle of the field for 28 yards and a score. His second touchdown came on an easy pitch-and-catch to Jason Witten in the right flat following a beautiful outside-zone play fake and rollout. Then Prescott tossed his third play-action touchdown at the 9:49 mark of the third quarter, when he stuck the ball in Elliott’s gut for a split second, pulled it back, and fired a 25-yard strike to Randall Cobb to make the score 28-10. Last season, Prescott used play-action on just 24.9 percent of his dropbacks, which ranked 16th among 37 qualified quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. If Sunday’s game is any indication, Dallas will be making exaggerated play fakes out of the shotgun and pistol a focal point of its offense in 2019, which aligns with Prescott’s skill set.
Heavier play-action usage meshes well with the other tenets of the Cowboys scheme, but Prescott also did plenty of damage on tight-window, straight dropback throws on Sunday. One of the QB’s strengths is his placement on deep passes outside the numbers, as Cowboys quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna detailed this offseason. Prescott took advantage of single-high safety looks by hitting a pair of those on Sunday—one to wide receiver Michael Gallup for a 36-yard gain early in the second quarter, and another for a 21-yard touchdown to Amari Cooper with less than two minutes remaining in the first half. Last season, Prescott had the fourth-highest passer rating in the NFL on passes of 20-plus yards, according to Pro Football Focus, but he threw deep just 10.8 percent of the time, which ranked 24th of 35 qualified quarterbacks. Expect that to change this season.
That increased emphasis on deep throws felt like a purposeful overcorrection from last season, and the Cowboys could also make better use of Prescott’s rushing ability—especially in the red zone. Dallas finished a dismal 28th in points per red zone trip last season, which just shouldn’t happen with a player like Prescott under center. A rushing QB can flip the math in an offense’s favor as the field compresses near the goal line, and Moore used the threat of Prescott as a runner to occupy an extra defender and help finish off the Cowboys’ final touchdown drive. On a second-and-5 from the 10-yard line late in the third quarter, Dallas lined up in the shotgun and sent wide receiver Tavon Austin tearing across the formation in jet motion, ran Witten the opposite way as a blocker, and finally executed a read-option with Prescott and Elliott that allowed the running back to escape through a massive hole on the left side before fighting his way into the end zone.
Prescott’s comfort within this new system seemed immediate on Sunday, and for fans who grew frustrated with the team’s offense over the past two seasons, that was a welcome sight. Dallas has built a loaded roster on both sides of the ball; the question that remained ahead of this season was whether schematic changes could help Prescott play the best football of his career. Through a single game, we have an answer. The Ravens saw the same encouraging signs with Jackson, who could help Baltimore’s offense finally keep pace with its consistently great defense. Week 1 often comes with misleading results, but if Sunday’s performances are any indication, the new systems in Dallas and Baltimore are built for their quarterbacks to thrive.