Extra Points: Dak Prescott Is Back, Edge Rushers Due for Sacks, and Kenny Pickett Troubles

NFL Week 8 gave us close games, exciting division races, and new information about Dak Prescott, Kenny Pickett, edge rushers, and running backs.

Week 8 of the NFL season has given us closer games with high-scoring outcomes, something we’d gotten used to seeing over the past few years but were apparently rare in 2022. Most offenses seem to have gotten back on track in one way or another and those that lost their way were generally pretty easy to identify early on as flashes in the pan.

NFL Week 8 Recap

It’s nice to get back to entertaining football, and it has made the race for the NFC East more exciting, while the NFC South and NFC West races are more complicated than ever.

We’re probably done asking questions about Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, and can be pretty confident instead in our answers. We also got to see a few teams tagged with the “unsustainable” curse actually take a loss. All except for the Minnesota Vikings, that is.

Along with these developments are more questions, like whether Dak Prescott is back, what the Steelers can expect for the rest of the season from Kenny Pickett, what circumstances make running backs worth investing in, and which edge rushers are due to have a strong second half of the season.

Dak Prescott Might Be Back

Prescott’s first two games this season — one before his injury and one returning from it — were underwhelming, and it might have been fair to wonder if we’d seen the best of him a while back. In 2016, he was among the league leaders in EPA per play, a position he returned to in 2019. Prescott’s floated around there for a bit, but he was never quite as impressive as Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes, so he was easy to forget in some accountings.

But against the Bears, Prescott looked like that quarterback that could consistently push an offense down the field, produce in the red zone and create opportunities that were missing when Cooper Rush was at the helm. It came just in time, too, as the Cowboys’ defense has not performed like a top-five unit over the past few weeks and might not be able to carry the team over the course of a full 17-game season.

The Cowboys scored 49 points in an absolute beatdown of the Bears, 20 more points than Chicago had given up to any other team this season. Though the Bears aren’t winning many games, the defense had been performing well enough to keep them in games only long enough for the offense to let them down.

However, Dallas finished six of their nine (non-kneeling) drives in touchdowns (the other coming from a fumble return), converted nine of their 11 third downs into a new series of downs, were perfect in the red zone, and generated an eye-popping 7.8 yards per play.

That’s why with Prescott at the helm, the Cowboys scored 24 more points than in any other game they had played in all season. Moreover, Prescott made plays that few other quarterbacks can, including a laser on the second touchdown throw of the game, a score for CeeDee Lamb.

It certainly helped that Tony Pollard put in an incredible performance — one that will probably help his case for a big contract as a full-time starter with another team next year — and we saw better protection from the offensive line. But this is exactly the kind of thing that made the Cowboys such a frightening contender for the playoffs despite playing below the levels of their divisional rivals, the Eagles, to this point.

Whither Kenny Pickett

We know that rookie-year performance for quarterbacks can lie to us. High-level rookie performances can lead to disappointments down the road, while struggling rookies can turn into Hall of Fame talents. Not only that, we don’t have access to what the rookie performances would have looked like for players like Mahomes or Rodgers.

But more information helps us come to conclusions, and the early returns on Pickett are pretty bad. They aren’t just concerning, they are outright bad. The only game where Pickett has started where he didn’t throw multiple interceptable passes is one in which he didn’t throw it downfield at all, with an average depth of target of just 4.5 yards from the line of scrimmage against the Buccaneers.

MORE: NFL Playoff Picture Week 8

When the offense demands more of him and he actually has to make throws to advance past the chains, Pickett’s prone to error and inaccuracy. His arm isn’t strong enough to account for timing errors or effectively make deep sideline throws without defenders closing in on it.

All of this could change — Pickett’s process could speed up, he could improve his accuracy, he could even change his throwing motion to generate more velocity — but for now, it’s resulted in a stilted offense that can’t take advantage of its talented receiving corps, one that constantly puts the ball in danger.

Some of this reminds me of Tua Tagovailoa, whose initial starts were underwhelming and plagued with similar errors. Since then, he’s turned up an explosive offense in a new system with great receivers and a skilled offensive designer.

But for now, the Steelers might turn in Mike Tomlin’s first losing season as a head coach.

Running Backs Conditionally Matter

At the beginning of the year, we were greeted with the unusual circumstance of a scant few teams being immune to the leaguewide offensive decline. Many of those found themselves leading the pack by way of a strong and explosive running game.

Through the first five weeks, there were four top point-getters who focused on a heavy running game — Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Cleveland — who ranked third through sixth in points per game. Two of those teams did not have a franchise quarterback putting up incredible performances; both Jared Goff and Jacoby Brissett were seen as and played like placeholder QBs.

In Weeks 6-8, we saw those two teams crater in points scored, with the Lions ranked 27th in points per game and the Browns ranked 25th. Meanwhile, Baltimore fell to just 13th while the Eagles ascended to third place.

These are pretty small samples, but they tell us that strong running games can only be a component of a good offense. They don’t replace quality at quarterback. It should also be noted that the Jets, who saw an offensive explosion of their own with rookie Breece Hall at running back, couldn’t generate much offense after he was ruled out for the season.

But the Jets weren’t left barren at RB. They traded for a good running back in James Robinson and have Michael Carter on the roster. The problem is that Zach Wilson is remarkably limited, and relying on dump-off passes to explosive RBs to replace a big-play passing game can only go so far — something that stadium partners, the New York Giants, had learned with Daniel Jones over the past several years until Jones’ recent emergence as a developing QB.

That’s not to say that running backs can’t boost an offense. There’s good statistical reasoning behind the idea that they shouldn’t, but if the 49ers have evidence otherwise, they’ll feel validated in Christian McCaffrey’s performance following the first full week of practice he had with the team. With a quarterback who, despite having issues, provides a higher floor than Brissett or Goff, the 49ers demonstrated there may be something in investing in a high-level back like McCaffrey.

Which Edge Rushers Are ‘Due’?

We’ve seen a number of pass rushers re-emerge or break out in entirety this year. Za’Darius Smith has re-established himself as a pass-rush threat, while Micah Parsons has demonstrated that he can be an elite edge rusher, not just a linebacker.

But with that comes questions about those players who are seemingly underperforming. Players like Danielle Hunter and Montez Sweat were expected to, after returning from injury, become the pass-rushing machines they were known to be. Both only have three sacks.

That’s not a fair assessment of pass rushers, however. They affect plays more than just with sacks, putting pressure on the quarterback, knocking them down as they throw, and clogging passing lanes at the line of scrimmage. Not only that, the best predictor of future sacks is not previous sacks, but previous pressures.

Sacks are a low-frequency event and are subject to a lot of volatility. Maybe the quarterback got rid of the ball as he was falling to the ground, or an official took a sack away due to penalty. Perhaps a player was getting triple-teamed and freed someone else up to make a sack.

MORE: Baltimore Ravens Acquire Roquan Smith From Chicago Bears

This isn’t always the case. Chandler Jones historically has done a good job creating sacks with a relatively low-pressure rate, while Brandon Graham has had difficulty turning high-pressure rates into high-sack rates. But for most edge rushers, most of the time, we can find which ones might be “due” for more.

On average, about 15% of pressures will convert into sacks. Those substantially below that margin might see sacks come in the second half of their season. Among those players is Sweat, who has only converted 9.4% of his pressures into sacks. So too with the Jaguars’ Josh Allen, who’s having a good year but doesn’t have the traditional box-score numbers to show it.

Also worth watching are Odafe Oweh (4.2%), Marcus Davenport (4.8%), Markus Golden (5%), and George Karlaftis (5%).

On the other side of that, we may see a slip in production for Matthew Judon, Justin Houston, Cameron Jordan, and Smith. This isn’t to say that they are secretly playing poorly or that their sacks have come on easy plays, just that they’ve finished a bit better than is typical, even for players of their caliber. And we likely won’t see them finish the season with double their current sack total.

NFL Week 8 Recap: Other Notes

  • I’m still waiting for Tagovailoa to return to his pre-injury form. He’s thrown a lot of interceptable passes since returning to the lineup, and though we’ve been seeing some great stuff from Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in the meantime, it’s tough to see. An offense with this much potential is sorely needed in today’s NFL.
  • None of the top five defenses in points per game through five weeks appeared in the top five in points per game through the following three weeks. It’s historically difficult to sustain defensive play (when compared to offensive play), though the Bills and Broncos are closest, ending up as sixth and seventh, respectively, on the list after appearing first and fifth. But the second-ranked 49ers dropped to 30th, third-ranked Dallas dropped to eighth, and fourth-ranked Jacksonville dropped to 25th. In either instance, we’re working with small samples that will correct themselves going forward, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
  • Justin Fields is getting much better. I’m not sure he’s on the path to becoming a starting-quality quarterback or that he’ll demonstrate enough for the Bears to stick with him through another offseason. But I’ll be tracking him, specifically, after the past few weeks have shown us a more interesting and dynamic quarterback
  • It’s been kind of cool to see spring-league quarterbacks like PJ Walker (XFL) and Taylor Heinicke (XFL) get their shot. Even more are on rosters right now, like John Wolford (AAF), Garrett Gilbert (AAF), and Logan Woodside (AAF). Hopefully, we’ll continue to see spring leagues develop this position.

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