QB Index, Week 4: Dak Prescott facing new challenges

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The script wasn't working for Dak Prescott, so he leaned on a schoolyard-football staple in an effort to turn his season around Monday night.

The Cowboys lined up in a spread formation during the fourth quarter in Arizona with four wide receivers, the type of pass-first approach that has become increasingly common for this once-smashmouth offense. No. 4 wideout Brice Butler saw Prescott in trouble during the play, another increasingly common occurrence because of Dallas' inadequate pass protection.

"I looked back and saw Dak scrambling to the right and I just hit him with the 'AH!' " a buoyant Butler said in the locker room after the 28-17 win over the Cardinals, snapping his head to the right. "I took it up top, threw my hand up -- he saw me and threw it up there. I had to go get that thing."

Butler got that thing. The brilliant improvisational throw was part of Prescott's resourceful night, a step forward in this uncertain second season after a rookie quarterback ride where the NFL almost came too easy.

It's telling, and perhaps a little concerning for Dallas coach Jason Garrett, that Prescott's three best throws Monday night came after scrambling away from pressure. One of his three touchdowns came on a designed run, which the Cowboys might integrate more into the offense. Prescott and Dallas' coaches are trying to adjust to life behind schedule. Running back Ezekiel Elliott's repeated stuffs near the line of scrimmage have left the team in a lot of third-and-long situations.

On two third downs Monday, Prescott checked the ball down before any pressure arrived. On another third down, he left the pocket early and ran into pressure. Life just hasn't been as comfortable for Prescott with right tackle La'el Collins struggling in his new gig. (The Cowboys are ranked 16th overall in Pro Football Focus' pass-protection rankings.) The running game has been similarly mediocre, ranking 16th in Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics.

The struggles have caught Prescott and the Cowboys off guard. They clearly came into the season looking to be more aggressive throwing the ball, allowing Prescott to toss it 39 times in a comfortable Week 1 win over the Giants. Next Gen Stats show that the Cowboys are using formations with two tight ends or two running backs 9 percent less in 2017, lining up with three wideouts more often.

Dak is changing the plays at the line of scrimmage far more and made great decisions in the opener while uncharacteristically failing to execute some open passes. In Week 2's loss at Denver, Prescott must have been shocked to see his teammates so physically manhandled. It just didn't happen last season. Against the Broncos, tackles Tyron Smith and Collins were often beat on the same play and the team lacked any vertical presence. Dez Bryant is missing explosiveness and the Cowboys' offense has struggled to keep the ball.

"It becomes frustrating," tight end Jason Witten said on Monday night, after the Cowboys' offense logged just 45 plays the entire night. "One of the things we did so well in the first week is we played 47 plays in the first half."

This is all part of the normal development process for a young quarterback, and Prescott has the unique talent and intangibles to navigate it. On Monday night, Garrett lauded Prescott's "off-the-charts mental toughness" and a "spirit" that Garrett believes is contagious. This sounds like coachspeak until you hear Elliott reverently say Dak played like an "animal" Monday or hear Bryant insist that Prescott's unflappability makes his teammates fall in line.

With Elliott's potential suspension still looming, "America's Team" is Dak's team more than ever.

This is the Quarterback Index. I grade every QB start throughout the season and will rank the signal callers based on 2017 play alone starting after Week 4. Trust me, it's going to get weird. This week's top 15 is more subjective, answering one simple question: Who would I want as my quarterback for the 2017 campaign?

THE GREATS

1) Tom Brady, New England Patriots (Last week: 2)

2) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (LW: 1)

3) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (LW: 6)

In an up-and-down start to the season for so many quarterbacks, Brees has been at his reliable best. Sunday's rout of the Panthers was one of those NFC South games where Brees and coach Sean Payton appeared to slowly torture a division rival, knowing all their moves before they happened.

It's crazy that a 13th-year veteran like Rodgers, who is turning 34 years old in December, is the young one here.

TOP SHELF

4) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (LW: 4)

5) Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders (LW: 5)

6) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 3)

7) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (LW: 7)

8) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (LW: 8)

9) Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans (LW: 13)

Remember that these rankings, for now, reflect who I'd want for the rest of the season. So one-week strugglefests -- like Carr's crash in Washington -- won't sink a guy. Carr looked too good in the first two weeks, with too varied a skill set, to panic because of one poor prime-time game.

Big Ben has slowly moved down this list because it's been too long since he's been at his best. His decision-making has a touch of randomness.

Russell Wilson's second half in Tennessee could help ignite his season.

Mariota jumps a tier after his excellent outing against the Seahawks. He is showing weekly consistency and increasing control of his entire offense.

NEXT LEVEL

10) Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers (LW: 9)

11) Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 12)

12) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (LW: 10)

13) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (LW: 11)

14) Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 14)

15) Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills (LW: NR)

The first four names in this tier are not playing their best, but they can settle into this season. Newton is the biggest concern. He mixed in some scorching fastballs and great pocket movement during the blowout loss to the Saints, but also made some shaky decisions. His left tackle is failing him (again) and he has few receiving options (again), especially if wideout Kelvin Benjamin doesn't return this week.

Tyrod is playing like the Panthers want Cam to play. Taylor is avoiding mistakes and giving his team a chance drive after drive. He even played pretty well in the Bills' three-point effort back in Week 2, thus far maintaining a level of consistency each week that must make Sean McDermott smile -- and make those Nathan Peterman truthers in Buffalo feel embarrassed.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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