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Thursday Night Preview: Dallas Cowboys vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Dallas Cowboys vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It’s been an offseason full of events since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decimated the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV seven months ago. It is finally time for the reigning champions to defend their crown against an onslaught of competitors. The Dallas Cowboys will get the first crack at Tampa led by star QB Dak Prescott back under center after breaking his ankle in Week 5 of 2020. Dallas’ revamped defense under defensive coordinator and former 33rd Team member Dan Quinn is one of several stories around the opening game. Two of the best offenses in the league will go toe to toe on Thursday and here are three keys to the game for both of these teams: 

3 Keys to the game for the Dallas Cowboys:

1. Establish the run

Despite the fact that Dallas had some very formidable offensive players last season, it was clear that Dak Prescott’s injury affected more than just the quarterback position. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott took a turn for the worst as he only recorded two games with 100 or more rushing yards after the Prescott injury. In order to pull off the upset on the road, the Cowboys will have to keep Tom Brady off of the field, especially given how dangerous the Buccaneers’ offense can be. With Prescott being back under center, a lot of the pressure that Elliott felt in his absence last season should fade.  Furthermore, Elliott doesn’t have to shoulder the load solely in the run game. The Cowboys do have a great change of pace back in former Memphis Tiger Tony Pollard. The third-year player had a solid 2020 and really showed out against the Vikings and 49ers. In those two games, Pollard put up 192 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. Even against the best run defense from a year ago, the Cowboys’ talented RB room has to alleviate pressure off Prescott if the Cowboys want to start their season on the right foot. 

2. Make Tom Brady uncomfortable

The teams that have the most success against Tom Brady are the ones who generate pressure on him. Brady offers zero value outside the pocket and although he can maneuver his way inside the pocket, he can’t escape the pressure for long. Getting pressure on Tom Brady is much easier said than done as the Bucs’ offensive line really buckled down during the final stretch, only having two games with more than one sack given up after the Bucs’ Week 13 bye—including the playoffs. The Cowboys struggled to get pressure on QBs in 2020 as the team finished 20th in sacks and 25th in pressures. However, Dallas made a number of moves this offseason to address their dreadful defense such as signing veteran Keanu Neal in free agency and drafting Micah Parsons, Osa Odighizuwa, and Jabril Cox. If these players can copy the formula the New Orleans Saints displayed in the regular season, it will be a tough night for the defending Super Bowl Champions. It’s certainly a tough ask but not out of the realm of possibilities considering there isn’t any pro tape on the rookies the Cowboys drafted. 

3. Keep a clean pocket for Dak Prescott

On the other side of the ball, it is equally important that the Cowboys give enough time to Dak Prescott to have the greatest opportunity for success. This starts with protecting their franchise QB who is not only coming off a gruesome ankle injury but also suffered a shoulder injury this preseason. Prescott was sacked ten times through the Cowboys’ first give games in 2020 and was hit 16 times total. When Andy Dalton took over, he was sacked 24 times in the 11 games he suited up for the Cowboys last season. The offensive line clearly struggled in 2020 as several key pieces were in and out of the lineup. When healthy, Dallas still has one of the best offensive lines in football with Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins. Martin will miss the game against the Buccaneers due to Covid while Collins is questionable with an injury. Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator Todd Bowles isn’t afraid to dial up the pressure and Dallas will have to be ready. The banged-up offensive line will have to give Prescott enough time to get the ball out to the incredibly talented options on the outside or he will be on the turf getting pummeled by one of Tampa’s several defensive stars. 

3 Keys to the game for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

1. Utilize Chris Godwin early and often 

The Buccaneers certainly do not lack offensive pieces. In fact, this unit grew even stronger with the signing of Gio Bernard and the drafting of Jaelon Darden. It’s going to be a very tall task for the Cowboys to stop the Buccaneers’ high-octane offense. A player that was very key in the Buccaneers’ offense getting into a rhythm at the end of last year was former Penn State receiver, Chris Godwin. After the Bucs’ Week 13 bye in 2020, Godwin recorded 32 receptions for 510 yards and 5 touchdowns, including the Bucs’ playoff run. Godwin’s emergence down the stretch helped to alleviate a lot of the pressure from Tampa’s other key offensive pieces and made them extremely difficult to predict who was going to get the ball on any given passing play. The Cowboys have a lot of inexperience in the secondary despite using many of their recent draft picks on defensive backs. With Tom Brady under center, look for the Bucs to continually try to go after whoever is guarding Godwin. The defending Super Bowl Champions’ night will be much easier if there isn’t too much pressure on the rest of Tampa’s offense. Godwin is a very good chain mover and sets up a lot of plays for Tampa’s offense due to his impressive route running ability on short-to-intermediate routes. 

2. Force Ezekiel Elliott to turn the ball over

Part of the Cowboys’ demise after Prescott went down in 2020 was Ezekiel Elliott’s inability to hang onto the football. Elliott had a career-high 4 lost fumbles in 2020 with three of them coming after Prescott was out for the season. These fumbles were huge game changers and led to Dallas losing a lot of momentum in several different games. With Prescott making his highly anticipated return, it would not be at all surprising if the Cowboys’ game plan included a high dosage of Elliott. This will be difficult if the Cowboys get down early and would enable Tampa to display one of their biggest strengths from a year ago: turnovers. The Bucs were one of the best teams in the NFL in 2020 at generating turnovers. They finished fifth in the league with 25. Filled with aggressive players, Tampa’s defense is not afraid to rip the ball out of opposing ball carriers’ hands. Devin White and Lavonte David form one of the better linebacker duos in the league and for good reason. Furthermore, the Buccaneers have plenty of aggressive players on their defense who are not afraid to rip the ball out of opposing ball carriers' hands. Devin White and Lavonte David form one of the better linebacker duos in the league and for good reason. White and David, along with Jason Pierre-Paul, Antoine Winfield Jr, and Shaq Barrett, combined to force 12 fumbles last season. Look for Tampa’s defense to be extremely aggressive given Elliott’s inability to hang onto the ball last year along with the injuries on Dallas’ offensive line. 

3. Change the pace at running back 

The Buccaneers’ were not known for their rushing attack last season despite some of the heroics from Leonard Fournette in the playoffs. Tampa’s rushing offense ranked 29th and 26th in rushing yards per game and yards per carry, respectively, in 2020. It’s clear that Tampa’s best option is to pass the ball; however, Tampa had some games where their rushing offense was extremely good, particularly due to the fact that Bruce Arians did a tremendous job of switching his backs to gain the advantage on opposing defenses. Ronald Jones, Gio Bernard, and Fournette all have different skill sets from each other that can make them hard to defend against when they’re all given an equal amount of carries. Considering that Dallas had a very tough time stopping the run last season—the Cowboys gave up 158.8 yards per game along with 5.0 yards per carry in 2020—it would be a shame for Tampa not to try to take advantage of a very similar defense in this one. Although Dallas has added some much-needed speed to their defense, it’s still not a guarantee that the rushing defense will get drastically better, at least not right away. It will be nearly impossible to defend the Bucs’ array of offensive weapons if they are able to get the run game going early, especially with a number of running backs that keep Dallas on its toes.