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Preview: Cowboys look to make a statement against the World Champions

When Dak Prescott first steps onto the pitch in 333 days, it’s hard to imagine the spotlight looking much brighter than it already will be. The face of the franchise returns in Thursday night’s prime-time kickoff game against the Super Bowl Champions, led by Tom Brady. The schedule officials knew what they were doing when they organized this game.

The Cowboys are looking to start their second season under Mike McCarthy on the right foot after a disappointing and injury-ridden 2020 season. To do this, several things will have to change. There’s nowhere to go but in Dan Quinn’s new-look defense after a historically terrible 2020. The offense is healthy again and is once again among the elite units of the NFL. But getting off on the right foot will be a bit difficult given the opponent. First, let’s take a look at how Dallas compares defensively to Tampa Bay:

When the buccaneers have the ball:

Tampa Bay is sending all 22 starters to its Super Bowl roster for the first time in the salary cap era. The offense is charged again, led by seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady. He’s arguably joined by the NFL’s top receiving trio (the Dallas trio may have something to say about that) in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown. Brady’s longtime sidekick Rob Gronkowski is also returning.

Tampa’s pass-catching lineup shines a lot, but its offensive line just isn’t talked about enough as one of football’s best fronts. Ali Marpet and Ryan Jensen have been one of the league’s best center-guard duos for years and Tristan Wirfs has just had an outstanding rookie season in which he was an excellent straight tackle immediately.

What Dallas can do to slow down Tampa Bay:

How Dan Quinn plans to attack this defense will be interesting, but it will probably start and end by putting pressure on Brady. It’s been known for some time that putting pressure on Brady is easily the best way to beat him. It’s hard to say how much of this will continue, but Dallas has blitzed a lot more in the preseason than in previous years. How often Quinn decides to bring in extra heat will be something to watch out for.

Dallas’ best chance to slow Brady down is going to take a lot of creativity, and Micah Parsons is going to be the key to that creativity. The Cowboys have used him all over the court this preseason, and his sideline ability combined with his blitz ability should be a real weapon. Brian Baldinger did an excellent analysis of Parsons:

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Parsons fits in incredibly well with Keanu Neal as a linebacker and gives Quinn a lot of flexibility given Parsons’ versatility and Neal’s covering ability. Mix up a healthy Leighton Vander Esch and Dallas officially has some real options in their linebacker room. Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence will also need to make an impact. Lawrence has been one of football’s best assets for years now, and his clash with Wirfs will be a televised date. It seems like it’s finally time for Randy Gregory to officially release, and what better place to do it under a spotlight like this?

The defensive backfield must obviously also appear. Dallas high school will be a weakness as younger guys like Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright develop. The four best corners of Dallas seem to be: Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis and Maurice Canaday. With Damontae Kazee and Donovan Wilson as two starting safeties, Dallas is banking on a lot of young guys and cheap vets to keep things going. This will make it even more important to put pressure upstream and facilitate the work of the secondary.

When the Cowboys have the ball:

As mentioned earlier, Dak Prescott has a plethora of weapons at her disposal. After being decimated by injuries in 2020, the Cowboys offense is expected to be elite with Prescott, La’el Collins, Blake Jarwin and Tyron Smith returning. Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup form a special trio of wide offensives who will provide suitable defenses throughout the season. Sadly, we won’t be able to see the whole unit in action on Thursday, as four-time All-Pro goalie Zack Martin has tested positive for COVID-19. He has not been officially ruled out as it appears he is desperately trying to get the two negative COVID-19 tests needed to play, but don’t count on it. Connor McGovern will start in his place at the right guard post.

Dallas’ interior offensive line against terrifying Tampa defensive tackle duo will be a key clash. Without Martin, Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz and McGovern will have their hands full with Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh. The Cowboys’ star offensive tackles are back, but now the inside of the offensive line will be a problem without Martin in the fold, and that could make it difficult for Ezekiel Elliott to start.

Tampa’s defense is loaded from top to bottom in the roster. Devin White and Lavonte David are an elite linebacker duo and have two great edge rushers ahead of them in Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett. Antoine Winfield Jr. is already one of the best goalies in the game after a solid rookie season. Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting are three solid corners that bring attitude to the defense.

What Dallas can do to neutralize the Tampa defense:

It will be about protecting Prescott. Prescott has demonstrated mobility throughout his career, but in his first game since a traumatic injury, the fierce Bucs forward seven got his ears stuck. The world saw what the Tampa defensive front did to Kansas City’s mighty Super Bowl offense. Dallas will better hope that his offensive line is up to par, because otherwise Prescott could run for his life.

Dallas can also take advantage of its large receivers. The offense is built around Prescott and the impressive lineup of pass catchers Dallas has. Amari Cooper is one of the league’s elite receivers, CeeDee Lamb looks to be turning into an elite spread and Michael Gallup is one of the league’s best deep threats. Tampa has a very good secondary, but the advantage goes to Dallas in this game.

The Bucs managed to dominate the Chiefs by letting their first seven control the game in a lag. Now the Cowboys offensive line is in much better shape than the Kansas City unit at the time, but Tampa didn’t bomb much and lined up in double-height security shells to neutralize the guns of the Chiefs. If Dallas can protect Prescott and force Todd Bowles to bring additional defenders to Prescott, that will open up the rest of the offense.

Prediction

I just don’t think Dallas has enough to compete with Tampa Bay at this point. Dallas ‘offense should be able to score and do its part, but Dallas’ secondary against these spreaders is clearly a mismatch. The Dallas defense’s only hope is to put pressure on Brady, and it will depend on Lawrence, Gregory and even Parsons to get into the backfield regularly. I expect a valiant effort when Prescott returns, but it won’t be enough.

Bucs 31 Dallas 27



Editor-in-chief covering the Dallas Cowboys and co-host of the Victory Avenue podcast



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