When Dak Prescott takes the field for the first time in 333 days, it is hard to imagine the spotlight being much brighter than it already will be. The face of the franchise returns in the primetime Thursday night kickoff game against the Super Bowl Champions, led by Tom Brady. The schedule makers knew what they were doing when they set up this matchup.
The Cowboys look to start their second season under Mike McCarthy on the right foot after a disappointing and injury-riddled 2020 season. In order to do so, several things are going to have to change. There is nowhere to go but up for Dan Quinn’s new-look defense after a historically terrible 2020. The offense is healthy again and figures to be one of the NFL’s elite units once again. But starting out on the right foot will be a bit difficult given the opponent. First, let’s take a look at how Dallas matches up with Tampa Bay defensively:
When the Buccaneers have the ball:
Tampa Bay returns all 22 starters from its Super Bowl roster for the first time in the salary cap era. The offense is once again loaded, led by seven-time Super Bowl Champion Tom Brady. He is accompanied by arguably the best trio of receivers in the NFL (Dallas’ trio may have something to say about that) in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown. Brady’s longtime sidekick Rob Gronkowski returns as well.
The array of pass-catchers in Tampa gets a lot of the shine, but its offensive line is simply not talked about enough as one of the best fronts in football. Ali Marpet and Ryan Jensen have been one of the best guard-center duos in the league for years and Tristan Wirfs is coming off an outstanding rookie season in which he was immediately a great right tackle.
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 with putting heat on Brady. It has been known for some time that pressuring Brady is easily the best way to beat him. It’s hard to say how much of it will carry over, but Dallas blitzed much more in the preseason than it has in past years. How often Quinn decides to bring extra heat will be something to keep an eye on.
Dallas’ best chance to slow down Brady is going to take a lot of creativity, and Micah Parsons is going to be the key to that creativity. The Cowboys used him all over the field in the preseason, and his sideline-to-sideline ability combined with his blitzing ability should be a real weapon. Brian Baldinger did a great breakdown of Parsons:
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) August 23, 2021
Parsons fits incredibly well with Keanu Neal at the linebacker spot and gives Quinn lots of flexibility given Parsons’ versatility and Neal’s coverage ability. Mix in a healthy Leighton Vander Esch, and Dallas officially has some real options in its linebacker room. Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence are going to need to make an impact as well. Lawrence has been one of the best edges in football for years now, and his matchup with Wirfs will be appointment television. It appears to finally be time Randy Gregory to officially break out, and what better place to do so in a spotlight like this?
The defensive backfield obviously needs to show up as well. Dallas’ secondary will be a weakness as younger guys like Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright develop. Dallas’ top four corners seems to be: Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, and Maurice Canaday. With Damontae Kazee and Donovan Wilson as the two starting safeties, Dallas is banking on a lot of young guys and cheap veterans to hold things down. That will make it even more important to bring some pressure up front and make the secondary’s job easier.
When the Cowboys have the ball:
As mentioned earlier, Dak Prescott has a plethora of weapons at his disposal. After being decimated by injuries in 2020, the Cowboys offense should be elite with Prescott, La’el Collins, Blake Jarwin, and Tyron Smith back. Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup is a special trio of wideouts that will give defenses fits all season. Unfortunately, we won’t get to see the full unit in action Thursday as four-time All-Pro guard Zack Martin tested positive for COVID-19. He hasn’t officially been ruled out as it sounds like 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 right guard.
Dallas’ interior offensive line against the terrifying duo of Tampa defensive tackles is going to be a key matchup. With no 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 interior of the offensive line will be a concern without Martin in the fold, and that may make it tough for Ezekiel Elliott to get going.
Tampa’s defense is loaded up and down the lineup. Devin White and Lavonte David form an elite linebacking duo and have two great edge rushers in front of them in Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett. Antoine Winfield Jr. is already one of the better safeties in the game after a strong rookie season. Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, and Sean Murphy-Bunting are three solid corners that bring an attitude to the defense.
What Dallas can do to neutralize the Tampa defense:
It will all be about protecting Prescott. Prescott has demonstrated his mobility his whole career, but in his first game back since a traumatic injury, the Bucs’ ferocious front seven will be pinning its ears back. The world saw what Tampa’s defensive front did to the mighty Kansas City offense in the Super Bowl. Dallas better hope its offensive line is up to the task, because otherwise, Prescott may be running for his life.
Another place Dallas can take advantage is with its wide receivers. The offense is built around Prescott and the impressive array of pass-catchers Dallas has. Amari Cooper is one of the elite receivers in the league, CeeDee Lamb looks to be developing into an elite wideout, and Michael Gallup is one of the better deep threats in the league. Tampa has a very nice secondary but the advantage goes to Dallas in that matchup.
The Bucs were able to dominate the Chiefs by letting their front seven control the game in a mismatch. Now the Cowboys offensive line is in much better shape than the Kansas City unit was in at the time, but Tampa didn’t blitz much at all and lined up in two-high safety shells to neutralize the Chiefs’ weapons. If Dallas can protect Prescott and force Todd Bowles to bring some extra defenders at Prescott, it will open up the rest of the offense.
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 wideouts is a clear mismatch. The Dallas defense’s only hope is to put heat on Brady, and that will be reliant on Lawrence, Gregory, and even Parsons to get in the backfield consistently. I expect a valiant effort in Prescott’s return, but it won’t be enough.
Bucs 31 Dallas 27
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