“Winning up front” is a common football cliche, but with question marks along both offensive lines, this Sunday night showdown will come down to who wins up front.
The NFL is back. We made it. It’s been nine long months since Dallas exited the playoffs in disastrous fashion. The team is just as ready to move on as all of you are. The NFL has never shied away from thrusting Dallas into the spotlight, and they have done just that, as Tom Brady and the Bucs make their way to AT&T Stadium in the primetime slot.
This game certainly could be affected several other ways. There are a lot of playmakers on both sides of the ball. But in my opinion, this game will be most affected by which offensive line holds up the best. Let’s start with the Dallas offensive line.
Cowboys OL vs. Bucs DL
In their 2021 matchup on opening night, then-defensive coordinator (now-head coach) Todd Bowles blitzed Prescott on a whopping 37 percent of his dropbacks. On those 22 dropbacks Prescott diced Tampa Bay up for 13 completions, 188 yards, and three touchdowns for 0.32 EPA per dropback. It was surgical.
Bowles is known for being blitz-heavy in his playcalling. With questions on Dallas’ offensive line, you have to wonder how blitz-happy he’ll be. Sure there are plenty of issues on the Dallas OL, but Prescott consistently burned him in 2021.
The difference in this 2022 matchup will come down to whether or not the Tampa Bay defensive front can get home with four rushers. If the OL can’t hold up in protection this is going to be a long night. The Bucs employ some fierce men along that defensive front such as Vita Vea, Akiem Hicks, Shaquil Barrett, and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. We’re going to find out just how ready Tyler Smith and Connor McGovern are on that left side. Expect Bowles to test Smith and McGovern often.
It would behoove Dallas to be able to run the ball some on Sunday. In last year’s matchup, Ezekiel Elliott was ineffective and Kellen Moore abandoned the run game and leaned on Prescott. Prescott then put together one of his finest performances, but I’m not sure you can consistently count on that.
Dallas has placed a large emphasis this offseason on running the ball, but monsters like Hicks and Vea will make it difficult. The trio of Smith/McGovern/Biadasz will be tested often, especially in the run game with the maulers Tampa Bay has up front.
Bucs OL vs. Cowboys DL
This is where things are interesting. There’s been a lot of turnover on Tampa Bay’s offensive line. The tackles are the same and they’re still outstanding. Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs still man the outside tackle spots (side note: Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence against Smith and Wirfs will be about as high-quality an OT/EDGE matchup as you see. Enjoy and appreciate that as a fan!).
Tampa Bay has had a ton of turnover on the interior. Alex Cappa left for Cincinnati. Ali Marpet retired. Ryan Jensen suffered a season-ending injury in training camp. Those are three high-quality starters gone from the interior. On top of that, new left guard Aaron Stinnie also tore his ACL and MCL in camp. For those keeping track, in the last nine months, one guard left in free agency, another retired, and the replacement at one of the guard spots also tore his knee up. Add in Jensen’s injury, and that’s a ton of turmoil up front.
Tampa Bay acquired longtime Patriots guard Shaw Mason to step in at right guard in the offseason. Replacing Stinnie and Jensen are 2022 second-round pick Luke Goedeke and 2021 third-round pick Robert Hainsey, respectively.
Hainsey is just 290 pounds, and his lack of size shows in his grades, as Pro Football Focus graded him much better in pass blocking than he did in run blocking in the preseason (51.2 grade on run blocking, 78.9 grade on pass blocking). Goedeke struggled in the preseason as well with a run blocking grade of 50.6 and a pass blocking grade of 58.2.
The Cowboys have the horses on the edges against Wirfs and Smith. Parsons, Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler, Tarrell Basham, and Sam Williams will present their fair share of issues.
But Dan Quinn’s defensive interior has a chance to really make an impact on the Bucs’ shoddy interior. Lawrence and Chauncey Golston can kick inside on passing downs. Parsons and Anthony Barr can blitz. The defensive tackles Osa Odighizuwa, Quinton Bohanna, Neville Gallimore, and Trysten Hill can all take advantage of the interior.
How important will Dallas’ pass rush be?
The point of this exercise shows Dallas can really bother Brady up front. At 45 years old, Brady is not mobile and has to get the ball out quickly. The times we’ve seen Brady struggle is when pressure comes, and even more so when it’s in his face. In 2021, Brady graded out tremendously against the blitz and when kept clean. His grade dipped from 91.5 to 82.1 when blitzed, but 82.1 is still perfectly fine.
When pressured without a blitz, however, Brady’s grade craters all the way down to 53. Almost no quarterback is great when pressured, but it especially affects Brady. If Dallas is going to win on Sunday, it will be on the backs of Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, and the rest of the defensive front.
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