As training camp approaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and with it the unofficial start to the season, we are taking a closer look at the opponents on the team's 2022 schedule. First up is the Dallas Cowboys, who will play host to the Buccaneers in both team's season opener on Sunday, September 11.
Once again, another one and done season has passed for the Dallas Cowboys. For the 26th year in a row, the Cowboys watched the NFC Championship game from home, falling short of the coveted goal. Every year begins with high expectations for the Cowboys, yet a Lombardi Trophy continues to elude them.
In the regular season, Dallas compiled a 12-5 record to place them atop the NFC East. However, when the goal is the Super Bowl, anything less is a disappointment. The team significantly improved from their disastrous campaign in 2020 during Mike McCarthy's first year as head coach, but the objective is not improvement. To begin the 2021 season, the offense got off to a hot start, firing on all cylinders. Due to their dominance to start the year, Kellen Moore's cast finished first in yards and points per game. They accumulated 40-plus points in three games and even eclipsed the 50-yard marker twice – a rarity in the NFL.
To add to the mix for good measure, quarterback Dak Prescott set a new franchise record for touchdown passes in a season with 37. Additionally, CeeDee Lamb surpassed the 1,000-yard mark during his sophomore campaign and Tony Pollard, Dalton Schultz and Cedrick Wilson elevated the team's offensive attack with notable contributions. However, as fate would have it, the high did not last. The offense sputtered during the second half of the season as opponents began using a heavy dose of two-high shell coverage. Dallas could not sustain success on the ground like they did to start the season and teams did not allocate resources up front to stop the run, utilizing a four-man rush to generate pressure with more players on the back end working over the top. This forced the Cowboys to try and win underneath with a quick passing game or on the perimeter, leading to the success of Schultz and Wilson over the middle.
Dallas never found a way to ignite the offense over the second half of the season and inconsistent offensive line play, penalties and critical missed extra points led to the team's demise. Dallas was penalized a total of 141 times and lost a combined 1,192 yards because of flags through 18 (including Wild Card) games, giving momentum to opponents. The offensive line consistently got beat at the point of attack during the second half of the season, culminating in the porous play against San Francisco, garnering the statement, "We got smashed in the mouth" by right guard technician Zack Martin. In the first eight games of the season, Prescott got pressured 91 times (sacked 11) according to PFF. In the last 10 games of the 2021 season, he faced 131 pressures (24 sacks), including a season-high by the 49ers in the NFL Wild Card Round. The Cowboys ability to improve around Prescott, including personnel and schematically on offense, will be the solution in 2022.
The strength of the team came on defense, under the leadership of Dan Quinn. In one season, he turned the unit around, inheriting a squad that surrendered a franchise-worst 473 points in 2020. The former coordinator of the Legion of Boom in Seattle transformed the defense with his hands-on approach and 4-3 base scheme with hybrid sub packages. With an emphasis on turnovers, Dallas led the league in takeaways last year with 34, 26 of which were interceptions. The club was also tied for the league lead in turnover differential at +14. Under Quinn's tutelage, players' skillsets were maximized. Trevon Diggs became an All-Pro and led the league in interceptions. Then there is the testament of rookie sensation, Micah Parsons, who became the first-ever unanimous NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He delivered arguably the most dominant performance by a rookie defender since Lawrence Taylor in 1981. After seeing his rare combination of size and speed during training camp, Quinn built the foundation of the defense around his versatility as Parsons learned both pass rush stunts and blitz packages at both defensive end and linebacker weekly. Plugging through the A-gap to collapse the pocket or outpacing a runner to the sideline, Parsons did it all – well, and then some. Other Cowboy defenders put up their best campaigns in 2021 as well, including tight end eraser and safety Jayron Kearse (led the team in tackles), defensive end Randy Gregory who lived up to his potential, along with cornerback Anthony Brown and rotational defensive end Dorance Armstrong.
With Quinn's return for round two in 2022, expectations are high on the defensive side of the ball.
The Cowboys made several mandatory moves to round out the roster throughout the offseason. Dallas signed wide receiver James Washington to add to the talented receiving corps with the loss of Cooper and Wilson. Washington never got into sync in the Steelers' offense and will enter Moore's system with a more dynamic quarterback under center in Prescott. With Michael Gallup recovering from a torn ACL, Washington will be viewed as the No. 2 receiver until Gallup is healthy, with CeeDee Lamb as the bonafide No. 1. On the defensive side of the ball, Quinn once again reunites with a former Falcon. Last year at this time, it was Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee that followed Quinn from Atlanta to Dallas. Now, it is Dante Fowler. Their relationship spans beyond the NFL, as Quinn tried to recruit Fowler to the University of Florida as the Gators' defensive coordinator. In the aftermath of Gregory's loss, Quinn targeted Fowler to bolster the defensive front. Dallas is hoping to ignite the Rams version of Fowler (11.5 sacks in 2019) as he steps into the lineup opposite DeMarcus Lawrence.
Then the club re-signed the following players to solidify the roster: wide receiver Michael Galllup, safety Jayron Kearse, punter Bryan Anger, long snapper Jake McQuaide, defensive end Dorance Armstrong, safety Malik Hooker, tight end Dalton Schultz, defensive lineman Carlos Watkins, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, wide receiver Noah Brown, linebacker Luke Gifford and tight end Jeremy Sprinkle.
With the departure of Connor Williams, the team's starting left guard last season, Dallas selected Tulsa offensive tackle Tyler Smith in the first round to bolster the interior with size and strength. As he continues to improve his patience and technique at the pro level, Smith's play will ascend. In the second round, the Cowboys took Ole Miss defensive end Sam Williams who provides pass-rush talent and is a bad-will hunter. He has a relentless motor and speed element to harass opposing quarterbacks. Following the departure of Cooper and Wilson, the Cowboys selected South Alabama receiver Jalen Tolbert in the third. He can play all three positions, with speed to stretch the field vertically. To complement Dalton Schultz in the tight end room after parting ways with Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys picked up Jake Ferguson in the fourth out of Wisconsin. Known for his blocking prowess, Ferguson can assist in pass protection to keep the pocket clean for Prescott.
The Cowboys did not make a huge splash in the initial wave of open market shopping in terms of acquiring out-of-house talent. Dallas traded their No. 1 wide receiver, Amari Cooper, to the Cleveland Browns. Then Dallas agreed to terms on a five-year extension with defensive end Randy Gregory that went awry, sending Gregory into the arms of the Denver Broncos. Then came the release of starting right tackle La'el Collins to add to the list of moves. Collins signed with the Cincinnati Bengals and will help protect young superstar, Joe Burrow. Both wide receiver Cedrick Wilson (Miami Dolphins) and guard Connor Williams (Miami Dolphins) were on expiring contracts and departed during the bustling offseason. Additionally, Dallas waived tight end Blake Jarwin and released kicker Greg Zuerlein, who wound up with the New York Jets.
What Else is New?
After the downfall of the Cowboys once esteemed offensive line in 2021, they added Tyler Smith in the first round to replace Williams and added competition for the swing tackle job alongside last year's fourth-rounder Josh Ball with this year's fourth-round selection – North Dakota's Matt Waletzko. His natural spot is on the left, but he can play at right tackle. In the Wild Card clash against the 49ers that abruptly ended the Cowboys 2021 season, Prescott was sacked five times and hit an additional 14 – a protection disaster and microcosm of the season. The most incriminating fact? San Francisco only blitzed 18 percent but achieved pressure on 50 percent of Prescott's drop backs per PFF metrics. They may have found the answers by way of the draft, but time will tell. It all starts with continuity up front, and Dallas will aim to regain it.
How will the Cowboys replace the production of Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson?
The stat line for Cooper may not be all that impressive from last year's outing but Cooper is undoubtedly one of the best route runners in the game. He will now help the Browns compete in the loaded AFC West. Utilizing awareness, subtle eye movement on double moves and athleticism, Cooper uses angles to attack the opposite hip - or side away from where the route will be run - to create separation. That's a rare artform that the Cowboys will have to replace. In addition, last season as opponents used a healthy diet of two-high shell against Dallas, Prescott's go-to target became Cedrick Wilson out of the slot on intermediate routes. With his fluidity in and out of breaks, Wilson moved the chains. Now, Lamb, Gallup and Tolbert must create camaraderie with Prescott to elevate the Cowboys' aerial attack in 2022.
How to revitalize the rushing attack?
Following Week 6 last season, the Cowboys had a non-existent ground game. A lot of the issues stemmed from the offensive line's inability to create open rush lanes, but with an ineffectiveness in running the ball, the Cowboys were put in third-and-long situations. Teams stopped allocating resources to Dallas' run game by using light boxes and the club was not able to generate success on the ground regardless. The Cowboys' offense operates best from a balanced attack, being able to optimize play-action and run-pass options. Ezekiel Elliott dealt with a partially torn PCL during the season and Tony Pollard with plantar fasciitis. Being able to capitalize off of that 1-2 punch in 2022 with both healthy would be an onslaught. Elliott possesses the power through tackles element and Pollard the shiftiness in space – a lethal combination. This upcoming season, the key is schematic approach and execution.