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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2024 Opponent Preview: Dallas Cowboys, Week 16

The Cowboys faced playoff disappointment again in 2023 but have an MVP candidate in QB Dak Prescott and a defense that got great results last year and has a respected new coordinator leading the way


Players and coaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have begun their final break before the start of training camp, in which they are presumably getting their minds off football for a short stretch. That is not our approach, however. As we wait for those men and women to return to the playing field, we are taking an opportunity to look at each team Tampa Bay is going to face during the regular season. From how those teams fared last year, to what they've done with the roster since, to some as-yet-unanswered questions – we want to get a better feel for what the Bucs will be up against this fall. Today we look at a team the Bucs won't cross paths with until December despite being NFC South rivals: the Carolina Panthers.

2023 Results

The Cowboys won 12 games for the third season in a row and led the league in scoring but ultimately failed to capitalize in the postseason once again. Dallas overtook a fading Philadelphia team at the end of the regular season and won the NFC East but dropped a Wild Card round game to the Green Bay Packers in spectacular fashion.

Dallas came out of the gates on fire and with the Big Apple in their sights, beating the Giants 40-0 in Week One and the Jets 30-10 in Week Two. At the end of the very first possession of the season, the Cowboys blocked a field goal try and Noah Igbinoghene returned the loose ball 58 yards for a touchdown. Two Tony Pollard touchdowns and Daron Bland's first pick-six of an unprecedented season completed the onslaught. The Cowboys picked off Zach Wilson three times in the home win over the Jets.

Josh Dobbs, who would later be traded to Minnesota, threw a touchdown pass to Marquise Brown as the Cardinals dealt Dallas its first loss in Week Three. The Cowboys had a nice bounce back opportunity in Week Four with the Patriots visiting AT&T Stadium and they took advantage, demolishing Mac Jones and the visitors, 38-3, with Bland picking off two passes and once again finding the end zone.

A trip to San Francisco to face another key NFC competitor in Week Five didn't end well, as Dak Prescott was picked off three times and Brock Purdy threw four touchdown passes in a 42-10 thrashing. However, Dallas followed up with a pair of wins over the two Los Angeles teams sandwiched around a Week Seven bye. The Chargers tied the Week Six game in LA with a Justin Herbert touchdown pass to Gerald Everett late in the fourth quarter, sending it to overtime, but Dallas won on a field goal and a Stephon Gilmore interception in overtime. After the break, Prescott launched four touchdown passes against the Rams in a 43-20 blowout.

A big Week Eight game at Philadelphia went the Eagles way, even though Prescott threw three more touchdown passes. Jalen Hurts ran for a score and threw two scoring passes and the Eagles barely held on to a 28-23 win after CeeDee Lamb caught a last-second pass at the Eagles' four. Dallas then ripped off five straight wins in which they topped 33 points in every contest. Included in that run was a 49-17 ripping of the Giants in which Prescott threw touchdown passes to four different players, and another four-TD outing against Washington.

The most significant outcome during that five-game streak was in Week 14 against the Eagles, who were beginning a second-half swoon. The Cowboys rushed out to a 17-3 lead thanks to a Lamb touchdown catch and a Rico Dowdle scoring run, then iced it with a Prescott touchdown pass to Michael Gallup in a 33-13 final.

Dallas then ran into the AFC East, with consecutive losses of 31-10 to Buffalo and 22-20 to Miami in Weeks 15-16. The Cowboys' defense held the Bills' Josh Allen to 94 passing yards but Buffalo ran for 266 yards and Prescott threw one interception and no touchdowns. In South Florida, Prescott threw a game-tying touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks with three minutes left but Tua Tagovailoa rallied the home team to the win with a 12-play drive resulting in Jason Sanders' 29-yard field goal as time expired.

Dallas got a huge win in Week 17, taking down Detroit by one point, 20-19. Prescott threw two touchdown passes and the Cowboys led by seven points with just under two minutes to play. Jared Goff led the Lions on a 75-yard touchdown drive that could have sent the game into overtime but an apparent game-winning two-point conversion was overturned by a controversial substitution penalty. The Cowboys easily defeated the Washington Commanders in Week 18 to take the NFC East crown.

Dallas ended up with the second seed in the NFC playoffs, drawing a home game in the Wild Card round against the upstart Green Bay Packers. It didn't go well. Aaron Jones ran for two touchdowns in the first 16 minutes of the game, the second after a Jaire Alexander of Prescott, and a 64-yard pick-six by Darnell Savage made it 27-0 in the second quarter. Prescott threw two late touchdown passes but the 48-32 final proved to be a bitter ending for one of the NFL's most talented teams.

2024 Arrivals

The Cowboys entered the 2024 offseason with a long list of prospective free agents from their own roster and not an abundance of cap space. The result was a quiet offseason in free agency with no new contracts beyond one-year deals. Dallas picked up linebacker Eric Kendricks on a one-year pact after he was released by the Chargers, and the longtime Viking will likely start in the middle of the defense. Otherwise, the team addressed a shallow running back depth chart by bringing back Ezekiel Elliott after his one year in New England and signing Royce Freeman, most recently a Ram, as an unrestricted free agent.

Dallas did address a variety of new holes on the depth chart in the draft, starting with Oklahoma tackle Tyler Guyton at the end of the first round after a small trade down. Guyton was seen as something of a project by some scouts but the Cowboys are confident he can immediately start at left tackle, allowing them to leave Tyler Smith at left guard, where he has thrived. Dallas also needed a new starting center after losing theirs in free agency, and Kansas State guard Cooper Beebe, nabbed in the third round despite projections he could be off the board a round earlier, could earn that job.

Between those two offensive linemen, the Cowboys snagged Western Michigan defensive end Marshawn Kneeland in the second round, giving them some much-needed help in the edge rotation. The Beebe selection was made with the pick Dallas picked up from Detroit in the first-round trade down, and they used their own third-rounder on Notre Dame linebacker Marist Liufau. Liafau and fifth-round cornerback Caelen Carson from Wake Forest project as eventual starters. The Cowboys wanted to add cornerback depth after playing much of last season without playmaker Trevon Diggs.

Given their lack of activity in free agency, the Cowboys could end up with playing time for sixth-round wide receiver Ryan Flourney from Southeast Missouri State and their two seventh-round selections, Louisiana-Lafayette tackle Nathan Thomas and Auburn defensive tackle Justin Rogers.

2024 Departures

After Dan Quinn left the Cowboys' staff to become Washington's new head coach, the Commanders proceeded to raid the Dallas roster through free agent. Most significantly, Washington plucked defensive end Dorance Armstrong and center Tyler Biadasz from the Cowboys' free agent list, both getting lucrative three-year deals. Though he didn't frequently start game, Armstrong was a key member of the edge rotation, tallying 21.0 sacks over the past three seasons. Biadasz started all but two games over the past three seasons and was a Pro Bowler in 2022.

Washington also signed former Cowboys Dante Fowler and Noah Igbinoghene. Igbinoghene, a corner, was not a significant part of the Dallas secondary but Fowler had 10.0 sacks during his two seasons with the team.

Left tackle Tyron Smith also left for the Jets, though he only got a one-year deal, surely because he's 33 years old and has missed 37 games due to injury over the past four seasons. As noted above, Dallas drafted his replacement in the first round.

Running back Tony Pollard, who was the Cowboy's starter last year after Elliott's departure, landed a three-year contract in Tennessee after consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in Dallas. Defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins and Neville Gallimore also hit the road in free agency, signing one-year deals in Seattle and Miami, respectively. Dallas also released wide receiver Michael Gallup, who had 34 catches in 17 games last year, and he signed with the Raiders.

Other Noteworthy Developments

As mentioned earlier, Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn got a second head coaching opportunity after spending three years in Dallas. The Cowboys responded by signing Mike Zimmer, who actually started his NFL coaching career in Dallas in 1994. He eventually graduated to the coordinator position for the Cowboys, which he held from 2000-06. The well-regarded coach also had coordinator gigs in Atlanta and Cincinnati before landing the head job in Minnesota for eight years. Zimmer prioritizes stopping the run and uses a wide variety of blitzes, but he's best known for suiting his schemes to his personnel.

Quarterback Dak Prescott, who finished second in MVP balloting in 2023 after throwing for 4,516 yards and 36 touchdowns, is heading into the final year of his contract. Moreover, he has a clause in his contract that prevents the use of the franchise tag, meaning he will be able to hit free agency next offseason if he wishes. His contract situation is likely to be a top storyline hanging over the Cowboys' season.

In addition, the Cowboys have two other star players who will need new deals soon in wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and edge rusher Micah Parsons. Lamb led the NFL with 135 catches last season and Parsons has finished in the top three in Defensive Player of the Year voting in each of his first three NFL seasons. Dallas did exercise its fifth-year option on Parsons for 2025, though they declined the same choice for quarterback Trey Lance, whom they got in a trade with San Francisco.

Dallas did re-sign some of its own pending free agents, including cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and C.J. Goodwin. Lewis is the team's primary slot corner. Also getting new one-year deals were tackle Chuma Edoga, running back Rico Dowdle and long-snapper Trent Sieg.

Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch announced his retirement after six seasons and was released. The Cowboys have also not re-signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jayron Kearse.

Pressing Questions

Will the Cowboys and Dak Prescott commit to a future together?

Kirk Cousins signed with the Falcons this offseason for $100 million guaranteed and an AAV of $45 million. Cousins is 35 years old, coming off an Achilles tendon tear and has never finished in the top five in NFL MVP balloting. It seems reasonable, therefore, that the 30-year-old Prescott, who as noted above nearly won league MVP honors last year, could expect to be handed $50 or even $60 million per year. Do the Cowboys want to make that commitment? Can they afford not to?

The issue, of course, is that the Cowboys have not enjoyed much postseason success during Prescott's first eight years at the helm. How much of that blame is on him is debatable, but Dallas also has CeeDee Lamb and Micah Parsons to consider in terms of long-term futures. Does Dallas believe that Prescott is its best chance to get back to the Super Bowl promised land.

And, of course, there's the complicating factor that the Cowboys can't control whether or not they continue on with Prescott. The former fourth-round pick can decide for himself if he wants to move on next year. As such, the idea of signing him to a new long-term deal is probably something that will be on the front burner all season.

Can Dallas field the NFL's best defense?

The Cowboys finished fifth in the NFL in both points and yards allowed in 2023, and that was without playmaking cornerback Trevon Diggs for almost the whole season. They were fourth in interception rate and seventh in sack rate. Despite having big leads in multiple games, they allowed the fifth fewest passing yards.

Very little has changed in the Cowboys' defensive lineup heading into 2024, except for the fact that Diggs is healthy again. Cornerback DaRon Bland emerged as yet another big-time playmaker in Diggs's absence, picking off nine passes and returning five of them for touchdowns. Parsons might be the best defender in the league. The Cowboys also have a nice safety duo in Donovan Wilson and Malik Hooker.

Clearly, Dallas has talent to spare on defense, and the draft provided some depth at key positions. Dan Quinn is off to Washington but the Cowboys landed a proven defensive mind in Mike Zimmer. If Dallas can pull all of those elements into one of the league's best defenses and Prescott has another MVP-caliber season, the team could be title contenders.

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