1. Receivers DeSean Jackson & Mike Evans
One thing that Head Coach Dirk Koetter has identified about the Dallas defense this season is their propensity for playing single-high coverage. He said they're in an eight-man front almost every play. This allows them to get a ton of pressure on the opposing quarterback, but it doesn't come without a price. With Jackson slated to play Sunday, Dallas will have to contend with the deep threat that he presents when he's on the field. That's what Jackson brings to the field and it may not be coincidence that the Bucs have seen a downturn in explosive plays without him on the field. Even when Jackson isn't the one making the catch, he's involved more than you probably think. He draws a defender – or even two – with his ability to stretch the field vertically. This leaves fewer defenders to deal with slot receiver Adam Humphries, tight end Cameron Brate or, you know, the guy that has the second-most receiving yards in the league, currently (Mike Evans. I'm talking about Mike Evans).
"Dallas isn't really a big roll coverage team," Head Coach Dirk Koetter said. "They're pretty much a straight up, one-on-one team. DeSean in the game – again he's one of the fastest, one of the most explosive players in the league. That's going to help everybody on offense – not just Mike."
However, having Jackson on the field, coupled with the fact that the Cowboys play a lot of man coverage, should give Evans, in particular, the opportunity to exploit some matchups. Those opportunities will have a greater meaning in this game, where Evans could surpass the Bucs' all-time single-season receiving yards record. He's currently just 95 shy of former wide receiver Mark Carrier's record of 1,422 that's stood for nearly 30 years. And make no mistake, Evans wants to break it.
"Mike has aspirations of owning every record and higher than that," Coach Koetter said. "I would just say if he doesn't get it this year, he's going to get it. If he stays healthy, I would say he has a great chance to get it this year and he deserves it."
"That's Mike, man," quarterback Jameis Winston said of his receiver. "He's one of the best players to play the game. He's going to keep getting better. That's all of our goals, to get better every day as best as we can. That's Mike, man. I'm just happy I get to throw that guy the ball."
The return of Jackson, coupled with a record on the line, seems to be the perfect situation for the Bucs' offense to find their groove again inside AT&T Stadium.
2. CB Brent Grimes
The Cowboys have a receiving threat of their own in wide receiver Amari Cooper, who the team acquired from the Oakland Raiders via trade in Week Nine. Cooper is playing at an All-Pro level since arriving in Dallas and has everything to play for with the Cowboys needing to secure one win in their last two games to make the playoffs.
"He's added speed, which they already have, but he added speed and productivity and long-ball opportunity," Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner said of the challenge Cooper presents. "Just another explosive weapon in an offense that's got very, very good players, another one comes aboard and it gets even more prolific. This team is playing at a high level right now. They've been really – from a run and pass standpoint – productive and scoring points. It's going be, like I said, a very formal task for us."
The Buccaneer defense, and its coaches, are all too aware of Cooper's capability and it will presumably be cornerback Brent Grimes tapped to help contain him on the outside.
3. S Jordan Whitehead
A guy that has stepped up in the Bucs' depleted secondary has been rookie safety Jordan Whitehead. The game is slowing down for him, and you can tell. He has been good with his run fits and in coming down to stop ball carriers short, has delivered some massive hits. He seems able to recognize run lanes very well. Being a former running back himself may hav a little something to do with that. It also may explain why he doesn't hesitate to take a hit by running right into guys to make a stop.
He's been part of a collective improvement for the unit as a whole. The secondary was probably hit the hardest by the injury bug. Three-quarters of Tampa Bay's starting defensive backs are now on Injured Reserve, so the rookies, like Whitehead, have had to step up and step up quickly. As the season has progressed, the young players have become more comfortable, contributing to the improvement the unit has seen.
"I think they've not allowed big plays," Coach Duffner said of the secondary as a whole. "They've kind of kept things in front of him and played with I think a little better technique. I think that that's probably the biggest thing right now is that they're playing with some confidence and making plays. I'm pleased that these people when they do come in they're accepting the opportunity with the role they get and doing their best with it and that's all you can ask."
That improvement, however, will be tested this weekend against the Dallas ground game led by running back Ezekiel Elliott.
4. DT Vita Vea
Speaking of stopping Ezekiel Elliott, defensive tackle Vita Vea will be part of that effort, too. There was a lot of talk this week about him coming into his own. His ability to make plays laterally helps with the run and will be instrumental in stopping Elliott. He's starting playing reminiscent to how he played in college, where he was known for his run-stopping ability for the University of Washington. At 347 pounds, he's more athletic than he should be, so now that the game has slowed down and he's able to identify plays laterally, he can actually get there with how quick he moves. It was a matter of putting the physical and mental components together, and it seems Vea has been able to do that as of late. Vea had nine combined tackles against the Baltimore Ravens, which is an impressive number for an interior lineman, especially.
"He's getting better game after game after game," Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner said. "That attributes to Coach [Brentson] Bucker and Coach [Paul] Spicer and certainly to Vita and his preparation weekly. He's playing dominantly at the moment and we'd like that to continue. That helps the entire defense. When you're strong up the middle, you're going to be strong overall. We're anxious for him just to continue to have that kind of production. I think again, it's reflective of his preparation, but it's also just again the more reps he's getting. He's kind of now more in the midseason for him because of injury and so forth early on in the year. We're anxious to continue to see him be in that productive mode."
Bucs fans should be even more anxious to see him and the rest of the Buccaneer defense take on the Cowboy offense and Elliott, especially.
"We've got to get 11 hats to the ball and make sure we wrap up," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said on facing Elliott. "He's hard to bring down with just one person, so make sure we are gap sound, control the line of scrimmage and get as many people to the ball as we can."
5.The offensive line
Here's the thing: the Dallas defense thrives on getting pressure on the quarterback. As Coach Koetter said, they are playing with an eight-man front most of the time. Additionally, they are able to rotate their front four and have extremely fast linebackers to back those guys up. With a loaded box, protecting the quarterback becomes paramount.
"Not complicated, but they do play awfully hard," Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken said of the Cowboys' defense. "Got a number of really good football players. Definitely our play clock in our head is going to have to be extended because they do play hard. They will finish. They will get after the quarterback in terms of their pass rush. That's what they're building on paying at home with the noise on the turf."
In addition to pass protection, the Bucs will have to find some success on the ground as well. That will mean the offensive line opening up running lanes for running back Peyton Barber to get through. Establishing the run will help play action, which subsequently helps buy the quarterback time if you can cause any of the defenders up front to hesitate or bite on the running back.
"We've got to do a great job of running the football, being able to get chip help when we can, and our guys have got to win outside," Coach Monken continued. "That's what you have to do, but they're not complicated. They just do what they do and do it well, which is a sign of a good team. Statistically they're every bit as good as the Ravens in a lot of categories and you can see it on film."
Part of that run effort will also be protecting against some extremely quick and athletic linebackers. That unit could get a boost this week with linebacker Sean Lee officially listed as questionable. Lee has been a dynamic defender when healthy. Add him in with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Eschand the combination is darn-near lethal.
"Sean Lee hasn't played as much this year and he might be better than both of those guys," Coach Koetter said of the Cowboys' linebacking corps. "I think that's probably the strength of Dallas' defense is their speed at linebackers. Those young guys have come out and said what a great mentor Sean Lee is for them, even though he hasn't been playing, as kind of a player-coach for them. I think their resurgence, where they won the five games in a row, a lot of that was centered around the speed of those linebackers.
"We know that you've got to get those linebackers blocked if you're going to move the ball against these guys."