The Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin the second half of their 2015 season on Sunday against a 2-6 team that will be without its four-time Pro Bowl starting quarterback. As enticing as that sounds, the Bucs know they're in for a significant challenge from the visiting Dallas Cowboys.
"We see a dominant offensive line, all five guys, so it starts with that," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "They've been able to run the football for the most part consistently. Matt Cassel has played better, which you normally do when you continue to get reps. And when you get a special player back like Dez Bryant it makes your offense better. Mix in a Jason Witten and we'll have our hands full with their offense."
Cassel is the quarterback playing in place of the injured Tony Romo, who is likely to return from short-term injured reserve next week. Bryant is on the short list of the best wide receivers in the league and he surpassed 100 yards last week in his second game back from a foot injury. Witten hasn't been hurt; he's simply been as good as ever in a career that will possibly send the tight end to the Hall of Fame.
Even without Romo, the Cowboys have followed their star-studded offensive line to good offensive numbers in recent weeks, and while they haven't yet been able to snap the six-game losing streak that began with Romo's injury, they have consistently been in games until the very end. Since losing Romo, Dallas has lost four games by seven points or less.
INFO: HOW TO WATCH THE GAME
"They're a lot like us in a way; they've had some close games but have lost some," said Smith. "Both of us need to get a win."
Last week, the Buccaneers faced a red-hot Eli Manning and picked off the Giants' quarterback on the first play from scrimmage. That resulted in a field goal and the Buccaneers saw a very close game get away from them in the fourth quarter in a 32-18 defeat. Tampa Bay's defense would obviously like to start in a similarly strong fashion Sunday, but more importantly they need to do more with those golden opportunities. The Buccaneers scored just once in four red zone trips in that loss to New York.
"We of course emphasize it, anything we don't do well we put a big emphasis on it," said Smith. "But I think guys knew that going in, especially when you get a takeaway down there to start the game. You need to get a touchdown. Just as a general rule, whenever we get down there that close we need to be able to get a touchdown."
The Bucs eventually got a second interception against Manning but lost three fumbles of their own, resulting in 17 New York points. That was something of an anomaly – and the final touchdown was on a desperation pitch play gone wrong in the final seconds – because Tampa Bay has done a good job of avoiding turnovers for the last month or so. Those red zone struggles have hurt, though, as has an inability to get off the field on the other side of the ball.
Photos of the Bucs vs. the Cowboys over the years.
"We'd like to [get turnovers] early and late and throughout; as always, defensively, it's about taking the football away," said Smith. "For us, we need to do a better job on third downs. We didn't do a good job on third downs last week. And on the other side of the football we have to continue to secure the football. That's something we've done consistently well."
The Bucs have also run the ball consistently well in 2015; in fact, Sunday's game is a matchup of the seventh and eighth-best rushing attacks in the NFL, with Tampa Bay slightly ahead of its opponents. Both teams are likely to focus on establishing that aspect of their offenses, but the Bucs will have to do so without the powerful blocking of impressive rookie Ali Marpet. An ankle injury suffered last week will keep Marpet out of Sunday's game, but the Bucs think they have the depth to continue dominating along the offensive line.
"It was tough losing [him]," said Smith. "Ali Marpet has really been playing well throughout, consistently good football. But injuries happen. Evan Smith is healthy. It's good to have him up to be able to fill in the way he did. He played well. He'll make the start this week at the right guard position and we'll go from there."
On defense, the Bucs will once again be without their sack leader, defensive end Jacquies Smith. Facing a Cowboys offensive front that is widely considered to be the best in the league, the home team will hope to apply pressure by using a deep rotation of pass-rushers.
"We need to do a better job than we did last week," said Smith of the pass rush. "Will Gholston will start at the left end position and Howard Jones will start at the other [position]. Of course our goal is to get some of the other players a few reps, like a Josh Shirley. We're going to dress eight guys, and of course getting pressure will be big for us this week."
Marpet and Smith are two of the Buccaneers' seven game-day inactives on Sunday, along with QB Ryan Griffin, S Major Wright, S D.J. Swearinger, WR Vincent Jackson and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins. All but Griffin are out due to injury.
The Cowboys will be without standout LB Sean Lee, who suffered a concussion last week and is inactive today. Fellow starting 'backers Rolando McClain (hand/foot) and Anthony Hitchens (ankle) were limited in practice throughout the week but are active for today's game. The Cowboys' seven inactive players are Lee, WR Brice Butler, CB Corey White, RB Trey Williams, LB Sean Lee, G Ronald Leary, TE Geoff Swaim and DE Ryan Russell.
The Buccaneers take on the Cowboys on Sunday afternoon with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played at Raymond James Stadium and will be broadcast by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.