A year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened their season in an empty Louisiana Superdome, eager to see what an offseason makeover that included the addition of quarterbacking legend Tom Brady would do to the NFC South balance of power. The New Orleans Saints defended their home turf on that afternoon and later defended their division title, but that wasn't the end of the story for Brady and the Buccaneers.
The final chapter of that story is reflected in this year's season opener, which will take place on Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers are playing at home in the NFL's annual Kickoff Game, which means one thing: They are the defending Super Bowl champions.
The Saints won the South but the Buccaneers raced through the Superdome in January on their way to victory over Kansas City in Super Bowl LV. One of the rewards is that Kickoff Game for the next season, which comes against a Dallas team that has the look of a contender despite a 6-10 finish in 2020. It will be the Cowboys who get the first shot at upending the champs, in what is surely going to be a season-long experience of every opponent giving the Buccaneers their best shot.
NFL schedule-makers sent the Cowboys to Tampa for the NFL's Week One showcase not only because Dallas is a marquee franchise but because it has the offensive firepower to match the Buccaneers in what could be an explosive start to the season. With Dak Prescott back under center and distributing the ball to the likes of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup and Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas could turn Thursday's game into a shootout with Brady and his corps of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette and so on.
Prescott was off to an historic start in 2020 before a gruesome ankle injury sidelined him just five games. Dallas eventually used four players under center but couldn't keep their season on track behind the likes of Andy Dalton, Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci. The Cowboys' efforts to get back on top in what was a depressed NFC East last year hinge on Prescott being healthy and ready to resume where he left off in 2020. For his part, Prescott has said he is ready to go, from his throwing shoulder (which sidelined him for a good portion of the preseason) to his leg to his mind.
Meanwhile, Dallas used the offseason to attempt to reshape a defense that allowed the fifth-most points in the NFL in 2020, including the import of a new coordinator to replace Mike Nolan (more on that below). The Cowboys' first six draft picks, and eight of 11 overall, were spent on defensive players, including rangy and athletic linebacker Micah Parsons, who will likely become a central cog in that defense very quickly. However, it's Week One assignment is a difficult one, as the Bucs' Brady-led offense finished the 2020 season on an absolute tear and is expecting even bigger things in 2021 now that everyone involved has a firm grasp on the offense.
The Buccaneers have won two Super Bowls in franchise history, and in both cases they lost their first game of the regular season. The franchise's title defense won't depend solely on what happens on Thursday night, especially with a 17th game added to the season. But the Bucs want to get off to a fast start this time around, and they want to prove they are still the team to beat in 2021. Dallas, with Prescott back in action, will be looking to signal that they are indeed real contenders this year. Only one team will succeed in its Week One goal. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter when NFL football returns on Thursday:
Even with Prescott sidelined for much of the year, the Dallas offense still produced five players with 50-plus catches, including the four noted above and tight end Dalton Schultz. The Cowboys' offense has long been powered by one of the NFL's best offensive lines, though injuries have hampered that unit in recent seasons. With their trio of star receivers, the Cowboys ran 71% of their offense out of 11 personnel in 2020 – the eighth-highest percentage in the league – and are likely to lean on that grouping again in 2021. The Dallas defense finished 23rd in yards allowed and 28th in points allowed last year and was in the bottom half of the rankings in rush defense, interceptions, sacks and third-down efficiency. Jaylon Smith was the team's leading tackler last year with 154 stops – exactly double the next man on the Cowboys' list – but the team will be reassessing its linebacker rotation with Parsons added to the trio of Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Keanu Neal. Those three receivers and Parsons will have much to do with how the season goes for Dallas in 2021, but here are four other players who could make the difference on Thursday night:
- QB Dak Prescott. It is obvious, of course, that the starting quarterback on any team is going to be one of the key difference-makers in any given game, whether in a good or bad way. For that reason, we don't often feature the QB in this section of the Scouting Report. However, in this case the impact that Prescott is going to have on Thursday's game and the Cowboys' entire season can't be overstated. The team's two backup passers to start the season are Cooper Rush, who has three career regular-season throws, and recent waiver-wire claim Will Grier. Before he went down with his ankle injury in Week Five last year, Prescott was averaging 371.2 passing yards per game, which had him on a pace to shatter the NFL's single-season record in that category. It's true that Dallas only won two of the five games he started, but its offense averaged nearly 36 points per game in that span. Those numbers dropped off precipitously over the rest of the season. Prescott is a good runner, and he already has 24 career rushing touchdowns, but he mostly uses his powerful legs and good vision to extend plays and pick up big gains downfield. He's tough, can make all the throws and has proven to be a very good leader. The Cowboys are undoubtedly a huge measure better with him at the helm of the offense, and they obviously knew that when they gave him a new $160 million contract in March.
- DE DeMarcus Lawrence. Lawrence led the Cowboys in sacks in 2020 with 6.5, and while that's not an overwhelming total it also doesn't reflect how important the eighth-year veteran and two-time Pro Bowler is to the team's efforts to get to the opposing passer. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Cowboys' pressured opposing passers on 29.4% of their snaps when Lawrence was on the field in 2020 and only 17.0% of the time when he was on the sideline. Though he rushes from both ends of the line he more commonly comes off the left edge of the opposing offense, which would put him primarily on Tom Brady's blind side, working against left tackle Donovan Smith. Lawrence may have peaked as a pass-rusher in the 2017-18 seasons, when he put up a total of 25.0 sacks, but he quietly remains one of the very best ends in the NFL against the run. He had 36 tackles on running plays in 2020, third most among all defensive ends. And even while the Dallas defense struggled mightily last season, he continued to put in his trademark maximum effort. As the Cowboys look to rebuild much of their defense in 2021, they can still count on Lawrence to be a pillar for the new-look group.
- T Tyron Smith. Smith has a legitimate claim to the title of the best offensive tackle of the past decade. He was one of four tackles named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2010s, along with Joe Staley, Joe Thomas and Jason Peters. While Thomas and Staley are now retired and Peters is a recently-traded backup in Chicago, Smith might be on the verge of a career renaissance at the age of 30. His problem in the latter half of the past decade has been health – he appeared in just two games last season and hasn't played a 16-game season since 2015. Smith's issue the last couple seasons has been a neck injury, but he is ditching the neck roll this season, indicating that he's fully healthy and ready to dominate again. The former ninth-overall pick in 2011, Smith is quite agile for a 6-5, 320-pound man and has always ranked as one of the NFL's best pass-protectors when healthy. He's also a technician who is adept at getting his hands in the right place on opposing rushers to lock them down before they get started. Dallas simply has a better chance to get passes off when he's in the lineup; the Cowboys allow sacks on 5.5% of pass plays since 2017 when he's on the field and 7.3% when he's not in the game.
- S Donovan Wilson. The Cowboys have recently thrown several high draft picks at their secondary trying to get their cornerback position set, but they struck gold at safety with a sixth-round pick in 2019. That was spent on Texas A&M's Donovan Wilson, who played sparingly as a rookie but last year emerged as one of the team's best defenders. Though he only started 10 games last year Wilson had the impressive statistical combination of two interceptions, three forced fumbles and 3.5 sacks. Wilson is a good coverage safety but he can also make plays in run support – including one of his forced fumbles – and he can invade the backfield, to the tune of two strip-sacks. The Cowboys added former Falcons safety Damontae Kazee in free agency, and Kazee is likely to spend much of his time in deep coverage, allowing Wilson to exploit his strengths around the line of scrimmage. The 6-0, 204-pound safety can gather himself quickly and explode with force on opposing ballcarriers. In pass coverage, Wilson has good length and change-of-direction skills, if not necessarily elite speed or quickness.
Dallas finished in the middle of the pack in scoring on offense but, as noted above, were quite prolific in their first five games before Prescott went down. Each of their three top receivers had at least one catch of 50-plus yards, and they all scored five touchdowns. While Elliott had the least productive of his five NFL seasons, the Cowboys got 435 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry and four TDs out of his backup Tony Pollard. If Smith, center Zack Martin and right tackle La'el Collins can stay healthy, the Cowboys should have one of the league's better offensive lines again. There wasn't much to cheer about regarding Dallas' defense, but it did give up the 11th-fewest passing yards per game (227.6). Here are some more specific areas in which the Cowboys should be expected to excel based on what they did in the 2020 season:
- With or without Prescott, Dallas was good at stringing together long drives in 2020. The Cowboys finished the season with 41 drives of 10 or more plays, out of a total of 180 possessions, and had 26 scores on those drives. That was the highest number of 10-play marches in the NFL last year, though the team's touchdown efficiency of 31.7% on those possessions was near the bottom of the league.
- The Cowboys did a good job on kickoff returns in 2020. They had three different players – Pollard, Lamb and Rico Dowdle – post a runback of 47 or more yards (Lamb scored on his), and overall the team averaged 26.1 yards per try. The Cowboys' average starting drive position of the 26.6-yard line after kickoffs was fourth-best in the NFL.
- Dallas scored three non-offensive touchdowns in 2020, in three different games, and when they managed to do so they always won. The Cowboys were 3-0 in those contests.
- The Dallas defense was pretty good at stopping opposing pass-catchers from piling on the yards after the ball was in their hands. Dallas gave up a total of 3,820 yards in 2020, of which 1,642 came after the catch. That was the fifth-lowest total of YAC allowed and the 10th-lowest percentage of YAC among the overall yards allowed.
With their O-Line banged up, the Cowboys allowed 44.0 sacks and ranked 20th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play. Dallas was also tied for 29th in red zone touchdown percentage (50.0%) on offense. The Cowboys' defense gave up 158.8 rushing yards per game, next to last in the NFL, and allowed a third-down conversion rate of 47.0% to rank 26th. In addition:
- According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Dallas allowed a league-high 12 "deep" touchdown passes in 2020. Opponents completed 23 of 52 such pass attempts (44.2%).
- The Cowboys' offense ranked 19th overall in third-down conversions last year, succeeding 40.5% of the time. Where Dallas really struggled was in longer third-down attempts. On tries needing seven or more yards, Dallas converted just 18 of 96 times. That 18.8% conversion rate on long third downs was the worst in the NFL; the league average was 26.4%.
- Opponents were able to strike quickly for scores against Dallas on a regular basis in 2020. The Cowboys allowed 11 touchdown drives of three or fewer plays last year, the only team to hit double digits in that category. Overall, Dallas gave up 75 plays on those possessions, the most in the NFL.
- The Cowboys' aforementioned struggles against the run allowed opposing teams to have successful rushing plays a majority of the time. Dallas opponents gained four or more yards on 50.6% of their carries in 2020, the second-highest percentage allowed in the NFL. Only Minnesota (51.7%) was worse.
NEW FACES IN 2021
As noted above, the Cowboys devoted most of their draft to their beleaguered defense, and that will likely result in several young players filling in key roles in 2021. Dallas also addressed that defense in free agency and brought in a new punter in former Buccaneer Bryan Anger.
- LB Micah Parsons. The Cowboys were widely expected to draft a cornerback with the 10th-overall pick in the 2021 draft, but when Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain came off the board with the eighth and ninth picks Dallas pivoted, trading down two spots before selecting Parsons, the athletic Penn State linebacker. Even if the draftniks were right and the Cowboys did have to go with Plan B, they ended up with a dynamic middle-of-the-field force who is a popular pick for the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Parsons looked as explosive as billed during the preseason.
- S Damontae Kazee. Kazee was one of two former Falcons safeties to sign with the Cowboys this offseason, joining Keanu Neal in that westward move. (Neal has since converted to linebacker.) Kazee has stepped right into the starting lineup at free safety, though he just recently came off a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Kazee missed most of last year in Atlanta due to injury but has started 33 games over the past three seasons and picked off 10 passes in that span.
- Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn. Head Coach Mike McCarthy brought in Quinn to replace Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator after the Cowboys gave up the fifth-most points in the NFL in Nolan's one season at the helm. Quinn was available, of course, because the Falcons had relieved him of his head-coaching duties after the 2020 season, but he is also well-known for coordinating some very good defenses in Seattle.
- DT Neville Gallimore. The Cowboys carried six players through to their 53-man roster before placing them on injured reserve, a necessary order of maneuvers to make them eligible to return to action this season. However, none will be back in time for the opener in Tampa, including Gallimore, the 2020 third-round pick who started nine games as a rookie last year. That could create more playing time for another third-round pick, rookie Osa Odighizuwa.
- CB Kelvin Joseph. Joseph was another of those six Cowboys placed on IR last week, meaning the rookie cornerback will have his NFL debut delayed. A second-round pick this past April, Joseph was expected to battle for the starting spot opposite last year's second-round pick, Trevon Diggs, with Jourdan Lewis playing in the slot as the Cowboys looked to remake their defense. Instead, incumbent Anthony Brown will likely get the call to start the season.
- QB Andy Dalton. The Cowboys brought in the former Bengal to back up Dak Prescott last year and Dalton ended up having to start nine games due to Prescott's season-ending injury. It was just a one-year deal, however, and Dalton left for Chicago in March. Prescott is back in action but if he misses any time the Cowboys won't have an experienced passer to step in. Cooper Rush, who has three career regular-season passes, won the battle over Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert to be Prescott's primary backup.