The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night in the Wild Card Round of the 2022 NFC playoffs. Who has the upper hand when the Buccaneers' offense is on the field? Let's take a closer look.
For the third consecutive season, the Buccaneers will begin their postseason journey against an NFC East team featuring an opportunistic defense, but this unit poses a unique challenge. First, the Buccaneers took a Wild Card trip to Washington in 2020 to take on Chase Young, Jonathan Allen and the crew of first-round selections. In 2021, it was Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox spearheading the Eagles' defense in an attempt to slow down the NFL's second-highest scoring offense.
Meanwhile, the 2022 Cowboys have an energetic defense under the tutelage of Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn that ranks fifth in the league in points allowed (20.1), is tied for third in the league in sacks (54.0), leads the NFL in takeaways with 33 and is first in the NFL in quarterback pressure percentage this season (35.0). The defense, led by second-year phenom Micah Parsons, produced the second-best sacks-per-pass-play-rate at 9.82%. The aforementioned category is largely due to Parsons' rare closing speed and ability to quickly shed blocks in pursuit of the opposing quarterback. He concluded the year with 13.5 sacks, 27 quarterback hits (both top seven in the NFL) and tallied 30 quarterback pressures in 2022 (third in the NFL). Defensive end Dorance Armstrong reached new heights with 8.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits – both second on the team. Safety Donovan Wilson became a physical force, disrupting on blitzes and in run support in the box. He posted 5.0 sacks in 2022, the most in the NFL among defensive backs. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch finished second on the team with 90 tackles, despite missing the previous three games. His emergence has freed Parsons to specialize as a pass rusher.
Over the last five games as injuries sidelined Vander Esch (shoulder stinger) and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins (pectoral strain) for several weeks, the Cowboys' defense allowed 10 more points per game and registered 2.8 fewer sacks per game over Weeks 14-18 than the first 12 weeks of the season. Dallas is expected to receive reinforcements in the Wild Card round with both Hankins and Vander Esch on track to return for the postseason.
The Cowboys will work hard to limit the big play over the top come Monday night. Dallas has been riddled with injuries in the secondary to two of their starting cornerbacks in Anthony Brown (Achilles) and Jourdan Lewis (Lisfranc). Dallas has struggled to find the answer at left cornerback opposite Trevon Diggs and although fifth-round selection, DaRon Bland stepped up in the role finishing out the season with five interceptions (most on the team, tied for fifth in the NFL), the rookie suffered a chest injury. As a result, the Cowboys scrambled to try and fill the void by picking up their fourth-free agent corner, starting with Kendall Sheffield, then Mackensie Alexander (groin strain), next Trayvon Mullens and veteran Xavier Rhodes. Over the final five weeks of the regular season, the Cowboys gave up 21 pass plays of 20-yards-or-more, the most in the league during that span. Dallas' secondary struggled against Zay Jones, Christian Kirk, DeVonta Smith, A.J. Brown and Terry McLaurin during the final regular-season stretch.
Despite the Buccaneers season-long issues with their downfield attack and missed opportunities, that element was revitalized in Week 17 with Mike Evans serving as the beneficiary. The downfield connection between Evans and Brady is pivotal to the offense's success, and it sprung to life against the Panthers. Evans produced 10 receptions for 207 yards and a career-high three touchdowns on downfield passes from Brady in Carolina. All three came on go-routes as Evans took advantage of the Panthers' use of Cover 1. Given the Bucs' recent success, the Cowboys will certainly make Evans - who just surpassed 1,000 yards for his ninth-straight season - a focal point. The matchup between Evans and Trevon Diggs will be a pivotal one. The Cowboys' No. 1 corner is adept at playing the ball, jumping quick routes and defending go routes, not allowing receivers to run right by him. The key for Evans in facing Diggs will be to utilize double moves in order to deceive and by savviness, getting Diggs to turn his hips and run back by anticipating Evans of going deep. Then, Evans can create separation by quickly turning the corner on an out-route.
Over the first 12 weeks of the 2022 season, the Cowboys had a pressure percentage of 27.4%, averaged 7.5 quarterback hits per game and 4.0 sacks per game. Over the last four games, those numbers steadily decreased to an 18.5% pressure percentage, an average of 4.0 quarterback hits per game and 0.8 sacks per game. The lack of penetration up front has put additional pressure on the team's secondary. Against the Bucs, Dallas will look to knock Brady off his spot in the chess match. Monday will be a game of cat-and-mouse between the Cowboys' defense and widely regarded as the greatest football player of all time, Tom Brady. Where the Cowboys found success against the Bucs in Week One was in the red zone, by rushing four with Micah Parsons off the edge (trusting No. 11 to get home) and dropping the rest. That forced Brady to hold it and Parsons quickly beat his one-on-one for a sack. For Tampa Bay, being able to capitalize in the red zone on Monday will be crucial.
Utilizing cadence to force Dallas' hand will be a key factor in the Wild Card matchup. In Week One, the Cowboys used disguised coverages to try and keep Brady off-balance, appearing to be in single-high, then dropping linebackers and corners coming underneath. There is not much Brady has not seen in his 23rd year in the NFL at 45-years-old and he has mastered the art of using indicators. When the Cowboys hold coverages, Brady and the Bucs can go up-tempo to force them out of disguises by tipping their hand. In a similar way that they can utilize motions to gauge man or zone, along with dialing up a quick passing attack to mitigate blitzes. In essence, who will fool who?
The Bucs hope to do so with a revamped offensive line to protect Brady. How the offensive line plays will dictate the success or inefficiency of the offensive output. Going up against the Cowboys' influx of talent, a healthy offensive line featuring starting tackles Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith would be encouraging. Additionally, the Bucs have a question mark in the middle of the line, as center Robert Hainsey left last Sunday's game with a hamstring injury. If he cannot play, Tampa Bay could move Nick Leverett to center and use versatile Brandon Walton at left guard. Then there is the permeating question regarding the status of Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen. He has not played this season after suffering a significant knee injury in training camp, but he is currently practicing with the team. There is a possibility he could solve that potential issue in the interior.
The Buccaneers offense averaged 18.4 points per game in 2022 (25th in NFL), a drop from the juggernaut fans grew accustomed to viewing in 2020-21. However, different personnel requires a different way of winning/variation from the norm. Coming off January's surgery to repair a torn ACL/MCL, Chris Godwin led the Bucs with 104 receptions (eighth in the NFL) in 2022. He took advantage of soft spots in zone and exploited opponents who did not challenge at the line of scrimmage. His physicality over the middle of the field elevated the Bucs' offense and forces defenses to pick their poison. Evans, the size mismatch, and playmaker downfield, reinvigorated the aerial attack in Week 17. The Bucs' will strive to build off that success against Dallas. Leonard Fournette led the Bucs in rushing yards (668) and touchdowns (3). The club's worst-ranked rushing attack that averaged 76.9 yards per game, is indicative of the flow of games. Often during the 2022 season, the Bucs were forced to play from behind in catch-up mode, garnering a pass-heavy script. Against the Cowboys, starting fast and sustaining drives to dictate the pace of the game with a balanced approach will be critical to a victory. On Monday, Brady will seek to continue his reign of dominance over Dallas and add one more Super Bowl ring to his collection of seven. It's win or go home.