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 Cowboys' 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 opponent, but this looks like the most challenging matchup yet. Plucky quarterback Taylor Heinicke kept Washington in the game in the opening round of the 2020 playoffs but that offense ranked 30th in yards and 26th in points during the regular season. Last season, Philadelphia brought a more robust offense to Raymond James Stadium in Round One but Jalen Hurts was not yet playing at his current MVP-caliber level and the Bucs shut him down en route to an easy 31-15 win.
The 2022 Cowboys, however, have a loaded offense that ranked third in the league with 27.5 points per game and performed extremely well in critical situations, such as on third down and in the red zone. Over their last eight games, the Cowboys have scored an NFL-high 32.0 points per game, even with a lackluster 26-6 loss at Washington in Week 18. They will be countered by a Tampa Bay defense that allowed 21.1 points per game, an average that jumped a bit in Week 18 when a crew of reserve defenders gave up 20 second-half points to the Falcons.
Dallas is likely to work hard to establish its ground game early. The offensive line became more formidable with the late-season return of Tyron Smith, who moved to right tackle to allow standout rookie Tyler Smith to stay on the left side. Guard Zack Martin continues to perform at a very high level, as evidenced by his eighth Pro Bowl selection in nine total seasons.
That crew opens seams for Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, who combined for 1,883 rushing yards and 24 total touchdowns. Elliott is a nearly undeniable force around the goal line while Pollard, who averaged 5.2 yards per rush and 9.5 yards per reception is a threat to break off a big play on every down. The Cowboys ran the ball on 58.0% of their first-and-10 snaps during the regular season, the sixth-highest average in the league. However, they gained four or more yards on those first down runs only 42.8% of the time, which ranked 25th in the NFL.
That makes stopping the run on first down a key for the Buccaneers, who gave up an average of 4.65 yards on first-down carries during the regular season, ranking 20th in the NFL. Tampa Bay was 15th in the league in stopping the run overall but is much more stout in that category when both Vita Vea and Akiem Hicks are healthy and in the game together, as they were in Week One when the Bucs allowed the Cowboys only 71 yards on the ground in a 19-3 victory in Dallas. Vea should be closer to 100% after he was given Week 18 off to rest a calf injury.
Getting quick stops on first down will be help in one of the game's key battles, when the Cowboys' offense hits a third down. Dallas converted on 45.5% of its third downs during the regular season, good for fifth in the league, but the Bucs' defense only allowed a 36.9% conversion rate, the sixth best mark in the league. Unfortunately for the home team, Dallas was well above average when facing long third downs, ranking fifth in conversion rate on both third-and-six and longer and third-and-10 and longer.
When the Buccaneers do get the Cowboys into passing situations, getting pressure on Dak Prescott will be critical for the home team. Prescott suffered a thumb injury against the Buccaneers in Week One and missed five games but Dallas ranks first in points scored, first in third-down conversion rate and third in total yards since his return. Tampa Bay's defense sacked him and his replacement, Cooper Rush, four times in the first meeting.
Prescott has been a much more effective passer when relieved of pressure. Without pressure on his throws, Prescott has completed 72.6% of his passes and compiled a 105.9 passer rating. When he is pressured, those numbers drop to 49.5% and 52.6. The Buccaneers have lost their top pass rusher since the first meeting, as Shaquil Barrett is on injured reserve with an Achilles tendon injury. Anthony Nelson (5.5 sacks, 2.5 in the last four games) is now the team's top edge rusher, but the Bucs' defense finds a lot of ways to create pressure.
Even though Tampa Bay's blitz percentage is the lowest it has been in four seasons under Todd Bowles' control, the Bucs still bring four-man rushes in unconventional ways. Two of the Bucs' four sacks in Week One came on A-gap blitzes by off-ball linebacker Devin White, with the two outside linebackers dropping into coverage. White, who is adept at winning one-on-one battles with blocking backs and then closing extremely fast on the quarterback, had 5.5 sacks during the regular season and led the team with 16 quarterback pressures. Safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. also had 4.0 sacks and off-ball linebacker Lavonte David contributed 3.0.
Prescott has been particularly good at picking apart zone coverage in 2022. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he has a completion percentage over expected (CPOE) of +4.4% against zones since his return in Week Seven, the fourth-best mark in the league. Tampa Bay's secondary has been more effective in man coverage, ranking 31st in the NFL with a CPOE of +2.7%. Prescott's favorite target in any situation is third-year receiver CeeDee Lamb, who made his second Pro Bowl after tying for fifth in the league with 107 receptions for 1,359 yards and nine touchdowns. He had 50 more catches than the next player on the Cowboys' list, tight end Dalton Schultz. Dallas moves Lamb around a lot; he scored an NFL-leading five touchdowns on plays in which he was in motion before the snap and he led all players in receiving yards out of the slot (575).
The Buccaneers hope to counter with a secondary that is at full strength after resting several defensive backs in Week 18. The Bucs held Dallas to a 50% completion rate and 198 passing yards in Week One when they had their preferred defensive backfield of Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean as the outside corners, Antoine Winfield and Mike Edwards as the starting safeties and safety Logan Ryan joining in the nickel, with Winfield moving into the slot. That lineup may be intact on Monday night, though the Buccaneers have also gotten very strong play from cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting over the last four weeks. Murphy-Bunting memorably stepped up his game in the 2020 Super Bowl run, becoming the first Buccaneer ever to intercept a pass in three straight playoff contests. The Bucs may find a way to keep his hot hand in the lineup somehow.
The Buccaneers' defense could find some opportunities to create turnovers, though it had just one takeaway against Dallas in Week One. Despite missing five games, Prescott tied Houston's Davis Mills for the most interception in 2022, with 15. Prescott has been picked off at least once in each of his last seven game. Tampa Bay's defense has generally been among the league's best at creating takeaways since Bowles' arrival but it went eerily quiet in that regard for much of the season and ranks just 26th in interception percentage. The dam may have broken, however, as the Bucs had seven takeaways in their last three games, three more than it had in the previous 10.
Where the Buccaneers' defense will need to step up its level of play, and what could ultimately be the deciding factor in the game, is when the Dallas offense gets inside Tampa Bay's red zone. The Cowboys had the league's most effective offense inside the 20, scoring touchdowns on 71.4% of such possessions. In fact, Dallas was the best scoring defense once it got inside the 30, scoring touchdowns 62.9% of the time. Once inside the opposing 30, the Cowboys' quarterbacks – mostly Prescott – compiled a passer rating of 119.2 in the regular season, the best in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's defense mostly struggled in its own red zone in 2022, allowing touchdowns on 62.5% of possessions, which ranked 26th in the league. We have no evidence to go on from the Week One meeting, as Dallas didn't get into Tampa Bay's red zone once during that game.
Obviously, the Buccaneers' defense would love to spin another gem in which it keeps Dallas out of its red zone all night on Monday. That may not be likely, but the Buccaneers should have a healthier lineup to counter the Cowboys' high-scoring offense as the two teams fight to get to the Divisional Round.