The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Dallas Cowboys in Thursday night's 2021 NFL kickoff game, and we're counting down the hours to the 8:20 p.m. ET kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week (and an offseason) of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Vita Vea. Vea looked like he might be making a run at the Pro Bowl over the first five games of the 2020 season, but it was his absence over the next three months that may have proved the point. The Buccaneers were quite good on defense throughout the run to the Super Bowl, but they were noticeably better when Vea made a surprise return from his severe ankle injury to play in the last two postseason contests. Though he didn't personally put up gaudy numbers in those games, his presence definitely supercharged the Bucs' pass rush, which was relentless in wins over Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. The Buccaneers are thrilled to have Vea back at full strength to start the 2021 season, and he could be an important factor in slowing down powerful running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys are likely to be without right guard Zack Martin, which could help the entire defensive front get a more effective push up the middle on Thursday night. Meanwhile, if the Cowboys resort to double-teaming Vea to keep him from collapsing the interior line, that could create better edge opportunities for Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka.
Mike Evans. The Bucs' eighth-year receiver had an injury- and drama-free training camp, but that doesn't mean it was quiet. Evans made noise by never missing a practice and catching pretty much everything in sight. He appeared to be in midseason form in the early days of camp and just never slowed down. Evans says he is in the best shape he's ever been at this stage of the season, mostly because he has changed his approach by working hard to remain in peak shape all 12 months of the year. Evans is heading into 2021 with a full head of confidence because he feels like he's the NFL's best receiver when healthy, and he's definitely healthy. His quarterback, Tom Brady, found him for a team-record 13 touchdown passes last year and is expecting even more from Evans in 2021. "I love playing with Mike," said Brady. "He's an amazing player and so smart and gifted. He has all the ability. Mentally, he just knows sports. I think we have a great connection that's only going to get better."
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 1 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. The final pick of the first round in April, Tryon-Shoyinka is the rookie most likely to have a big impact for the Buccaneers in 2021, and the most likely to do so right out of the gates. His frequent domination in one-on-one pass-rush situations in training camp, and the way he flashed during several preseason games, have Tampa Bay's coaching staff convinced he can step right into a major role in the edge rush rotation. The hope is slightly smaller snap counts will keep Barrett and Pierre-Paul fresher and more effective on a per-play basis, but Tryon-Shoyinka isn't just there to eat up minutes. While he's likely to play primarily on passing downs early in his career, the former University of Washington standout could be one of the team's best pass-rushers right out of the gate. The Bucs knew he could rush with power when they drafted him but they've been pleasantly surprised at how well-developed his toolkit of pass-rush moves is. Tryon-Shoyinka could also make his mark on special teams, using his size-speed combination to beat opposing blockers on punt coverage.
O.J. Howard. In a stacked offense that scored 30 points per game seemingly at will over the last two months of the 2020 season, Howard feels like the wild card that could change things in 2021. Howard wasn't around for that eight-game winning streak at the end of last season as he had ruptured an Achilles tendon in Game Four. His comeback from that serious injury was steady and painstaking, and it took him a while in camp to get back up to full speed. When healthy, Howard is a seam-stretcher who can run past defenders and catch contested passes downfield. His career average of 15.3 yards per catch is the best among all qualifying tight ends in the NFL over the past four seasons. Of course, Howard hasn't always been healthy since arriving as a first-round pick in 2017 and has yet to play a full 16-game (now 17-game) season. If he can do so in 2021 he could form a very dangerous "12" personnel duo with Rob Gronkowski. Though the Buccaneers have only used that package between 20-25% of the offensive snaps the past two years, Bruce Arians has previously referred to that as his base offense, so if the Bucs are succeeding out of it Howard could see the field a lot more. It will be instructive on Thursday night to see if Howard has fully knocked the rust off and can play at his peak.
Mike Edwards. Earlier this week, Arians referred to Edwards as a "ball hawk," and he's right. The second-year safety picked off three passes last year, including the playoffs, despite only playing 188 defensive snaps in the regular season and 320 overall. The Buccaneers had five other defensive backs who played between 934 and 1,246 snaps and only Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting had more interceptions than Edwards, with four. The third-year safety out of Kentucky saw his playing time rise in the second half of the season and the playoffs as he began to share time with starter Jordan Whitehead, who is a more physical presence around the line of scrimmage. The Buccaneers clearly like having Edwards on the field when they expect the other team to be passing; now he'll show that he can hold down the job for an entire game, as he did in the NFC Championship Game last year with Antoine Winfield, Jr. sidelined. The Buccaneers' secondary will be seriously tested by Dallas's trio of wideout stars – Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup – but Edwards could help stem the tide with a takeaway or two.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 158.8/4.98. The Cowboys defense had a rough 2020, nowhere more so than in trying to stop opposing ballcarriers. Dallas gave up nearly 160 yards per game and five yards per carry last year, ranking second-to-last and third-to-last in the NFL in those two categories, respectively. The Buccaneers would like to run the ball more effectively and consistently in 2021; they don't necessarily need 150 rushing yards a game thanks to their aerial talents, but they would like the opposition to remain worried about stopping their ground game throughout the contest. Dallas has made moves to strengthen its defense, most notably with the first-round selection of linebacker Micah Parsons, but they are also currently without starting defensive tackle Neville Gallimore in the middle of their front.
· 23%/25%. Speaking of Parsons, it appears that the Cowboys intend to deploy him all over their defensive formations. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Parsons lined up as an edge rusher on 23% of his preseason snaps and blitzed on 25% of his snaps. He also spent 52% of the team at inside linebacker, 16% on the interior defensive line and 10% as an outside linebacker. Tom Brady is going to have to keep track of where Parsons is prior to every snap, and it won't help that the rookie chose the number 11 under the league's new relaxed jersey number guidelines. Brady is very much not a fan of that new rule but Cowboys fans are sure to become quickly enamored of Parsons.
· 83.7%/97.7%/6.19. Brady and the Bucs' offense memorably opened last season by scoring a touchdown on each of their first 22 drives that reached goal-to-go status. By the end of the season, they would have a touchdown rate of 83.7% on such occasions, good for fifth best in the league, a score rate of 97.7% and an average of 6.19 points scored per opportunity. The Bucs also ranked seventh in the league with a 68.9% touchdown rate in the red zone. Given that both the Buccaneers and Cowboys will be bringing very explosive offenses into Thursday's opener, it will be paramount for the home team to score touchdowns on any and all goal-to-go opportunities.
· 5.9/21.8/10.3/33.6. Those four numbers represent the average yards gained by the Buccaneers on punt and kickoff returns and the average yards allowed in the same categories in 2020. Tampa Bay did not rank higher than 19th in the NFL in any of those categories but has made a concerted effort in 2021 to get better in that phase of the game. Rookie wideout Jaelon Darden could provide a spark in the return game but is obviously still an unproven commodity. The Buccaneers hope such newcomers as Tryon-Shoyinka, K.J. Britt, Grant Stuard, Chris Cooper and Dee Delaney can make a difference in the coverage game.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Jordan Whitehead is the only Buccaneer ruled out for Thursday night's game, which means the only change to last year's starting lineup will be Mike Edwards lining up with Antoine Winfield, Jr. at safety. While that leaves Chris Cooper as the third safety on the depth chart, they would probably turn next to cornerback Ross Cockrell, who successfully cross-trained at the position during the preseason.
· The Cowboys lost a key offensive player to the COVID list early in the week when Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin tested positive. The Cowboys hadn't completely ruled out a return by Martin on Thursday, if he can quickly pass through the COVID protocol, but that's an unlikely outcome even by the team's own admission. If Martin remains sidelined, Connor McGovern, who started eight games at right guard as a rookie, will get the call.
· The Cowboys got a starter for their defensive front in the third round in 2020 when they selected Oklahoma defensive tackle Neville Gallimore. How ever, Gallimore is starting the 2021 season on injured reserve due to an elbow injury, so it will be another third-round pick, rookie Osa Odighizuwa, who will step in next to Carlos Watkins on the interior line.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE COWBOYS
Even in a 6-10 season in which Dak Prescott was lost less than a third of the way in, the Cowboys still finished eighth in the NFL with 260.1 passing yards per game in 2020. That's thanks in large part to the aforementioned wideout trio of Cooper, Lamb and Gallup, who now once again have Prescott distributing the football to them. The Dallas defense has a versatile new toy in Parsons and now employs playmaking safety Damontae Kazee on the back end. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
While the Cowboys may not have Martin up front on Thursday night, they will have a healthier Tyron Smith than they've had in years. The Pro Bowl left tackle has recovered from neck injuries that kept him out of all but two games last year and has even ditched the neck roll he's worn the last two years. La'el Collins has also been dealing with a neck injury but returned to practice this week and was listed as a full participant with no game-day injury status on the Cowboys' injury report. Those two bookend what has long been one of the NFL's best offensive lines and will make it hard for the Buccaneers to get the sort of consistent edge pressure that took their defense to another level late last season. Dallas had injuries all along its line last year and finished 20th in sacks allowed per pass play, but were second in that category as recently as 2019, with Smith and Collins making 28 starts between them.
If the Buccaneers are going to get their running game going against a possibly vulnerable Dallas defense in Week One, they might be wise to direct their backs away from defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. Lawrence didn't duplicate his double-digit sack seasons of 2017 and 2018 the last two years but he remains one of the best run-stopping edge defenders in the NFL. And even if he didn't have gaudy sack numbers last year, Lawrence still made a difference in the Cowboys' pass rush, which had a pressure rate of 29.4% when he was on the field and 17.0% when he wasn't. Earlier this week, Arians pointed to Lawrence and fellow defensive end Randy Gregory as the two Dallas defenders that concern him the most.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On the players remaining focused during all the pomp and circumstance on Thursday night as a sold-out crowd celebrates the team's Super Bowl LV victory:
"It's all part of it. They've all been in [big] ballgames. Most of them came from stadiums bigger in college, so it's not like they've never been in a big game with crowd noise. It was only one year away from it, so it shouldn't affect it. We'll embrace the excitement of the event, but we're not in the pomp and circumstance. We're in the locker room. It's the same old locker room."