NFL football might be the ultimate team game, where it takes 11 men working in concert to make each play work. There are, however, some NFL games that feature very significant one-on-one player matchups that promise to have a lot of say in the final outcome. Saturday night's game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium could be a prime example.
Whatever you think of the relative might of the Buccaneers and Cowboys – and both teams have had unpredictable seasons so far, with no shortage of ups and downs – it's easy to identify two areas where Saturday's game will feature strength on strength. We are talking, of course, about Donald Penn's battle with DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib's all-night match-up with Dez Bryant.
Starting with the latter, the first important piece of news is that the Buccaneers' talented left cornerback will suit up for Saturday's game. Talib missed most of Tampa Bay's Week 13 contest against Carolina and all of last Sunday's outing in Jacksonville with a hamstring strain, but he has recovered sufficiently to suit up against the Cowboys. Talib practiced for most of the week before getting Thursday off, and he'll be in the starting lineup when the Bucs take the field on Saturday.
On occasion, Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris elects to pit Talib against one specific receiver for the majority of a game, and this game is just such an occasion. While the Cowboys have no shortage of standout pass-catchers at QB Tony Romo's disposal, Bryant is the playmaker the Buccaneers want to try to take out of the equation.
"It will be a big one," said Morris of the Talib-Bryant set-to. "Aqib has the ability to draw the other team's best receiver every single night. This week, he's going to go out there and go against Dez. Now, the guy across from Dez is no slouch, either, but that will be the guy he'll match up with primarily tonight. We'll get a chance to see those guys go to work."
Several weeks ago, Talib spent the afternoon covering Green Bay's Greg Jennings and he held the Packers receiver to two catches for six yards. Obviously, the Bucs would love to see Talib be just as successful against Bryant – though it won't be easy – but the rest of Tampa Bay's defense will have to be equally solid to stop Dallas' sixth-ranked passing attack.
"They're a good football team all across the board but you've got to start with their quarterback, Romo," said Morris. "He's very talented and accurate young man who sprays the ball all over the place to different receivers. He has Dez Bryant, he has [Jason] Witten, he has Miles Austin, guys coming off the bench making plays for him. It really doesn't matter. He puts the ball in the spots it has to go. They had the unfortunate injury to DeMarco Murray but they happen to have a guy in back of him who's a pretty good football player too in Felix Jones. They just absolutely attack people and get after it. They play big, they play fast, they play smart and they're well-coached."
When the Bucs have the ball, the battle between Penn and Ware could be as heated as any action on the field. Both players went to the Pro Bowl last year, and both are having strong seasons again in 2011. Ware is tied for second in the NFL with 15.0 sacks. Penn has faced down and neutralized some of the league's best edge rushers already. Penn may have had one of his least satisfactory outings last weekend in Jacksonville, but that should only increase his motivation to take on Ware.
"Donald didn't play as well as he wanted to last week, or as well as I would like," said Morris. "He's well aware of that and he's got to get better. This week he's got a great talent coming in against him, and tonight he'll have to bring his best game to the fore in order to compete."
If the Bucs do well in both of those matchups, they might be able to get back on the winning track as the season enters its final three weeks. While the 7-6 Cowboys are still trying to win either the NFC East or one of the two conference Wild Card spots, the Bucs know their 2011 playoff dreams will not be realized. The goal is a fast finish, and it looked six days ago as if they might be getting off to one when they jumped out to a 14-0 first-half lead against the Jaguars. It didn't last, of course, and the Bucs know they have to play a more complete game tonight to make it happen.
"We did a nice job of coming out and executing our openers," said Morris of the early going in Jacksonville. "The guys came out, they were prepared, they were ready to deal. We looked good early, we moved the ball down the field right away, we got the ball back on defense, we created some field position for ourselves and that allowed us to get two quick touchdowns. That was great for us, a good feeling, a good way to start the game. We just have to find a better way to finish the game."
Morris said the Buccaneers will draw extra motivation from the possibility of playing spoiler to Dallas' playoff hopes. Even if the opposing team didn't have much on the line, however, the Buccaneers would be focused on much more than just a respectable showing.
"We've got great fans here, and they come out and support us," said Morris. "We have the chance to go out there and play spoiler tonight, and hopefully we can. We just want to go out there and compete in a great atmosphere.
"We're not coming into this game to play well, we're coming into it to win it. That's what I want our guys to know."
In addition to Talib, several other Buccaneers who have struggled with injuries in recent weeks have been cleared to play tonight, most notably defensive linemen Michael Bennett (toe), Albert Haynesworth (knee) and Brian Price (ankle). However, WRs Arrelious Benn (concussion) and Sammie Stroughter (knee) were not able to get clearance and are inactive. That leaves the Bucs with four receivers for the night: Mike Williams, Dezmon Briscoe, Preston Parker and Micheal Spurlock. Briscoe will start in Benn's place opposite Williams.
In addition to Benn and Stroughter, the Bucs elected to deactivate QB Rudy Carpenter, S Larry Asante, CB Myron Lewis, G Derek Hardman and T James Lee.
The Cowboys declared these seven players inactive: WR Andre Holmes, WR Dwayne Harris, S Mana Silva, G David Arkin, G Daniel Loper, G Derrick Dockery and DT Josh Brent. While such Dallas starters as LB DeMarcus Ware, C Phil Costa, G Kyle Kosier and CB Mike Jenkins were on the injury report for much of the week, the Cowboys announced no changes to their starting lineup for Saturday's game.
The Bucs and Cowboys kick off at 8:20 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.