Some day in the distant future, Gerald McCoy may be telling his grandkids about Sunday's game between his Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the visiting Dallas Cowboys.
Hopefully the story will have a happy ending for McCoy and his teammates, but either way he expects it to be a memorable experience, as it will be his first crack at the Cowboys' vaunted offensive line.
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"I'm sure people who play in the NBA, one day when they retire, whether you may be in the Hall of Fame or an All-Star, whatever it is, you're going to say, 'I played against Kobe Bryant. I played against LeBron James or whoever it may be," said McCoy. "This is one of those offensive lines that comes across once in a generation where you are like, 'Man, I got to play against that group of guys.' I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be fun."
Photos of the Bucs vs. the Cowboys over the years.
Sixty percent of the Cowboys' offensive line appeared on last year's Associated Press All-Pro team, with left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin winning first-team honors and center Travis Frederick taking home second-team recognition. The right tackle, Doug Free, has been an entrenched starter for the Cowboys since 2010. The left guard is rookie La'el Collins, who was considered a likely first-round pick in the spring until he was questioned in a murder investigation, though never considered a suspect. Collins signed with the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent and quickly found his way into the starting lineup.
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Last year, as Martin and Frederick emerged as Pro Bowl-caliber talents alongside the already highly-regarded Smith, the Cowboys' offensive front earned a rock-solid reputation as the league's best O-Line. Dallas' belief in that group was reflected in their decision not to try to re-sign running back DeMarco Murray, who had led the NFL with 1,845 rushing yards just in time to hit free agency. Dallas focused on WR Dez Bryant instead, reasoning that their dominant front line could make the rushing game a success with other running backs, as well. Darren McFadden's production over the last three weeks – 111 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry – would seem to validate that idea.
The Cowboys have struggled to a 2-6 record this year after their 12-4 division-winning campaign last year, obviously in large part due to injuries to Bryant and quarterback Tony Romo – but the offensive line remains a force to be reckoned with. In fact, regardless of where the Cowboys rank in any offensive metrics, McCoy says their O-Line is as strong as it was last year.
"The best," said McCoy. "Yes, you can quote me on that. It's the best offensive line in the league. They work so well together. Individually they are all talented, but what makes them so good is how tight-knit of a group they are. If one guy gets beat he's never beat because there is always somebody helping him. That's always a great thing for a running back or a quarterback – to have an offensive line of that caliber. For us this week there is definitely a sense of urgency. But, you have to look at it as an opportunity and experience."
The Buccaneers' defense has recorded 11 combined sacks in their three wins this season, and six in their five losses. It may not be quite as predictive as turnovers, but it seems clear that the Buccaneers have a better chance of winning when they can pressure the opposing quarterback. Given that they will have to go through such a solid wall to get to Matt Cassel this Sunday, you might expect the Bucs' pass-rushers to try to get an edge by jumping the snap. McCoy says that's a bad idea. Tampa Bay has had a few too many pre-snap penalties for its liking this year, and McCoy knows they need to cut down on those flags in order to get off the field with more consistency.
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"It just comes with discipline," he said. "There's no reason to cheat the count, especially when you know 32 of the teams in the NFL all go hard count of third downs. It's just what happens. It's how you check for blitzing or whatever it is. First and second down it may happen, but how you get better at that is more film study, knowing the situations and what team you're are facing and when they like to hard count. Overall it's just discipline. Cotton in your ears and move when the ball moves."
Photos of the Cowboys' projected starters as listed on the team's depth chart.