The Dallas Cowboys' fifth-ranked offense features a two-time Pro Bowl receiver with with size and elite ball skills, not to mention a tight end who ranks eighth in league history in receptions and a first-round running back who has shown he can turn a swing pass into an 80-yard touchdown. So, naturally, the Cowboys' leading receiver in 2016 is 5-8, 175-pound slot receiver Cole Beasley.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the next team to get a crack at the 11-2 Cowboys, who have beaten every opponent this year but the New York Giants. The Buccaneers' defense will surely pay plenty of attention to wide receiver Dez Bryant, tight end Jason Witten and running back Ezekiel Elliott – the three players described above – but they also regard Beasley as a specific sort of problem.
"When you look at their personnel, you wouldn't think that he's their leading target guy," said Tampa Bay Head Coach, noting the 84 times Beasley's had the ball thrown his way this year. "They have a Hall of Fame tight end and a big-play wide receiver, they throw a lot to the back and he is having a really good year. [Beasley] is going to give us problems, he's a matchup issue in the slot."
Evidence suggests the Buccaneers' defense has played well against slot receivers for much of this season. Football Outsiders has the Bucs' ranked sixth in overall defensive DVOA this season, and on its "Defense vs. Different Types of Receivers Chart," Tampa Bay is ranked fourth against "Other WRs," which would presumably include the slot.
That's true even though the Buccaneers have essentially used three different nickel corners this year. Rookie first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves started the season in a dual role, playing on the outside in base packages and moving into the slot in the nickel. After three games, the Bucs moved Hargreaves to the outside on all downs and made Jude Adjei-Barimah the nickle corner. When Adjei-Barimah began a four-game league suspension in Week 12, the team initially went back to the Hargreaves combination plan before again switching up and inserting undrafted rookie Javien Elliott into the nickel corner role.
Adjei-Barimah has one more game left on his suspension. Assuming the Bucs stick with their most recent plan, that means a tough challenge this Sunday for Elliott. According to Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith, the rookie's eyes are going to be just as important as his hands and feet in attempting to limit Beasley's production.
"Beasley's one of the top slot receivers in the league, he's got great quickness," said Smith. "It's going to be very important for Javien to be very disciplined with his eyes. This guy has got very good quickness, he's a great route-runner and if we don't have good eye discipline in that matchup, then we're not going to have the results that we want."
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Cowboys.
A former walk-on at Florida State who spent most of this season on the practice squad, Elliott has made an unlikely rise to an important role on an NFL defense. His consistent playmaking in practice eventually prompted the Bucs' coaching staff to promote him and even to trust him for important tasks like the one he'll face this Sunday.
"It's going to be a challenge, but we're very proud of the way that Javien has come in and played," Smith continued. "What he's been doing in practice – I know Dirk talked about it earlier in the season – what he's been doing in practice has carried over to the game field these last two weeks."
Beasley has been targeted at least four times in every game this season and has recorded 50 or more receiving yards in 10 of the Cowboys' 13 outings. In addition, he's caught 75% or more of the passes thrown his way in eight games this year. Two of the exceptions were Dallas' last two games, a narrow win over Minnesota and a loss to the Giants. Beasley also had two of this three lowest yardage totals in those games, which were the first two times since opening week that Dallas failed to score more than 20 points. The Buccaneers, who have allowed a league-low 12.8 points per game over the last five weeks, would love to keep that trend going. How well Elliott contains Beasley could be one of the deciding factors.