On Sunday, the 3-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 2-6 Dallas Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. It will be the 15th regular-season meeting between the two teams and a chance for the Buccaneers to snap the Cowboys' five-game winning streak in the head-to-head competition. The Cowboys are trying to halt a streak of their own, as they've dropped six straight since losing QB Tony Romo to injury.
To get back in the win column, the Buccaneers will need to keep fill-in QB Matt Cassel from getting too many big plays out of pass-catching stars Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. They'll also have to contend with pass-rusher Greg Hardy and try to keep Dallas on its season-long cold streak in the takeaway department. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when the Cowboys visit Raymond James Stadium.
Jason Garrett is in his fifth full season as the Dallas head coach, but he's been with the franchise since 2007, and longer than that when one includes his days as a Cowboys backup quarterback. He first joined the team in 1992 after opening his playing career with some time on the New Orleans Saints' developmental squad.
A Princeton grad who started nine games in his NFL career, Garrett was always seen as something of an extra coach on the sideline, even when still in uniform. Then Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden brought Garrett in as a free agent in the spring of 2004, and though Gruden released Garrett at the end of the preseason (and briefly brought him back at midseason), he lauded the veteran for the impact he had on young quarterback Chris Simms.
Garrett went immediately from the field with his last team, the Miami Dolphins, to the sideline as Miami's quarterback coach. After just two years in that position, Wade Phillips and the Dallas Cowboys brought him in as their offensive coordinator. Garrett's first Dallas offense ranked second in the league in points and third in yards, and he had that crew back in the top 10 in 2010 when the Cowboys fired Wade Phillips after a 1-7 start. Garrett got the interim tag and immediately turned the team around, as the Cowboys went 5-3 in the season's second half. He was given the full-time job the following January, and three straight 8-8 seasons and several narrow misses on the playoff field followed before Dallas broke through last year with a 12-4 record and an NFC East title.
Garrett's Princeton background pegs him as a cerebral coach, and he's _. He's been around football his entire life, however, as the son of a coach. Jim Garrett was an assistant for three NFL teams and a head coach in the World Football League and at Columbia, and he also worked as a scout for the Cowboys. Jason's brother John has also coached and scouted in the NFL, including stints at both jobs with the Buccaneers. His other brother Judd played in the WLAF and did a stint in the Cowboys' front office.
In addition to Gruden, Garrett's coaching influences, both as a player and a coach, include Jimmy Johnson, Norv Turner, Sean Payton and Nick Saban. During his tenure as the Cowboys head coach, his team has a 43-37 record in the regular season and a 1-1 mark in postseason play.
Dallas had the NFL's seventh-best offense and second-ranked rushing attack in 2014, but that was with DeMarco Murray, Tony Romo and Dez Bryant at the center of the attack. Murray is now a Philadelphia Eagle, Romo hasn't played since Week Two due to a broken clavicle and Bryant has only recently returned from foot surgery after an opening-day injury. Still, the Cowboys are getting decent returns on offense, particularly in the ground game, and recently that has been due to the hot hand of new lead tailback Darren McFadden.
McFadden, one of the backs brought in to potentially replace Murray's production behind a very talented offensive line, hadn't average better than 3.4 yards per carry in any of his last three seasons in Oakland but he has 462 yards on 113 carries (4.1 avg.) for Dallas and over the last four games has racked up 475 yards from scrimmage. With McFadden hitting his stride, the Cowboys have risen to eighth in the NFL in both rushing yards per game (128.6) and yards per carry (4.5). In both cases, they rank one spot behind the Buccaneers.
Of course, the Cowboys' star-studded offensive line deserves a great deal of credit for that surge. That front five includes two 2014 first-team Associated Press All-Pros in left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin, plus a second-team All-Pro in center Travis Frederick. Football Outsiders ranks Dallas as the fifth-best run-blocking line in the league this year, though only 23rd in pass-blocking. Pro Football Focus has Smith as their top-graded tackle in the NFL while Martin and Frederick both rank third at their respective positions.
That powerful line has helped the Cowboys extend drives and control the clock. In fact, Dallas leads the NFL with an average time-of-possession of 34:05 per game, a category in which they also excelled a year ago. The Cowboys have already notched 18 drives that lasted five minutes or more this year, tied for the most in the league, and they run the ball on 57.3% of their first downs, the sixth-highest percentage among all teams.
Romo will miss one more game before he can return from short-term injured reserve, but otherwise the Cowboys will bring a wide array of weapons to Raymond James Stadium. First and foremost, Bryant has returned from his injury and after easing back into things at Seattle in Week Eight he exploded for five catches, 104 yards and a score last weekend versus Philadelphia. Even with his lost first half of the season, Bryant is a decent bet to crack 1,000 yards for the fourth straight season. He might also get to double digits in touchdowns again; nobody had more touchdown catches over the previous season than Bryant, with 41. The Bucs' last two foes attacked them with star receivers Julio Jones and Odell Beckham, but the physical 6-2, 220-pound Bryant is a different sort of test for Tampa Bay cornerbacks.
Dallas' leading receiver is ageless tight end Jason Witten, who isn't far off the pace for his second 100-catch campaign. Witten topped out at 110 grabs in 2012 and 1,145 yards in 2007, but he hasn't finished with fewer than 64 or 700 since his 2003 rookie season. The potential Hall of Famer has a 44-403-2 line this year and needs just 13 more catches for 1,000 on his career. Cowboy quarterbacks absolutely will target him; Witten has at least six targets and four catches in all but one game this year.
Right now, that quarterback is veteran Matt Cassel, who is playing for his fifth NFL team after the Cowboys acquired him via trade with Buffalo following Romo's injury. Cassel replaced Brandon Weeden as the starter three weeks ago and has steadily grown more comfortable in the Dallas attack. In last week's 33-27 loss to the Eagles, Cassel completed 25 of 38 passes for 299 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a 105.0 passer rating. Cassel was a savior in New England after an opening-day injury to Tom Brady in 2008, and he went to the Pro Bowl with Kansas City in 2010; however, he owns a 7-18 mark in his last 25 games as an NFL starter.
Despite their favorable time-of-possession figures, the Cowboys have not been particularly strong on third downs. Overall, they rank 17th in the league with a 37.5% conversion rate, and their 10th in the NFL in conversions needing 4-6 yards, but they've had a much tougher time on the shorter and longer tries. In fact, Dallas's 36.4% rate on third-and-ones is last in the league and almost half as good as the NFL average, and their efforts on tries of more than six yards have returned a 15.8% success rate, 29th in the league.
The Cowboys are also tied for 29th in points scored off turnovers, with just 10, but that's more an indictment of the defense's ability to take the ball away, which we will get to in a moment. Dallas has converted exactly half of its red zone drives into touchdowns, which ranks 21st in the NFL.
The Cowboys' defense owns middle-of-the-pack rankings in yards (15th) and points (21st) allowed, but they did hold Philly to 10 points in Week Two and Seattle to 13 in Week Eight. It hasn't helped that all but one of the Cowboys' eight games played so far has come against a scoring offense ranked among the NFL's top 13.
Dallas has allowed the 10th fewest passing yards per game this season, but they have been lacking in the big defensive plays, ranking 30th in interceptions per pass play and 23rd in sacks per pass play. Overall, the Cowboys have only forced four turnovers, tied for the lowest total in the NFL. A few more big plays might have kept Dallas in contention during Romo's absence – instead, they've lost all six games without him – because the Cowboys are 0-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less since their quarterback went down.
Injuries haven't helped. The team's top cornerback, Orlando Scandrick, landed on injured reserve with a knee ailment before the season began and linebacker Rolando McClain has missed four games after his rebound season in 2014. In addition, sack leader Greg Hardy has only played the last four games due to a suspension. Heading into Sunday's game in Tampa, the Cowboys have significant concerns with their linebacking corps, as all three starters are dealing with health concerns: McClain (hand), Sean Lee (concussion) and Anthony Hitchens (ankle). If Lee can't play the Cowboys will be without arguably their best defender; Lee moved from his usual MIKE position to weakside linebacker this year to take advantage of his speed and athleticism, and he leads the team with 74 tackles to go with one sack, six tackles for loss, four quarterback pressures, three passes defensed and one of his team's three interceptions.
The Dallas defense is coordinated by Rod Marinelli, who began his NFL career alongside Bucs current Head Coach Lovie Smith in Tampa in 1996 under Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin. With those roots, Marinelli runs a 4-3 scheme that should be familiar to the Buccaneers, though he has obviously evolved his scheme through the years. Marinelli's crew has been good on third downs for the most part, ranking first in the league in success rate from 4-6 yards (29.6) and fifth from beyond six yards (17.5%). However, opposing teams have found little trouble converting third downs of less than four yards, as Dallas ranks 31st in the NFL in that category at 71.0%.
The secondary is led by safety Barry Church, who is right behind Lee with 73 tackles and is working on his third straight season of eclipsing 100 stops. Notably, Pro Football Focus has Church as their ninth-best safety against the run, but he ranks among the bottom 10 in coverage. Free safety Byron Jones, a converted cornerback, was the 27th pick in the draft and a Scouting Combine star who boasts incredible athleticism.
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Dallas' defensive backfield also boasts a very experienced cornerback in Brandon Carr, who has now played four seasons in Kansas City and four with the Cowboys and has never missed a game or a start. Carr had 10 interceptions from 2011-13 but strangely has gone the last season-and-a-half without a single pick. With Scandrick out of the picture, Carr is joined in the starting lineup by Morris Claiborne, the sixth-overall pick in the 2012 draft who had difficulty locking down a starting job the previous two years.
Buccaneer pass-catchers may have a chance to tack on some extra yardage against the Dallas secondary after they have come down with the football. The Cowboys have allowed 177 receptions by their opponents, and only 19 of those have been held to less than a yard gained after the catch. That's the worst mark in the NFL.
The Cowboys' pass rush has just 14 sacks through eight games, though it has improved a tick since Hardy's debut in Week Five. He has four sacks in four games; next on the Cowboys list are a pair of DTs named Crawford – reserve Jack Crawford has three and starter Tyrone Crawford has two. Hardy is also responsible for one of the Cowboys' three interceptions and he has already notched 14 quarterback pressures.
Dallas' special teams have had mixed results this year but that group boasts perhaps the most dependable placekicker in the NFL in Dan Bailey. After missing just twice in 31 tries in 2012 and twice in 30 tries in 2013, Bailey hits the midway point of the 2015 campaign still perfect in 14 attempts. He has made 90.9% of his field goals since entering the NFL in 2011, the best mark in the entire NFL in that span. Bailey has also never missed an extra point in 195 tries, one of only five active qualifying kickers who are still perfect in that regard.
As if that wasn't enough, Bailey has forced touchbacks on 82.9% of his kickoffs (34 of 41), the third-best rate in the NFL. He has also shown off that powerful leg on selected field goals throughout his career, making 18 of his 25 attempts from 50 yards or longer.
It's a good thing that Bailey generally kicks them that deep, because when Dallas has had to cover a kickoff return it hasn't gone well. The Cowboys have already given up a 100-yard touchdown runback to the Giants' Dwayne Harris, spiking their kickoff return average allowed to a league worst 35.0 yards. Opposing punt returners are also averaging 10.1 yards per return, although punter Chris Jones has still managed to rank ninth in the NFL with a net average of 41.7. Part of that is good placement, as he has racked up 13 inside-the-20 punts but only allowed one touchback.
Wide receiver Cole Beasley has handled most of the punt return work, with a little help from rookie wideout Lucky Whitehead, but neither has broken one longer than 12 yards yet. Dallas is averaging just 3.4 yards per punt return, second-to-last in the league. Whitehead has recently taken over on kickoff returns average after RB Lance Dunbar tore an ACL, and the rookie has fared better there with a 36.0-yard average helped by a 79-yard return last week against Philadelphia.