The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener on Sunday for the second consecutive season, this time making the trip to Dallas. We are counting down the hours until the 8:20 p.m. ET kickoff at AT&T Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it comes down to:
4 Stats That Matter
· The Dallas defense forced a turnover on 17.5 percent of their opponents' drives last season, second highest in the NFL. Dan Quinn's unit ranked seventh in points allowed and led the NFL with 34 takeaways. The unit was spearheaded by Micah Parsons, the first-ever unanimous Defensive Rookie of the Year and Trevon Diggs, who tallied an astounding 11 interceptions. Those numbers illustrate both the ball-hawks in the secondary and pressure produced by the defensive front, allowing the back end to feast.
· The Cowboys' defense generated 188 pressures, third most in the NFL in 2021. Dan Quinn maximized the skillsets of players in his arsenal in 2021, creating advantageous one-on-one matchups. He rotated players along the line to keep legs fresh throughout the duration of the season and it paid dividends in production. Micah Parsons became the focal point of blitz packages, harassing opposing quarterbacks on Sunday.
· Tampa Bay blitzed on a league-high 40.8 percent of their opponents' dropbacks. In Todd Bowles 3-4, hybrid system, players aggressively attack. He created multiple looks up front last season to keep offenses off-balance, with innovative stunts/blitzes along the line from a variety of places. During the offseason, the Bucs added to the unit with Akiem Hicks and Logan Hall – both of which will contribute alongside Vita Vea to work towards building an impenetrable front in Tampa Bay.
· No team was more pass-happy than Tampa Bay last season, which attempted 731 passes. Conversely, no defense was thrown on more often than Tampa, as opponents attempted 680 passes against the Bucs. Tom Brady led the NFL in passing yards last season (5,316) and touchdowns (43). The Buccaneers will likely try to be more balanced on offense in 2022, complementing a short-passing attack with a dynamic run game featuring Leonard Fournette and rookie, Rachaad White. On the opposite side of the ball, opponents have basically abandoned the run against the top ranked run defense over the previous three seasons.
3 Lineup Notes
· The Buccaneers will potentially be without two of their starting receivers in Week One as both Chris Godwin (knee) and Russell Gage Jr. (hamstring) were listed as questionable on Friday's injury report. Godwin is recovering from a torn MCL and ACL in his right knee, suffered during the team's Week 15 loss to the Saints. With Godwin's availability down the stretch of the season considered the top priority, the team will air on the side of caution. He did fully participate in practice on Friday – albeit, with a non-contact jersey – and will be a game-time decision. Gage was limited in practice throughout the week.
· Cowboys' receiver Michael Gallup practiced on a limited basis during the week leading into Sunday's season opener for the first time since tearing his ACL in January. He has been ruled out of the matchup, but inches closer to a return from offseason knee surgery.
· Dallas safety Jayron Kearse was added to the injury report on Friday (neck) and officially listed him as questionable for Sunday's opener versus Tampa Bay. He practiced on Wednesday and Thursday but did not take part in Friday's walkthrough.
2 Challenges Presented by the Cowboys
· In last year's matchup against the Bucs, the Dallas defense forced four turnovers, including two interceptions by Tom Brady. With Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs at the helm, the Cowboys could lean on their defense come Sunday. In a historic turnaround last season under Dan Quinn, the Cowboys underwent an identity shift – carried by the production of the defense down the stretch. Parsons is looking to make a jump in Year 2 after a sensational rookie campaign on turf. He became the focal point in pressure packages last season for the Cowboys and can be lined up anywhere, splitting time between the middle of the field (off-ball linebacker) and either edge of the formation. A leaner Parsons will step on the field come Sunday, looking to dominate. With the Buccaneers' inexperience in the interior of the offensive line, Quinn will certainly try to blitz through the A and B-gaps with Parsons as the headliner. Tampa Bay will have to account for No. 11 on every play with his rare closing speed, sideline-to-sideline range and read/react skills. He is a do-it-all defender with the capability of wrecking a game plan. The three-down starter is an asset for Dallas in defending the pass. Despite his part-time role off the edge, Parsons compiled 13 sacks last season (franchise record), spearheading the unit. In 2021, the Dallas defense imposed their will in blitz passing situations, leading the league with 88 completed blitzes. On those 88 blitzes, the Cowboys forced the lowest passer rating of 60.99. Quinn created multiple looks up front to keep offenses off-balance and a short-passing game to mitigate pressure will likely be the key on Sunday.
· Conversely, there is a reason many teams have stopped heavily-blitzing the Cowboys or utilizing a man-centric scheme on the back end, that is because Dak Prescott is an escape artist. He has mastered the craft of extending plays outside of the pocket when under duress. Prescott threw 23 touchdowns against the Blitz according to Next Gen Stats last season, seven more than the next closest quarterback (M. Stafford). Whether it is a designed rollout or an impromptu scramble, Prescott can put the ball anywhere while on the move. He is a run-pass threat that the Buccaneers' defense will have to game-plan for. Prescott threw the ball 58 times last year against the Bucs but with a rebuilt line in 2022 and a decimated receiver room, Dallas will need to achieve a balanced attack with an effective run game and aerial show producing yards-after-catch. Both setting the edge and successful pursuit angles will be keys for the Bucs' defense on Sunday in Prime-Time to counteract Kellen Moore's cast.
1 Key Thought from Todd Bowles
On film takeaways of the Cowboys:
"They're similar to last year – they're very big upfront, they're quick on the defensive side of the ball. They've got ball-hawks in the secondary, they pressure you quite a bit. They can run the ball with the two running backs, and they can throw the ball as well. Their quarterback is extremely bright, very smart, he knows where to go with the football – just a well-coached team.