The 5-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers head to Dallas having just been eliminated from playoff contention, but they can still make an impact on the NFC race with their game against the 8-6 Cowboys. Dallas currently owns a one-game lead in the NFC East, the only division in the conference that hasn't already been clinched. Both Philadelphia and Washington are a game back with two weeks to go, although both the Eagles and the Redskins are currently operating with backup quarterbacks. Thanks to a season sweep of Philadelphia and a superior division record to Washington, the Cowboys can win the East by beating the Buccaneers on Sunday.
Dallas is coming off its worst game of the season, a 23-0 loss in Indianapolis that was the first shutout suffered by the Cowboys in 15 years. However, the team had been on a roll before that performance, winning five in a row, including a signature win over New Orleans and a pair of victories over archrival Philly. For the second week in a row, the Buccaneers will face one of the NFL's stingiest defense, as Dallas ranks fourth in points allowed and fifth in yards allowed. The offense still runs through Ezekiel Elliott, who leads the team in rushing and receptions, but the trade acquisition of Amari Cooper has given the Cowboys' passing game a much-needed playmaker. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges the Buccaneers will face in Dallas on Sunday:
Each week during the season, Head Coach Dirk Koetter puts together a specific video package to show to his players called "Game-Wreckers." The clips are meant to identify the three or four players on the opposing team who are likely to make the big plays that most affect the game's outcome. The Buccaneers know they have to limit the damage inflicted by these game-wreckers if they are going to come out on top.
Koetter's cut-up is an internal tool for his team and it is not shared publicly, though he does occasionally note an opposing game-wrecker or two during media sessions. Below are four players who might be on this week's tape.
1. RB Ezekiel Elliott. The fourth-overall pick in the 2016 draft has averaged 101.6 rushing yards per game in his young career and he currently leads the NFL with 1,349 yards in 2018. Elliott is an extremely powerful runner, perhaps the best in the NFL between the tackles, and while he might not have elite speed in the open field he has a purposeful stride that eats up yards and puts defensive backs on their heels. Elliott also happens to have a team-leading 72 receptions (for 543 yards and three touchdowns), which is 14 more than he had in his first two seasons combined.
2. DE Demarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys gave Lawrence the franchise tag this year after he racked up 24 sacks over the two previous seasons combined, and Lawrence has lived up to the billing. His 8.5 sacks leads the Dallas defense, and he has also contributed 58 tackles, 20 quarterback hits, 14 tackles for loss and an interception. As is the case with most elite pass-rushers, Lawrence has a very quick first step but he also can play a power game with opposing blockers. He is not a one-dimensional edge rusher, as he is also solid against the run, as evidenced by his 39 tackles on rushing plays this year.
3. WR Amari Cooper. Another player picked fourth overall in the draft – by Oakland in 2015 – Cooper made the Pro Bowl in his first two seasons but then saw his production dip considerably in 2017. He was off to an underwhelming start in Oakland this year, with 22 catches for 280 yards and one touchdown through six games, but he has exploded since being traded by the Raiders to the Cowboys on October 22. In his seven games as a Cowboy he has 44 passes for 674 yards and six scores. His yards per game have more than doubled with his new team, to 96.3, and his average per catch has gone up from 12.7 yards to 15.3 as a Cowboy.
4. LB Leighton Vander Esch. The Cowboys wanted another playmaker for the middle level of their defense in this year's draft, especially with linebacker Sean Lee continuing to have bad luck in the injury department. Vander Esch has been just what the team wanted, filling up a stat line with a team-leading 114 tackles to go with two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit, two interceptions and seven passes defensed. A top candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, Vander Esch has impressive sideline-to-sideline range despite being a bigger linebacker and has excellent play recognition, particularly for a rookie.
The Cowboys have run for 525 more yards than their opponents this season, one reason why they are third in the NFL in average time of possession (31:27). The Dallas defense is allowing just 3.72 yards per rush, the third-best mark in the NFL. Here are some other areas in which the Cowboys have excelled so far this season:
· The Dallas defense does not get stung by many big plays. The Cowboys have given up 42 plays of 20 or more yards this season, the second-lowest total in the NFL. In addition, only 41.0% of all opposing rushing plays have gained four or more yards against Dallas this year, the fourth-lowest average in the league.
· The Cowboys run the ball very well on second-down plays, averaging 5.0 yards per carry on those downs. That ranks third in the NFL.
· Dallas has rarely allowed an opponent to score at the beginning of a game. Cowboys opponents have a total of 14 points on first-possession drives this season, tied for the fewest against any team in the league.
· Dallas QB Dak Prescott has a fine 94.0 passer rating largely because he has completed 67.6% of his passes and has only been picked off eight times on 457 throws. The Cowboys have the NFL's seventh-lowest interception rate, at 1.75%.
Despite having a powerful runner in the backfield and a mobile quarterback, Dallas has been surprisingly ineffective in the red zone on offense. The team's 44.2% touchdown efficiency in that category is the second worst in the league. In addition:
· Dallas has been even worse on offense when those red zone drives advance all the way to goal-to-go situations. The Cowboys have converted 47.62% of such situations into touchdowns and are the only team in the league under 50% in those situations.
· While Prescott has been efficient this season he has also been under sustained pressure. Prescott has been sacked a whopping 51 times. Only one team has allowed its QB to be sacked more often this season than Dallas, and the Cowboys' 11.14% sack rate is the league's fifth-worst.
· Dallas hasn't gotten much out of its return game this season. Tavon Austin and Cole Beasley have combined for a 5.3-yard average on punt returns, second-worst in the NFL by team. On kickoff returns, the Cowboys are getting an average of 21.4 yards, which is below league average, albeit on a very small sample size of just nine returns.
· The Cowboys' defense ranks high, or at least in the NFL's top half, in just about every category. They have only forced one turnover in the red zone this season, however, ranking 24th in the NFL in that department.
NEW FACES IN 2018
The two most important additions to the team, trade acquisition Amari Cooper and first-round draft pick Leighton Vander Esch, have already been discussed above. The Cowboys also have a rookie receiver who has picked up his production in recent weeks and a starter on the offensive line imported from across the state (by way of Nashville).
1. WR Michael Gallup. The Cowboys took the former Colorado State standout in the third round and he has turned up his production near the end of the season, with nine of his 27 receptions in the past two games.
2. G Xavier Su'a-Filo. A second-round pick by the Texans in 2014, Su'a-Filo started 41 games in four seasons for the Texans before signing with Tennessee as an unrestricted free agent this past offseason. The Titans released him in the final roster cuts, however, and then went back to Texas to sign with the Cowboys. Dallas used their second-round pick this year on University of Texas tackle Connor Williams, but he struggled in nine starts at guard and then suffered a knee injury, opening the door for Su'a-Filo to step in at left guard. However, Su'a-Filo is dealing with an eye injury suffered last Sunday against the Colts.
3. K Brett Maher. The Cowboys first took a look at Maher in training camp in 2013 after he had entered the league that year with the Jets. Maher didn't beat out Dan Bailey that year and was out of the league for four years before returning with Cleveland during the 2017 offseason. The Cowboys gave him another shot this summer and this time Maher did beat out Bailey. He has made 27 of 33 field goal tries and 25 of 26 extra point attempts.
1. G Zack Martin. Martin missed the Cowboys' last game with a knee injury and was not participating in practice as Week 16 began. Connor Williams played in his right guard spot against the Colts. Martin's absence would be significant as he ranks among the best guards in the NFL.
2. C Travis Frederick. The Cowboys have played all season without one of the NFL's best centers as Frederick is dealing with an issue that affects his autoimmune system.
3. DE David Irving. Irving had 1.5 sacks and five QB hits against Tampa Bay in 2016 during a late-season breakout. He had another seven sacks last year but has been limited to two games and one sack this year, first by an NFL suspension and more recently by an ankle injury. Irving's last game played was on October 21.