The Buccaneers can make things harder for the Dallas Cowboys, who are still in the running for the NFC East and hoping to clinch a playoff spot in their next two games. They need just one win in the last two weeks to stamp their tickets. Tampa Bay can at least prevent that from happening this week.
The last time the two teams played was in 2016 on Sunday Night Football, when the Buccaneers lost a close one at AT&T Stadium in December by a 20-16 margin. The Bucs will be faced with a team that's similar in a lot of ways to the one they played last year, but Head Coach Dirk Koetter pointed out a key difference with the Dallas defense yesterday.
"They still play extremely hard and that's just a sign of a Rod Marinelli defense – how hard that front four plays," Koetter said. "The main change is with Kris Richard coming in, they're much more of a single-high team. They used to be a lot more of a split-safety team. Now they're just way more single-high coverage."
This changes the dynamic of what the Bucs' offense will be facing, and will potentially make it harder to establish the run. The Cowboys own the league's fifth-ranked rushing defense, allowing only 93.4 yards on the ground on average per game. Their defense as a whole is also ranked fifth, giving up a total of 317.4 yards per game in both facets. Their tendency to load the box is what makes gaining ground against them so difficult. When playing a lot of single-high coverage, it means one safety is in the box and available in underneath coverage.
"One safety, yeah. 38 (Jeff Heath) is a down safety, so he plays like a linebacker," Koetter continued. "They're in eight-man front pretty much every play."
On the other side of the ball, both Buccaneers players and coaches talked about the offensive threat that is Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper, who the team acquired this year in a trade from the Oakland Raiders. Since joining Dallas in Week Nine, Cooper is averaging 96.3 yards per game, racking up a total of 674 yards and six touchdowns in those seven games. Because of this explosion, Coach Koetter and the Bucs have identified him as that "game-wrecker" type player that the defense will be tasked with containing.
"Just from what I heard – I wasn't watching them then – but they said they had felt like they were lacking an explosive playmaker on the outside and he's definitely been that," Koetter said. "We had him as one of our game wreckers today and finding clips of him making explosive plays wasn't hard. In the Washington game and the Eagles game – both – I mean, he made huge plays. I think he had close to 200 yards in one of those games, if not over that. He's definitely given them a lift on the outside and they've had some injuries this year at tight end and some of their other wide receivers. They've got the number one rusher in the league (Ezekiel Elliott) and Cooper's definitely given them a lift on the outside."
"He's added speed, which they already have, but he added speed and productivity and long-ball opportunity," Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner added. "Just another explosive weapon in an offense that's got very, very good players, another one comes aboard and it gets even more prolific. This team is playing at a high level right now. They've been really – from a run and pass standpoint – productive and scoring points. It's going be, like I said, a very formal task for us."
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, always the fan of the game he plays and league he plays in, has followed Cooper's career since his collegiate days.
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Wednesday at AdventHealth Training Center.
"He's always been a gifted receiver, dating all the way back to college," McCoy said. "Got a breath of fresh air in Dallas and he's allowed them to open the playbook. He's a big play receiver. He can catch it short and take it the distance or he can beat you over the top. We've got to make sure we [have] eyes on him."
Defensive tackle Vita Vea has been drawing high praise from his coaches and fellow teammates, none moreso than his defensive coordinator, Mark Duffner.
"I'll tell you again, the positive right now is just what you said – he's getting better game after game after game," Duffner said of Vea. "That attribute to Coach [Brentson] Bucker and Coach [Paul] Spicer and certainly to Vita and his preparation weekly. He's playing dominantly at the moment and we'd like that to continue. That helps the entire defense. When you're strong up the middle, you're going to be strong overall. We're anxious for him just to continue to have that kind of production. I think again, it's reflective of his preparation, but it's also just again the more reps he's getting. He's kind of now more in the midseason for him because of injury and so forth early on in the year. We're anxious to continue to see him be in that productive mode."
Vea registered nine tackles against the Ravens in Baltimore, which is rare for an interior defensive lineman. It's a testament to how well he plays laterally, meaning he's shedding blocks better and reacting fast enough to move around and get to runners to make plays.