The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have two orders of business following the conclusion of their preseason on Saturday night: Get the roster down to 53 players by Tuesday's deadline, and then get that roster ready to take on the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL's 2021 Kickoff Game on September 9.
The Buccaneers wrapped up their abbreviated three-game preseason in Houston on Saturday night with a 23-16 victory that included a dominant effort by the team's starters on both sides of the ball. With the preseason slate shortened to three games by the new CBA, the team will now enjoy something of a "mini-bye" with 10 days until the regular-season opener on September 9. At least the players will; they are in the midst of a league-mandated stretch of four days off. The coaches and personnel staff remain hard at work figuring out how to trim the roster from 80 down to the regular-season limit.
The deadline for roster cuts is 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday. After each team gets to 53 and players pass through waivers, the Buccaneers will be able to form a 16-man practice squad. The team will then reconvene on Thursday and Friday for a pair of "bonus" practices before getting one more day off. Since the opening game is on Thursday night – as defending Super Bowl champions, the Buccaneers get the first-night spotlight for the entire NFL – the proper week of practice begins next Sunday.
The Cowboys will share that Kickoff Game spotlight with the Buccaneers, which will feature an intriguing matchup of quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Dak Prescott. While Brady finished his preseason with a pair of 90-plus-yard touchdown drives in Houston, Prescott was sidelined for all three of the Cowboys' game with a shoulder injury. Prescott is also returning from an ankle injury suffered five weeks into the 2020 season, but he was brilliant before the injury, racking up 371.2 yards per game and nine touchdowns in that span. The Cowboys say "all signs point to" Prescott being ready for the opener in Tampa.
Without Prescott, and with injuries also thinning a once-dominant offensive line, the Cowboys finished 6-10 in 2020, though that was just one game out of first place in the depressed NFC East. Dallas is expected to be major contenders in the division race in 2021 thanks to a loaded offense and a defense that should improve after getting a major infusion of talent in the 2021 draft.
The NFL's opening game will feature some of the best receiving talent in the NFL. Few teams can match the Bucs' starting trio of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, but the Cowboys can make a very credible claim with Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. And while Ezekiel Elliott is coming off a career-low 979 rushing yards in 2020 he remains one of the NFL's premier backs and an early test for the league's top-ranked rushing defense over the past two years.
The Dallas defense was led last year by linebacker Jaylon Smith, who finished with 154 tackles and 1.5 sacks, but that group could have a whole new look in 2021 after the Cowboys allowed 29.6 points per game in 2020. The Cowboys are hoping for a bounce-back season from former Pro Bowler Leighton Vander Esch, and they gave him two new running mates in first-round draft pick Micah Parsons and converted safety Keanu Neal, a former Falcon signed in free agency.
The Dallas secondary also got some new blood in the offseason, with cornerbacks Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright arriving in the draft and safety Damontae Kazee – another former Falcon – coming over in free agency. Up front, eighth-year veteran DeMarcus Lawrence continues to lead the way after pacing the team with 6.5 sacks last year, and third-round draft pick Osa Odighizuwa could help a rush defense that ranked second-to-last in 2020, giving up 158.3 yards per game and nearly five yards per carry.
The Buccaneers' victory over Kansas City in Super Bowl LV gave the franchise its second Lombardi Trophy, but the first one came in 2002, before the NFL began playing Thursday night Kickoff Games in Week One. Thus, this is the first time that Tampa Bay will be playing in that particular showcase, and they'll be doing so in the very location they made history last February, at Raymond James Stadium, as the first team to win the Super Bowl in their home stadium. The matchup with the Cowboys will begin the Buccaneers' chase of another piece of league history, as they try to become the first team to repeat as Super Bowl champions since the 2003-04 New England Patriots.