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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF COWBOYS-BUCCANEERS

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Welcome to the 2022 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

One of the NFC’s wild card games will take place at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida as the Dallas Cowboys will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here’s what you should know:

ARLINGTON, TX – NOVEMBER 24: Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (88), quarterback Dak Prescott (4) and running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) celebrate a touchdown during the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants on November 24, 2022 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


COWBOYS’ OFFENSE A MIX OF OLD AND NEW IDEAS

The foundation of Dallas’ passing attack was the vertical-based Air Coryell system for the better part of three decades, but with the hire of former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy in 2020 the offense has gotten a facelift. The melding of McCarthy’s version of the West Coast offense with the Cowboys’ former approach under previous head coach Jason Garrett has yielded solid results with Dallas being 14th in the NFL in passing, ninth in rushing, 11th in total offense and fourth in scoring this year.

It is coordinated by play caller Kellen Moore, who rose to the position in 2019. Moore has added more formations, motions and intricate route combinations to this attack, a refreshing change for an offense that previously utilized static formations and isolation routes that relied on a receiver’s talent to get open. The trigger man for Moore’s system is Dak Prescott, whose mobility helps Dallas remain dangerous on play-action, bootlegs, rollouts, zone-reads and RPOs – all plays that are built off the run.

Prescott is an interesting quarterback to evaluate. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Prescott does many things well; he commands the field in spread-empty formations, makes the occasional big-time throw and poses a threat as a perimeter runner, keeping edge defenders from attacking down on Dallas’ zone runs….. Then there are the negatives. Prescott’s arm is merely adequate, and he’s not always great at reading a field quickly.”

Prescott’s top weapon in the passing game is third-year speedster CeeDee Lamb, who excels both on the boundary and in the slot and is a very good route runner. The problem for the Cowboys is that he’s their only consistent receiving threat, as Michael Gallup – who is normally their boundary ‘X’ receiver – and slot wideout Noah Brown have been up and down. Running back Ezekiel Elliott’s sublime abilities in the screen game and versatile backup Tony Pollard can align all over the formation. Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin are the Cowboys’ tight ends.

Elliott, an explosive, powerful runner, and Pollard operate behind one of the league’s better offensive lines. Anchored by perennial All-Pros Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, rookie Tyler Smith, Connor McGovern, Tyler Bladasz and backups Jason Peters and Terrence Steele (out with an injury), this unit performs well on man and zone-based running plays.

NASHVILLE, TN – DECEMBER 29: Micah Parsons #11 of the Dallas Cowboys defends against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on December 29, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)


DALLAS DEFENSE BUILT OFF SIMPLICITY

Former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator and Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn is a strong proponent of the Cover Three scheme (deep zone coverage on the outside with a safety in the box and a deep safety patrolling centerfield) and has had excellent results in Big D while also mixing in more single-high man coverages. While the Cowboys weren’t great against the run (22nd), they were ranked eighth against the pass, third in sacks, fifth in points allowed and tied for seventh in interceptions.

Dallas’ athletic defensive line – led by Demarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Quinton Bohanna and Osa Odighizuwa – relies on slants, stunts and twists at the line of scrimmage to get to the quarterback. They also use them against the run, which helps shut down multiple gaps at once, while also executing multiple pressure concepts and defensive fronts.

Helping their line at the second level are linebackers Micah Parsons (who is the team’s top blitzer and may be the league’s best pass rusher) and Leighton Vander Esch, who are intelligent, fast and extremely good in run support and in pass coverage.

The Cowboys are led in their secondary by Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown and DaRon Bland, and their safeties are Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson.

TAMPA, FL – OCTOBER 27: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Wide Receiver Mike Evans (13) and Wide Receiver Chris Godwin (24) line up during the regular season game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on October 27, 2022 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


BUCS’ OFFENSE IS LOADED WITH TALENT

Seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady has played in many types of offenses in his career. From operating on a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to being the quarterback of a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and orchestrating an attack that revolved around tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.

For 20 years the future first-ballot Hall of Famer was the triggerman for this attack with the New England Patriots. Until now. Brady, seeking a new chapter elsewhere, departed in 2020 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and adjusted to former head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich’s downfield, vertical passing scheme quite well. Brady, even at age 45, has shown little signs of slowing down – he still has zip and velocity in his throws and is exceptional on intermediate throws.

In 2020 he accumulated 4,633 passing yards (the fifth-most of his 21-year career) and 40 touchdowns, the second-most he has had as a pro behind his 50 in 2007, and led the Bucs to the second Super Bowl in franchise history. 2021 was more of the same for Brady as he paced the NFL in passing attempts, completions (where he set a new single-season record), passing yards and passing touchdowns and this year he broke his own record for completions while also setting a new league mark for attempts. But Brady threw for just 25 touchdowns – the fifth-least in a season in his career.

Helping Brady out is a plethora of dangerous options in the passing game. Before he signed in Tampa, wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin – a pair of fast and big-bodied red zone targets – were productive but underachieved with former signal caller Jameis Winston. Since then, however, they’ve reached their full potential.

Evans and Godwin are used in multiple ways by Leftwich, but especially in three-by-one trips formations (with Evans the backside receiver) and in bunch with Godwin as the point man. Tampa likes to use these to defeat split-safety zone coverage along with high-low pass concepts and will also attack the void in between those split safeties with Godwin on a vertical route down the seam and a combination of shorter routes to attract the middle defenders and deep pass patterns on the outside to widen the other safety. They also like play-action out of the shotgun in the red zone to influence linebackers’ run-pass keys.

Bolstering the depth of this high-flying offense besides deep threats Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman, Russell Gage and five-time All-Pro Julio Jones, and tight ends Cade Otton, Cameron Brate and Kyle Rudolph was a future Hall of Fame import – Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski – one of the league’s best to ever play tight end – could do it all, including blocking at a high level, and executing almost any route and catching any ball that Brady threw to him.

The wear and tear of nine NFL seasons forced him to take a year off in 2019 after winning a third Super Bowl with the Patriots but came out of retirement to team up with his former quarterback again. “Gronk” got off to a bit of a slow start in 2020 while trying to get reacclimated to pro football, but ended the season tied for second on the team in touchdowns and was his usual productive self a year ago. However, with Gronkowski having retired (seemingly for good this time) his presence has been missed – particularly over the middle of the field.

The Bucs also boast many options at running back. Leonard Fournette has enjoyed a career rebirth in the Bay while showing off his power and improved receiving skills. He splits playing time with the improving Rachaad White and ex-Bengal Giovani Bernard. They run behind an offensive line composed of Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs (one of the more underrated tackle tandems in football), Shaq Mason, Robert Hainsey and Nick Leverett. Mason, Hainsey and Leverett have attempted to fill the shoes of the retired Ali Marpet, Cappa (who signed with Cincinnati) and the injured Jensen but have struggled to do so.

Tampa Bay’s offense was in the middle of the pack in total yards, second in passing and was just 25th in scoring after finishing second in the league in that category a year ago with 511 points.

GLENDALE, ARIZONA – DECEMBER 25: Greg Dortch #83 of the Arizona Cardinals is hit by Devin White #45 and Lavonte David #54 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after making a catch during the 2nd half of the game at State Farm Stadium on December 25, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)


TAMPA’S DEFENSE IS AGGRESSIVE AND COMPLEX

Coordinator Todd Bowles – one of the NFL’s best defensive minds – runs a 3-4 scheme that is characterized by multiple fronts and blitzes and uses plenty of stunts and slants at the line of scrimmage to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On the back end, Bowles prefers disguised coverages defined by Cover Four and Three and man-press coverage to take away quick throws and disrupt timing between wideouts and pass distributors – a stark contrast to the old “Tampa Two” zone coverage that the Buccaneers leaned on for nearly 25 years.

Tampa Bay has an excellent front-seven up front. Veterans William Gholston, Vita Vea and Akiem Hicks are the team’s main defensive linemen. The injured Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul were a scary one-two punch at outside linebacker and had much success as pocket disrupters throughout their careers (Pierre-Paul has since been replaced by Joe Tryon-Shoyinka) and inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David might be the fastest pair at their positions in pro football (David is the better of the two in pass coverage though). Beyond rising safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Mike Edwards, their cornerbacks – Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting – leave a bit to be desired.

The Bucs ended 2022 ninth in total defense and against the pass (an improvement over the last two years where they were 21st in passing yards given up in each of them) but have fallen to 15th in rushing yards surrendered after ranking in the top five the last two years in a row. Middle of the pack in points allowed (13th), Tampa was tied for seventh in sacks and tied for 24th in interceptions.

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