The 2021 NFL season is finally here. The road to Los Angeles begins Thursday night, with the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosting the Dallas Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
The Bucs return all 22 starters from last year’s team — the first time a Super Bowl team has done so since the 1970s. The Cowboys, meanwhile, get back their starting quarterback and both of their starting tackles, the three of whom combined to play just seven games last season.
A wealth of talent will be on display on both sides of the ball, so let’s just get right to it and break down the matchup.
How to watch
When the Cowboys have the ball
The story of the Cowboys’ season — at least on offense — is all about health. Dak Prescott is set to return from not only the scary ankle injury he suffered last season, but also the shoulder strain that plagued him throughout training camp. Tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins are back from season-ending injuries of their own, and Amari Cooper is back after offseason foot surgery. Still, Zack Martin, who missed six games last year, is in danger of missing this one after testing positive for COVID-19. (He has yet to be officially ruled out.)
Martin’s absence is a major problem against a Tampa Bay defensive line that is very strong up the middle with Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, not to mention Steve McLendon and Rakeem Nunez-Roches behind them. Dallas will likely start Connor McGovern in Martin’s place, with Tyler Biadasz and Connor Williams filling out the offensive interior. The Bucs were the league’s No. 1 defense against the run last season, as well as the No. 1 defense in Adjusted Line Yards allowed on runs up the middle, per Football Outsiders.
Without Martin, it seems likely the Cowboys will struggle to get much in the way of an up-the-middle push ahead of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. As such, they would surely be better off attacking the Bucs on the perimeter, where they are more likely to create advantages. Avoiding the temptation to go with a conservative play-calling approach (which plays directly into Tampa’s strengths) in the absence of their All-Pro guard will be a key determinant in whether the Cowboys are able to find any degree of offensive success.
Dallas’ three-receiver set of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb was too static too often last season. Lamb aligned in the slot on 91% of his snaps, per Tru Media, the highest rate in the league among players who played at least 10 snaps per game. That limited Cooper and Gallup to almost exclusively running their routes on the outside. Gallup aligned there on 95% of his snaps, also the highest rate in the league among qualified players, while Cooper was there on 70% of his snaps.
The Cowboys reportedly plan to move the trio around more often this season — and they should. That’s especially true against the Bucs, where slot man Sean Murphy-Bunting stands out as the weak link of the secondary. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore should take advantage of the opportunity to get all three of his top receiving weapons into that matchup at different times, simply so the Cowboys are not showing the Bucs the same look on an every-snap basis. Prescott has never been prone to locking in on one receiver at the exclusion of others anyway, so mixing and matching plays to his spread-it-around mentality.
The Bucs getting pressure up the middle could short-circuit those plans, though, so Elliott and Pollard could play key roles in the passing game. Tampa allowed a league-high 101 receptions to running backs last season despite the presence of Lavonte David and Devin White. Taking a checkdown and making those guys miss in order to gain a few extra yards will be an important component of staying ahead of the chains and avoiding third-and-long situations where the Bucs’ biggest advantage becomes even bigger.
A game plan that relies so much on Prescott’s ability to push the ball down the field is putting a lot on his shoulders, both literally and figuratively, but that’s the strength of the team anyway. And if Smith and Collins can manage to hold up against Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, respectively, then Prescott will also have the opportunity to freelance and make plays with his legs outside the pocket if Vea or Suh crashes up the middle.
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When the Buccaneers have the ball
The key question here is whether new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s defense can get any semblance of pressure on Tom Brady. If they can’t, it’s likely going to be a long night for the Dallas defensive backfield, which is likely to be extremely overmatched against Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown.
Unfortunately for Dallas, the Bucs allowed pressure on only 25% of Brady’s dropbacks last season, per Tru Media, the fourth-lowest rate among qualified quarterbacks. The Tampa offensive line is strong across the board, but if there’s a relative weakness, it is probably at center and right guard. Dallas has next to nothing in the way of interior pass rush, though — especially with Neville Gallimore out for the start of the season.
With all that in mind, the likelihood of the Cowboys pushing Brady off his spot in the way that is most likely to affect his ability to complete throws down the field seems incredibly low. Dallas’ best shot at getting pressure is likely to come from Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory on the edge, but a) Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith are quite good in pass protection; and b) Brady responds far better to edge pressure than similar traffic up the middle, because he would rather step up or through the pocket than have to escape to the outside.
That means Quinn will likely have to bring an extra rusher on the blitz, with rookie Micah Parsons the most likely candidate for that role. Blitzing Brady is often a fool’s errand, though, because he sees that stuff coming and hits the hot route, which results in a big gain. With the advantages his receivers are likely to have on the Dallas corners — especially Godwin working on Jourdan Lewis in the slot, and Evans or Antonio Brown on Anthony Brown to the offense’s right side of the field — that strategy could pose a lot of problems. (Godwin’s midweek quad injury that got him added to the injury report could change things a bit, but in Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, and Jaelon Darden, the Bucs have plenty of capable receivers behind him.) Adding Giovani Bernard as the third-down and two-minute back gives the Bucs another weapon to attack the Dallas linebackers and safeties, most of whom cannot be counted on to contain backs or tight ends in coverage.
With all those advantages in the passing game, the Bucs may not even need to run the ball against what last season was a very bad Cowboys run defense. (They finished 23rd in DVOA and 30th in Adjusted Line Yards, per Football Outsiders.) Still, the Bucs should be able to find a degree of success when they do choose to keep the ball on the ground — especially up the middle, where Dallas is likely to count on a combination of Brent Urban, Carlos Watkins, and rookies Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna for most of the snaps in Gallimore’s absence. Just as the Bucs have a big advantage with their defensive tackles against the interior of the Dallas offensive line, they also have one with their interior linemen against the Dallas defensive tackles.
Latest Odds: Tampa Bay Buccaneers -8.5
Prediction: Buccaneers 33, Cowboys 23