Two teams who suffered dismal Decembers last year match up in Tampa Bay this Sunday, with each hoping the game will represent game one on the redemption trail. The Cowboys story has been told and re-told. A 1-3 finish left them a game short of the playoffs.
Less told, but very similar, was Tampa Bay's late crash. The Bucs entered December at 9-3, having won four straight after a 13-9 loss in Texas Stadium. Their defense, which finished in the top 10, cratered that month, allowing 123 points as Jon Gruden's guys went 0-4. The meltdown prompted a housecleaning. Gone was Gruden, who cost Tampa Bay two top picks in 2002. Long-time defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, a maestro of the Tampa Two scheme, left to direct his son Lane's defense at the University of Tennessee.
Sunday begins the Raheem Morris Era and the team he'll field bears little resemblance to the one which battled Dallas last October.
When Dallas Has the Ball
Morris chose former Cowboys assistant and former Broncos and Packers coordinator Jim Bates to run Tampa's D. Morris hinted this week that Bates would rip up the passive Tampa-2 schemes Kiffin ran and attack Tony Romo. That makes some sense if you look at Bates' history. He worked in Dallas when it ran Jimmy Johnson's wide-end 4-3, which is close to a Tampa-2 in philosophy, but he's been far more aggressive as a coordinator.
And Tampa Bay's defense needs a shot of aggression. The '08 squad sacked opposing QBs just 29 times. Rookie RE Gaines Adams had a promising rookie campaign,and led the team with six sacks. His matchup with LT Flozell Adams will be one to watch.
I have to question Morris' honesty; I'm not saying he's lying. I do think, however, that he might be sandbagging. The Bucs have drafted Tampa-2 style guys for more than a decade, and its hard to junk a speed front seven and zone coverage scheme overnight. The Bucs corners are not speed merchants. They play zone better than man-to-man. The linebackers are small; think Dallas in the Dexter Coakley, Dat Nguyen days and you'll get the picture.
The Bucs also have a lot of new players in the lineup, and veterans playing out of position. Starting DT Jovan Haye left in free agency and will be replaced by journeyman Ryan Sims, a top-ten pick by the Chiefs several years ago. In the linebacking corps, middle backer Barrett Ruud has emerged, but he'll be flanked by two young newbies. Last year's starters, strongside LB Cato June and long-time standout Derrick Brooks, are gone. 25 year old Quincy Black debuts on the strong side this weekend. On the weakside, Tampa Bay will rush second year man Jeno Hayes into the fray.
Morris planned to shift last year's SS Jermaine Phillips into the WOLB spot. (That he would move a safety to linebacker tells me Morris is still invested in the Tampa-2.) Morris had to scrap the idea when FS Tanard Jackson was suspended by the league. Morris moved Phillips into Jackson's spot to quarterback his back seven. Backup Sabby Piscitelli will replace Phillips at the strong.
The shuffling leaves Tampa in flux at both outside LB spots and at both safety spots. This suggests Jason Garrett will test these four with running back tandem of Marion Barber and Felix Jones and his tight end duo of Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett.
When Dallas runs, look for them to attack the tackles, primarily Sims. When Dallas beat Tennessee's 4-3, it double teamed both DTs on isolations, with the center and guard taking any strong side guard who lines up in one of the A gaps off the center, or with the guard and tackle doubling any DT lined up over the guard.
When the Cowboys run wide, they like to show a lot of different inside/outside options to confuse the ends and outside linebackers and to blunt pursuit off the backside. Let's go back to Tennessee for another example. Dallas ran Felix Jones inside. Then, they faked an inside run right and sent Patrick Crayton on an end around to the left side. A few plays later, they faked a run left to Jones and popped a scrren pass to him over the crashing left end. When Dallas was in 4th and one later on, Garrett faked a dive to his fullback and pitched wide to Barber, who outraced the outside linebacker, who had bitten on the fake, to the sideline.
The Cowboys run this inside/outside action at you, get the ends and LBs looking to cut Jones off before he can gain the corner, then they can run a play-action fake off this and target Witten and Bennett up the seams. Both tight ends overmatched all the linebackers and safeties they faced this summer. I expect Dallas to send one or both of them at Piscitelli and Phillips.
If Dallas wants to throw to the wide receivers, I look for a lot of motion and deeper routes in the middle of the field. Romo has had some trouble with teams that play a lot of pure cover two, teams like Buffalo and Detroit in '07 and Washington last year. Romo got in trouble by trying to force passes to receivers, who get a lot of double coverage. He excelled when he stayed patient and threw to the tight ends.
If DC Bates chooses to blitz heavily, he'll expose his corners to man coverage and ask them to play coverage they don't play very often. The Bucs also have some inexperience and uncertainty here. 34 year old Ronde Barber continues to man the right corner spot, because he has retained his high level of play. Phillip Buchanon resurrected his career with a strong campaign at left corner. He left in free agency. Second year corner Aqib Talib was prepped to replace him. Talib was arrested on August 20th for assaulted a cab driver and his availability appeared in question. Talib will play this Sunday, and if the Cowboys go hard at either Bucs corner, I think they'll target him.