A pair of 1-1 squads face off as the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers each try to rebound from disappointing second-week showings and stay within a game of the bird teams that lead their respective divisions. Dallas has to feel good about coming home after starting the season with two straight road tests, while Tampa will be facing its second straight game away from the friendly (?) confines of Raymond James Stadium. Will that advantage - and significant positional advantages on both sides of the ball - be enough for Dallas to get back on the winning track this Sunday?
In the early sixteenth century, the Spanish attempted to colonize southern Florida by way of the Narvaez expedition. Of the 300 men who landed near present-day Tampa Bay, only four ultimately survived with one, the famed explorer Cabeza de Vaca, turning up in Mexico City after enduring a decade of battle, disease, starvation and enslavement. Even the Narvaez expedition had a better time in Tampa Bay than did erstwhile Bucs head coach Raheem Morris, whose team quit on him midway through last season with the ruthless finality and unsightly results of Jessica Simpson abandoning a diet plan. With no-nonsense head man Greg Schiano coming in from Rutgers (!) to right the pirate ship, Tampa has managed to start the 2012 season 1-1. They put a physical beating on the Panthers to start things off, and then gave the game to the Giants after Josh Freeman fired a brain-dead INT while sporting a double-digit lead and opened the door for an outright aerial roasting by Eli Manning.
Schiano was known as a hard-nosed, drill sergeant-style taskmaster at Rutgers and he seems to want the same mentality instilled in this Bucs group. His calling card is the run game, but his most critical task is coaxing some 2010-caliber play out of QB Josh Freeman after an extremely disappointing 2011 campaign. I was somewhat baffled by Freeman's first-round selection in the '09 draft, as I'm a Big XII guy and thought, "While watching all those games, shouldn't it have occurred to me at SOME point that Freeman is at least a decent QB?" Nobody was more surprised than me when he came out like a house on fire in 2010, but my vague sense that he'd been doing it with mirrors was seemingly confirmed when Freeman melted down in 2011. His accuracy issues really came to the fore, and some questionable decision-making didn't help matters in the least.
Schiano's plan seems to be run first, run second and then take advantage of Freeman's arm and mobility on play-action bombs and bootlegs without putting a ton on his plate from a decision-making standpoint or asking him to throw too many balls into tight windows. What was already a short leash likely got shorter after Freeman, with 30 seconds left in the third quarter and an 11-point lead, threw into a crowd and got the ball picked off. Expect to see a TON of running with some selective deep shots to test Dallas' safeties, but Freeman won't be winging it unless Tampa is down big.
Said running game will be spearheaded by rookie runner Doug Martin, who is off to a solid start this season. He's seen at least 20 carries in each of the Bucs' first two contests, so look for him to get the ball early and often. He's a quick, instinctive runner with good vision and instincts, but he's not overly physically gifted. He needs to have things blocked reasonably well to make hay, so if Dallas can shut down the running lanes with disciplined play in the gaps he shouldn't be able to make a whole lot of magic out of nothing. Of course, if Dallas decides to display the 'tackling is optional' approach that we applied to Marshawn Lynch, Martin can easily make us pay.
The guys tasked with giving him room to run are something of a mixed bag. LT Donald Penn has shown flashes of being an upper-echelon LT, and the Bucs thought highly enough of him to only offer a RT slot - and RT contract - to free agent Doug Free in the 2011 offseason. While he usually does a good job of setting an edge in the run game, he can be hit-or-miss in pass protection and DeMarcus Ware has gotten the better of him before.
RT Jeremy Trueblood is a lot like the HBO series True Blood in the sense that both can turn things into an absolute bloody mess at any given moment. While that trait has earned a strong five-season run for the TV show, it may have finally resulted in cancellation for the player as Trueblood has lost his starting job to journeyman RT Demar Dotson. Dotson is a JAG at best and we'll need to wear him out.
Newly-minted and highly-paid Bucs LG Carl Nicks is the real deal. Tampa Bay hauled several bullion-stuffed treasure chests out of that pirate ship to steal Nicks away from the Saints, and he's made good on their investment so far with some strong run blocking. He can also build a wall in pass protection, and his absence in that department has been keenly felt by Drew Brees during the Saints' 0-2 start.
Fellow G Ted Larsen, who took over when wildly overpaid starter Davin Joseph was lost for the season, can do a pretty good job of sustaining blocks in the run game when he keeps his feet moving, but is definitely susceptible to giving up pressure in the pass game.
C Jeremy Zuttah is somewhat in the Andre Gurode mold in the sense that his physicality is so-so for a guard but plays up in the pivot. Jay Ratliff could probably give him problems, but it's by no means certain that Josh Brent will be able to do the same.
All in all it's a decent but unspectacular OL, and opportunities should be available for Dallas to mount a strong pass rush on the edges and generally beat up the Bucs' right side. With that said, the Seahawks lined up worse players than the Bucs will in every spot but RT last Sunday and the Dallas front was totally unable to control the game. We'll need to see a significant upgrade in output this week to help keep Tampa behind the chains and put pressure - both game pressure and pass-rush pressure - on a mistake-prone Freeman.
When Freeman does have time to throw, newly acquired WR Vincent Jackson is an excellent downfield target. While Jackson doesn't have elite speed or even average quickness, his ability to elevate for the deep ball and shield off defenders with his massive frame makes him a dangerous weapon who can flip field position or score in a heartbeat if the corner isn't able to compete well for a jump ball. Dallas has the kind of big, physical corners you want when you're going up against VJax, but if you're worried about our safeties' ability to get to the sideline in time to help out...then you're not alone.
Fellow wideout Mike Williams has gotten off to a very strong start this season after a largely lost 2011 campaign. I suspected that his poor attitude might land him in the doghouse with Schiano, but apparently the new head coach has pushed the right motivational buttons to get Williams back on his game. He's another big-bodied and athletic guy who doesn't quite have Jackson's ability to elevate and high-point the ball, but he can overwhelm coverage that isn't sufficiently physical.
The Bucs have lost or cut the slot guys they started the season with, and have turned to former Bengal Jordan Shipley. At the peak of his powers, Shipley has the quickness and savvy to be a real threat in the slot, but the knee injury that cost him the 2011 season may not be healed enough for him to pose major problems in this game.
The Bucs turned to aging vet Dallas Clark to solidify the TE position after the drill sergeant cut 'The Soldier' - former Buc and massive head case Kellen Winslow Jr. Clark looks to have at least something left in the tank, but with Dallas' significantly improved inside linebacker coverage this season he's not nearly as scary a prospect as he would have been if fellow graybeard Keith Brooking was going to be tasked with chasing him around.
On the whole, this is pretty much an average NFL offense. They're solid in the run game and have a couple of dangerous weapons on the outside, but their coach's mindset and their QB's limitations make them far from a high-octane bunch. If the Dallas defense wants to lay claim to being an elite - or even significantly above average - unit, they need to find a way to win this matchup on their home field.
(Part II on the defense coming later today).