Can Dallas roll over the Bucs defense?
While Tampa Bay's mascot is a pirate, it was their defense that was on the receiving end of a great deal of pillaging last season. Opponents were able to run and pass with impunity, and Tampa featured some of the most inept linebacker and safety play that you're likely to come across.
This season started out on a stronger note against the Panthers, and a lot of that was due to the return of DT Gerald McCoy. McCoy isn't a massive DT, but he has elite quickness and his ability to shoot gaps in the run game and out-quick interior OL in pass rush situations makes him a force in the middle. He nearly single-handedly destroyed Carolina's run-game efforts in Week One, and got after Eli Manning a good bit last week though he couldn't make up for his secondary's vile play.
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Fellow DT Roy Miller has looked like a lost cause at times in his NFL career, but seems to have stepped things up this season and is an active presence in the run game. This still isn't one of the league's truly elite DT duos, but they're more than capable of making things tough on Dallas inside. MacKenzy Bernadeau in particular will need to step up his game against McCoy, or both Romo and DeMarco will be taking some repeated shots from a 300-pound dude.
Tampa lost second-year DE Da'Quan Bowers for the season with an injury, but they've gotten strong play so far from 4th-year man Michael Bennett. Bennett worked the Giants' tackles all game last Sunday, but Eli was able to work his escape act in the pocket well enough to shake loose and repeatedly fire downfield. Romo is capable of similar magic, of course, and he'll have to call on it if Dallas' OTs can't put on a better showing than they did in Seattle. Bennett is actually the brother of erstwhile Cowboy Martellus Bennett. After watching Marty B rise from the ashes like a particularly low-IQ phoenix in New York, I don't think my psyche could withstand another member of that clan getting off against us on Sunday.
Bennett's bookend Adrian Clayborn enjoyed a strong rookie season - particularly as a pass rusher - but has been a no-show thus far in 2012. Maybe he and Tyron Smith can compete head-to-head in order to see which player can shake off their sophomore slump this Sunday.
Tampa's linebackers are at least putting in a decent showing after a truly putrid 2011. OLB Quincy Black got into the team's pirate theme a tad too much last year, absolutely stealing money by grading out as PFF's worst outside linebacker after looting the Bucs' front office for a $29 million contract extension. The other outside spot was just as bad, so Tampa turned to blazing-fast rookie Lavonte David from Nebraska in the 2012 draft. This year, David's speed has run him out of position as often as it's gotten him to the right spot this season. MLB Mason Foster has taken some strides after an outright awful showing as a rookie, but he's still far too apt to chase ghosts and get caught up in the wash in the run game.
Tampa's secondary was in dire need of a talent infusion after last season's beating, and they dropped big-time free agent coin on former Lions corner Eric Wright while spending a premium draft choice on Alabama strong safety Mark Barron. The ROI on these investments looks shaky so far - Wright is just an average player who played up thanks to Detroit's fierce pass rush, and while Barron turned in a highlight hit on Steve Smith when the latter was trapped against the sideline in Week One he has also contributed a ton of highlights for his opponents' aerial attacks.
Wright's fellow corner Aqib Talib is a great athlete for the position, but as Hakeem Nicks showed last week he can be outright abused by double moves and strong route-running. He's likely to draw a lot of time against Dez Bryant, and if Dez can run a full route tree he should be able to manage a good degree of success. If we turn in a brain-dead approach of simply calling sideline routes and asking Bryant to run and jump with him as we did with Patrick Peterson in Arizona last season, we'll be playing right into Talib's strength.
Tampa has moved veteran corner Ronde Barber - who might have been backfield-mates with Night Train Lane at one point - to free safety this season. While his veteran savvy keeps him in the game, Barber is in physical decline and can be beaten.
Really, every member of the Tampa back seven can be beaten - soundly - and Dallas' offense needs to take it to this bunch after basically hanging Romo out to dry against Seattle. I'm particularly calling out Dez Bryant to run strong routes, make himself an early option for Romo and generally show that he's ready to take the mantle of a #1 receiver and justify Dallas' significant draft, time, attention and baby-sitting investments in him. Hakeem Nicks brings nary at thing to the table from a physical standpoint that Bryant can't match or exceed, and Nicks absolutely tore this secondary apart on an injured foot that was bad enough to make him miss the Giant's third game last night. It's time for Dez to step up.
If Dez takes care of business, Tyron Smith starts to get a handle on the left side's nuances, Witten rounds back into his old form and the interior OL can at least fight their way to a draw then we should be able to put up some serious offense on this bunch. Both Dallas and Tampa's showings in the first two weeks make this look a tougher test than I'd envisioned in the preseason, but there's no excuse for the Cowboys not to step up to the challenge.
Dallas 31, Tampa Bay 20