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Parts in Motion, Cowboys vs. Buccaneers Preview, Part II

I continue my breakdown of the game with a look at the Cowboys' defensive task:

When the Bucs Have the Ball

This matchup can be summarized as the Battle of First Down.  The Bucs got a lot of bad publicity last week for firing new coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski last week, and replacing him with former Gruden assistant Greg Olson.  Raheem Morris fired Jagodzinski because he felt the new man was not prepared to construct pro game plans.  Olson has apparently added a lot of new plays to the playbook, and those additions may bear fruit in the weeks to come, but it appears unlikely that Olson can remake the Bucs offense in one week.

Coordinators install their playbooks during the spring and begin installing packages in the mini-camps. The process is repeated and completed during the month of camp and the first weeks of the preseason.  The final preseason "dress rehearsals" and the regular season are times when the coordinator selects parts from that playbook to use each week.

One major challenge is not overloading a single-week gameplan or going too thin, so that a coordinator has options on game day.  

Olson is trying to do two contradictory things.  He's trying to add copious amounts of plays (it may be hyperbole) but Morris said Olson was almost doubling what was in Jagodzinski's notebook) at the same time coaches are paring down and refining their game plans.

This presents challenges for each team.  The Cowboys have the task of preparing for the unexpected, since Olson may make major philosophical changes.  At the same time, Olson's guys don't have the repetitions every other NFL team has, so while they may have surprise on their side, they will probably lack the sharpness of execution necessary to really fool the Cowboys.

Olson also has to weight the pros of what Morris wants with the strengths of his basic personnel sets.  Read the interview just below this one with the hosts of Buc 'Em, and you'll see that Morris wants a more run-based, physical attack than the one Jon Gruden ran.  He has some talent to carry this out, in particular the right side of his young offense line,  where C Jeff Faine, RG Davin Joseph and RT Jeremy Trueblood toil.  Tampa also has a more talented running back trio, as the team signed former Giant RB Derrick Ward and will rotate him with incumbents Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham.

Power running attacks require more than good linemen. You need tight ends and a full back who can also block.  The Bucs sent two draft picks to Cleveland for Kellen Winslow Jr. this spring and while he's a talented receiver, he's miscast in a power running attack.  The Browns lined WInslow in a "flexed" or wide receiver position roughly 75% ofr the time the last few years to isolate him in space against linebackers and ends.

It's not clear how the Bucs will deploy him, but they have the same look the Browns gave Dallas in last year's season opener.  They ran a three receiver look, with the receivers in their traditional spots and Winslow in one of the slots.  The Browns had a good line and a power back in Jamal Lewis.  They kept a fullback and their five linemen as their base running formation.

The Cowboys doubled Winslow in that game, pulling an outside linebacker out in space to jam him, and setting SS Roy Williams behind the 'backer.  Wade Phillips gambled that a six-man front could handle Cleveland's front and he won.  He's got a stout-looking front, with DEs Igor Olshasky and Marcus Spears looking very strong against plays right at them.

The chess match will begin with Olson. If he puts Winslow in a traditional tight end spot next to a tackle and tries to run, he's not playing to Winslow's strength.  If he flexes Winslow, I don't think Phillips will repeat his tactic of flexing his OLBs. New SS Gerald Sensabaugh is much better in coverage and Dallas will likely trust him to cover Winslow. Phillps can also use a page from last year's Green Bay game, where he used three CBs and a single safety, Ken Hamlin, to handle Green Bay's spread.

Phillips won't want to sacrifice one of his potential blitzers against new Bucs QB Byron Leftwich. He's famously immobile, but he's also a very, very streaky player who can pick your secondary apart if he gets hot.  Think of the '06 Cowboys opener, when Leftwich, then the Jaguars QB, stumbled through a half, then got red hot in the third, leading the Jags on two long TD drives which gave Jacksonville the win.

Phillips will try to keep Leftwich from finding a rhythm. He's not going to put Anthony Spencer in space.  I think he'll trust his beefed up secondary to matchup and keep seven in the box, to:

 

  • keep an extra man in the box to stop Bucs runs and;
  • to blitz Leftwich on straight drops or play action passes.

 

Let's return to the theme. This matchup will turn on first down.  The Bucs will succeed if they can gain significant chunks of yards and keep the run as an option on 2nd and 3rd downs.  

On the other hand, if Dallas can keep the early Bucs runs to three yards or less, they put the game on Leftwich's shoulders and blitz him ferociously on subsequent downs.

Prediction:

The Bucs are not pushovers.  They have talent on both sides of the ball.  I think they'll find their way and be a difficult team. I also don't think they're ready for this game.  We see this every season. In week one there are several teams that are still a week or two away from putting a full game together.  Tampa, in my opinion, has too many new schemes being installed, too many new coaches making starts and too many moving parts.

That said, the weather may be a factor.  Rain may fall during the game, and that could bog down both offenses and turn the Bucs grass field to mud.  All things being dry, I give Dallas the edge.

Cowboys 27, Buccaneers 14

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