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Cowboys vs. Buccaneers: Previewing Tampa Bay’s Defensive Personnel

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A look at the defensive strengths and weaknesses of the Cowboys' Week 15 opponent.

Seattle Seahawks v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Week 15 brings a red-hot Tampa Bay team to AT&T Stadium in the Cowboys’ only NFC South match-up of the year. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of their defensive personnel.

Defensive Line

The headliner of this group is undoubtedly defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a four-time Pro Bowler and 2013 First Team All-Pro, who is arguably having his best season in 2016. On the year McCoy has 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four pass deflections; excellent statistical production for a player at his position, but his impact goes way beyond the stats. Sometimes interior pass-rushers struggle against the run as they look to shoot gaps and get upfield quickly, but that isn’t the case with McCoy who does a great job of collapsing the interior of offensive lines with power in the running game. He is certainly explosive as a pass-rusher, but he is also able to bull-rush guards and centers into the lap of quarterbacks. McCoy has consistently been one of the top players at his position in the league but it isn’t a stretch to say that he has been the best defensive tackle in the league in 2016.

The starter next to McCoy is Clinton McDonald, a former Seahawk who joined Tampa Bay in 2014. In Seattle McDonald was a valuable rotational piece, although since joining the Bucs he has entrenched himself as the starter next to McCoy. He is more of a 1-technique tackle that focuses on the run, but he can also provide some pass-rush, evidenced by the 2.5 sacks that he has on the year. He also produced 10.5 sacks over the 2013 and 2014 seasons combined, the latter being his final year with Seattle and the former being his first in Tampa Bay.

At defensive end the Bucs employ a rotation with a few faces that should be familiar to Cowboys fans. Most notable is the rookie second-round pick out of Eastern Kentucky, by way of Ohio St., Noah Spence. Spence is an explosive presence off the edge that many Cowboys fans thought was a possibility with the 34th-overall pick that ended up being Jaylon Smith. On the year Spence has 5.5 sacks, to go along with three forced fumbles, and he has more than exceeded expectations as a rookie. The starter opposite Spence is Robert Ayers, Jr., a veteran journeyman who spent the last two seasons with the Giants. In his time in New York Ayers put up an impressive 14.5 sacks in just 24 games, and so far with the Bucs he has 5.5 sacks in just nine games, including 4.5 over the last five games. Ayers isn’t a particularly explosive pass-rusher at 6-3, 275 lbs., but he does a good job of playing with power and technique, while also setting the edge in the run game. He is also capable of rushing from the interior.

Behind Spence and Ayers is William Gholston, a fourth-round pick in 2013 who is a versatile rotational piece for the Bucs. At 6-6, 281 ibs. he has great length and is able to rotate at both end and tackle. The other rotational defensive end is Ryan Russell, a fifth-round pick for the Cowboys who many thought could potentially be a breakout candidate during training camp. Russell was surprisingly cut during the preseason but he has found a home in Tampa Bay and has even managed a sack in just five games, which is more than you can say for his time with the Cowboys. Former fourth-round pick Akeem Spence rounds out the depth chart but his playing time has significantly decreased over the last month.

Overall, this is a group with one obvious stud in McCoy, a very promising rookie in Spence, and several quality, versatile pieces that can disrupt both the run and pass game in Ayers, Gholston, and McDonald. Along with the linebackers, the front seven is the strength of the entire team.

Linebacker

Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander may be the best linebacker duo that most fans have never heard of. David made the Pro Bowl last season and was First Team All-Pro in 2013, although amazingly he didn’t even make the Pro Bowl that year, which is an indication of how under the radar he is as far as publicity and notoriety goes around the league. Alexander on the other hand is only in his second year in the league, so most haven’t gotten a chance to see him play yet. With that said, these two are both difference making, true three-down linebackers who are explosive blitzers, powerful against the run and athletic enough to cover tight ends and running backs.

Since being drafted in 2012 David has tallied at least 139 tackles each season, to go along with 13 sacks, 10 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles and 36 pass deflections. Those are truly amazing numbers, and if he was playing in a bigger market it’s likely that he’d be a multiple-time Pro Bowler and First Team All-Pro at this point. Meanwhile, in just his second season Alexander has put up six sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, and 13 pass deflections, to go along with nearly 100 tackles in his rookie season and over 100 so far in 2016 with three games to go.

Daryl Smith, a 34-year-old 13-year veteran, starts in base packages but he generally plays less than half the team’s snaps as he comes off the field in nickel and dime. David and Alexander almost never leave the field though, with both playing over 95% of the team’s snaps on the year, and they are right there with Luke Kuechly/Thomas Davis and Bobby Wagner/K.J. Wright as one of the absolute best linebacker duos in the league.

This is what Cowboys fans hope a potential Sean Lee/Jaylon Smith duo can become in the next year or two.

Defensive Backs

The starters at cornerback are veteran journeyman Brent Grimes and rookie Vernon Hargreaves III, the 11th pick in the 2016 draft. Despite making the Pro Bowl in 2013, 2014, and 2015 with the Dolphins, Grimes was released in the offseason in order to save cap room, and also due to a curious set of circumstances involving his wife’s comments on Twitter. Whatever the case may be, Grimes has been a steal for Tampa Bay, and despite being listed at an undersized 5-10, 185 lbs., he does an excellent job of making plays on the ball. In his three seasons in Miami Grimes had 13 interceptions, along with an impressive 43 pass deflections, while in his first season in Tampa Bay he has three interceptions and 17 pass deflections. He can be taken advantage of by receivers with size though, so that is something to look out for if he is matched up with Dez.

Despite struggling early in the year Hargreaves has improved by leaps and bounds as the year has gone on, and even registered his first career interception last week against the Saints. He is the entrenched starter and has shown great versatility by lining up both outside in base packages and inside in the nickel while their normal slot corner, Jude Adjei-Barimah, was suspended for four games. Adjei-Barimah will miss Sunday’s game and will be replaced by a combination of veteran Alterraun Verner and rookie Javien Elliott. This should be an area the Cowboys look to take an advantage of whether Verner or Elliott is on the field.

At safety the starters are Bradley McDougald and Chris Conte, although with Conte recently missing time he has been replaced by Keith Tandy, who is primarily a special teams player. McDougald is the lynchpin of the group, and the best safety on the roster as he is generally responsible for playing the deep, single-high, free safety role, while Conte and Tandy play closer to the line of scrimmage. With Conte out, Tandy has thoroughly impressed with two interceptions and four pass deflections in just two games. Conte may return this week but it’s no guarantee that he retains his starting job when he does.

Despite not necessarily being a star-studded unit, this group has been excellent over the past month or so, especially in terms of creating turnovers, with nine interceptions since the start of November, not to mention a pass deflection from Hargreaves against the Chargers that resulted in a pick-six from Lavonte David. My inclination is to say that there should be areas where the Cowboys can take advantage considering the fact that Grimes is on the downside of his career, Hargreaves and Elliott are rookies, and Tandy is a special-teamer with barely any starting experience, but this group has been hot lately, ranking as one of the best pass defenses in the league over the last month or so and playing with great confidence.

Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:

  • Below average run defense
  • Edge-rushing threats are strong but not elite, Spence looks like he will develop into an elite pass-rusher but he is still a rookie
  • ·The secondary theoretically has some spots that can be taken advantage of but the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts and they’ve done an excellent job of playing as a cohesive unit since the beginning of November

What The Cowboys Must Fear:

  • Elite linebacker duo with great versatility
  • McCoy is capable of single-handedly wrecking an offensive game plan
  • Deep defensive line with six players capable of starting
  • Opportunistic secondary that has been excellent over the last month