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Error-prone Bucs present opportunity for Cowboys to regain confidence

It’s time for Dallas to stop beating themselves and start beating the opponent.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It’s another week and another opportunity for the Cowboys to clinch the NFC East. To have gone through all the adversity of a 3-5 start to a now 8-6 record with only one win needed to secure a division title, that’s quite the turnaround. The Cowboys have impressively rebounded into a potential contender but that doesn’t mean they don’t still have plenty of warts.

Offensively, they have played much better but still have struggles in areas that could eventually break some hearts in the playoffs. The Cowboys defense has been outstanding for most of the season but even they break down in games from carrying a hit-or-miss offense. Special teams has been a disappointment with no threat in the return game often forcing the offense to drive the whole field. There are also concerns about inconsistency with their kicker. Yet, here we stand, with the Cowboys practically a lock for the playoffs hosting a 5-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers team.

Statistical analysis will show that this just may be the perfect opponent for a Cowboys team needing to regain their swagger in time for a playoff push. That is, if the Cowboys can seize this opportunity against such a fallible foe and capitalize on favorable advantages. This late into the season, there isn’t much to figure out, you are what your numbers say you are.

Bucs live & die by big-play ability in passing game

Tampa Bay’s offense is fourth in total yards and are the top passing offense in the NFL. With a receiving corps of guys like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Adam Humphries, their quarterbacks will fearlessly heave the ball downfield. In the past few games, they have missed DeSean Jackson’s speed but he returns just in time to play his old rival from the NFC East. This Tampa Bay offense is predicated on explosive plays, only the Chiefs and Rams have more 20+ yard plays than these Buccaneers:

Offense 20+ Yd Plays Avg. Gain By Pass By Rush TDs
Buccaneers 67 31.39 62 5 11
Rank 4th 9th 3rd 31st 11th

With that kind of offensive production, why hasn’t this team won more than five games? Well, it doesn’t help that they rank nearly dead last in almost every rushing category making the Bucs a one-dimensional offense. It’s been very hard for the Buccaneers to establish a running game when their defense keeps them behind in games.

Tampa Bay’s defense doesn’t do much defending

This Tampa offense averages each drive trailing by four points, that’s fourth-most in the league this season. Tampa Bay’s defense is literally giving up just as many explosive plays as the offense is producing:

Defense Opp. 20+ Yd Plays Avg. Gain By Pass By Rush Opp. TDs
Buccaneers 68 29.43 52 16 7
Rank 27th 11th 25th 29th 4th

The Bucs’ offense is in the hands of reckless quarterbacks

However, the truest killer for Tampa Bay has been their affinity for self-destruction on offense. No team has turned the ball over more this season than Tampa Bay and they also have the fourth-most penalties on offense:

Offense # of Drives Turnovers TO % Score % INTs FUM Penalties Pen. Yards
Buccaneers 156 32 20.50% 37.20% 25 7 105 873
Rank 8th 32nd 32nd 18th 32nd 17th 29th 24th

Tampa Bay averages over two turnovers per game and has twice as many turnovers as the Cowboys offense. 25 of the 32 turnovers have come from Tampa’s quarterbacks. Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick each have seven starts but rank in the Top-10 for interceptions thrown. All other passers throwing 10+ picks have at least four more starts than these two guys. Winston loves to take shots downfield but he is also one of the most reckless quarterbacks in the NFL. Since entering the league, Jameis Winston has the second-highest interception percentage, the highest mark belongs to Ryan Fitzpatrick.

It certainly is a great opportunity for this Cowboys defense but generating turnovers hasn’t come easy this season.

Defense Takeaways TO % INT FUM DEF. TD SC % /TO TD/TO % FG/TO %
Cowboys 16 11% 8 8 0 60% 33.30% 26.70%
Rank 19th 17th 24th 14th 32nd 12th 14th 13th

After just six takeaways in the first seven games, the Cowboys defense has 10 in the past seven games. If they are able to take advantage of a mistake-prone Bucs’ team, they need their offense to reward them for it. The Cowboys had a nice run a few games ago, scoring 20 of 28 potential points off turnovers in weeks 9-11. Since Thanksgiving, they have scored only 10 points on six opportunities. They can’t keep leaving so many points on the field each week, it’s time to make teams pay for turning it over.

Tampa’s defense allow opposing offenses to maintain balance and control

They shouldn’t have to put up with much resistance as the Buccaneers are by far the worst defense on the Cowboys’ schedule. They are giving up the third-most points per game at 28.8. This Tampa defense has allowed a league-high 50 touchdowns, that’s 21 more touchdowns than the Cowboys defense has allowed. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 72% of their passes for 258.5 yards, two touchdowns and a 111.1 passer rating per game against this defense. Step right up, Dak Prescott, who prior to last week’s loss was completing 73% of his passes, second-most in the league.

Though Tampa Bay ranks 28th in pass defense, they do a decent job at getting to the quarterback, ranking 13th with 36 sacks. Whether it has been protection issues, injuries, or just poor timing on the quarterback’s part, the Cowboys have allowed 51 sacks. The Cowboys only played one game this season where they didn’t allow a single sack and they have averaged almost four sacks per game since.

One way the Cowboys can help slow down Tampa’s pass rush is by running the football. The Buccaneers defense has had major problems stopping opposing rushing attacks, allowing 100-yards or more in ten games this season. Just last week against the Ravens, Tampa was gashed for 242 rushing yards. Gus Edwards and Ravens’ QB Lamar Jackson teamed up for 37 carries and 194 of those yards. Tampa Bay’s defense has allowed the third-most rushing touchdowns with 17.

There is a party in the Buccaneers’ end zone and everyone is invited

The Buccaneers defense isn’t stopping much of anything and just so happen to be the worst red zone defense. Tampa Bay is allowing touchdowns on a ridiculous 78.4% of opponent’s red zone opportunities. The Cowboys have been here before though facing the 27th, 30th, and 31st ranked red zone defenses. They combined for three red zone touchdowns scored against those teams. That’s why these red zone woes are completely self-manufactured, half of the Cowboys red zone touchdowns came against three Top-10 red zone defenses.

Though last week’s loss was just one loss, it was how poorly the Cowboys executed in every aspect of that game that raises doubts about their playoff potential. From top to bottom, the entire Cowboys organization needs a rebound. More importantly, they need to regain the swagger that fueled a five-game win-streak during the toughest stretch of their schedule. Outside of their 33-point week six victory over the Jaguars, the Cowboys’ average margin of victory is five points. It’s time for the Cowboys to build some momentum by exploiting a bad Buccaneers football team on their way to securing their second division title in three years.

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