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Cowboys at Buccaneers game preview: Five things to watch

Opening night is just days away. Here are five things you should be looking for as the Cowboys take on the Buccaneers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Dallas Cowboys Khampha Bouaphanh/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Week one is finally upon us. Every year it seems like the offseason crawls by, and then we anxiously watch training camp practices and preseason games holding our breath to make sure the best players come out healthy and ready to go. The Cowboys are not without their lumps through the preseason, between dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak and injuries during the preseason, the Cowboys have not come into week one unscathed.

What’s important is almost all contributing players are ready and accounted for. Zack Martin will surely be missed week one, but that is just a reminder of the fact that games will be played with players missing.

Will all that being said, the Cowboys have their hands full right out of the gate as the look to get the season kicked off against Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions. Tamp Bay has impressively found a way to bring back all 22 starters for their attempt to repeat.

Here are five things to watch for this week:

1. How does Dak Prescott look with no preseason work?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Dak Prescott’s performance is vital to this team’s success, that’s well known and documented. As we look to put the ankle injury in the rear view, a new issue emerged and now many will be seeing how the shoulder injury responds to live action as well. By all accounts everything is good to go. From the ankle to the shoulder, Dak seems unfazed and unbothered heading into week one.

Prescott has not seen live action since the day he was carted off the field with the injury that ended his season last October. How will Dak respond to the live rush and the pace of a regular season game, both of which you cannot simulate in any scenario during training camp? It’s fair to think a bit of rust will be shown, but where the fate of this game will ultimately lie depends on what point does he find his rhythm and when does he begin to flow among this offense. If he can shake off the rust early enough and we see the same Dak we are accustomed to, the Cowboys have a chance to pull out the upset week one.

2. Can Connor McGovern hold up in Zack Martin’s absence?

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Cowboys were dealt another unforeseen challenge four days prior to kick off when Zack Martin was basically ruled out for testing positive for COVID-19. It’s never easy to lose arguably your best player, and it just emphasizes the importance of what we as a world are still dealing with, coupled with the old next man up mentality teams often adopt. Martin’s misfortune is an opportunity for Connor McGovern, and he has a chance to make a name for himself right out the gate in year three.

The level of play at right guard is expected to dip with the absence of All-Pro Martin, however what will be key is to see just how much of a drop will it be, and how much of an impact will it have on the offenses performance? If McGovern is able to go out there and function at a solid level, the Cowboys should be able to make plays and keep this game within arms reach enough to strike late. Easier said than done obviously, but the Cowboys feel good about the growth of McGovern, and the belief is many around the league feel that way as well as it was reported teams had contacted Dallas about his availability this past month. This will not be an easy task for Connor McGovern, but watching his play and how much of an effect Martin’s absence is, will certainly be something to watch for.

3. What will the linebacker rotation look like?

NFL: Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Many people are excited to see a young Micah Parsons unleashed in his first real game action in the NFL. The belief is he is a game-changer and the way the Cowboys are planning to use him in a multitude of different ways will certainly help the Cowboys defense be more disruptive and opportunistic with the football.

The question remains though, how will Dallas deploy this linebacker unit as a whole? Cowboys showed a couple different looks as they paired first year Cowboy Keanu Neal with Parsons, as well as having Leighton Vander Esch lined up next to his usual counterpart Jaylon Smith. Those four linebackers seem to be the main stable of linebackers to get the majority of the snaps, however, do the Cowboys incorporate Jabril Cox defensively at all, or will be relegated to special teams duties unless injury dictates need? We know who the main contributors will be, but how they are used and in what combination is what to look for.

4. Can this secondary hold up?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

There are certainly some new and young faces in the Cowboys secondary heading into this season, however, it will be the familiar faces we all know who will be starting and getting the bulk of the work against this very good Tampa Bay wide receiver unit. Look for Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis to get the starter looks at corner in week one.

Diggs is an ascending player and his potential is exciting. Seeing what he can do in year two is something all of a Cowboys nation will be keeping an eye on. However, the unit as a whole is much less inspiring. The team invested much draft capital to improve the secondary, but with Kelvin Joseph on injured reserve to start the year, and Nahshon Wright presumably CB5 at the moment, it doesn’t look like they will have much impact early on. All that means is we will be watching to see if Dan Quinn and staff can get inspired play from a unit that left many feeling uneasy last season. This unit needs to be on their A game or we could be in for a long night.

5. Are we about to see the new and improved Ezekiel Elliott?

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

You would be hard-pressed to see a Cowboy who looked to have a better offseason than Ezekiel Elliott. Zeke demonstrated a new level of focus as he locked in to prove last season was an exception and not the rule. Zeke said he has dropped down to his college weight and linked up with a new trainer that he believes will allow him to take his game to new heights.

Everything Zeke has done to prepare looks to have paid off. All reports out of camp was that Elliott looked faster, sharp, and focused. Getting the best version to Elliott this year would be a massive development for the Cowboys in 2021. The Cowboys have always been a better football team when they have been able to wear people down and control the clock with the running game. If the Cowboys have the Zeke of old in the backfield, this offensive unit becomes extremely difficult to stop. Zeke has had zero work in preseason games, so week one will be the first time we all get to see that new-found dedication in live action, and if it is good as we think it could be, the Cowboys are going to be scary offensively.

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