Poor Dak Prescott. In his first game back from a catastrophic ankle injury and a shoulder strain, the Cowboys quarterback will have to carry this team. Throw in the fact that the Buccaneers boast one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, and with Zack Martin to miss due to COVID, Prescott may be in for a long night.
Dak’s Comeback Player of the Year campaign has to start somewhere. At the very least, this should be a game where we all gain clarity about the true potential of this roster. Maybe the Cowboys even shock football fans across the country and start the season with a win.
In this series, we’ll be using analytics to project the outcome of the upcoming Cowboys’ game. This will be based on formulas created by sports analysts that predict the final score and the likelihood of a given team to win. With that being said, what will week one look like for the Cowboys?
The Cowboys Offense
Dak could set the record for most passing attempts in an NFL game against the Buccaneers. This might be slightly hyperbolic, but with Ezekiel Elliott likely being contained, the game has to be won through the air.
We can use the 2020 Buccaneers statistics as a good indication of their likely performance in week one, given that they are returning all 22 starters.
With one of the best defenses in the league, the Buccaneers are led by their front seven. Last season Tampa Bay only allowed 81 rushing yards per game, placing them as the best run-stopping team. This is especially impressive considering the Colts, second in this metric, allowed ten more yards per game than the Buccaneers.
Teams did not even try to run against Tampa Bay. Last season, the Buccaneers opponents only ran 35% of the time, once again the lowest in the NFL. With players such as Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, Shaquil Barrett, and Lavonte David clogging the rushing lanes, the Cowboys will be throwing a lot.
We discussed how the Cowboys could fare in this game without Zack Martin on the latest episode of CowboysCast on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Listen above and make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any episodes. Apple users can subscribe right here and Spotify users can subscribe right here.
Zeke should rebound in 2021. However, a return to dominance will not start against the Buccaneers. The only problem with this is that Tampa Bay also has a superb secondary. As the second-best coverage team according to PFF, opposing quarterbacks only threw for 6.4 yards per attempt against the Buccaneers.
So what does this mean for the Cowboys? With Dallas losing Zack Martin and questions about Ezekiel Elliott’s ability to produce, the Cowboys have to win in the passing game. This is going to require Dallas’ three elite receivers to win in contested catches.
The key to success for the Cowboys is clear. With Martin gone, the Cowboys line is going to have to protect Prescott just long enough for him to find the receiver with the best chance to win in tight coverage. If Elliott can manage four yards an attempt on the ground in what will be a smaller workload, Dak will have to take advantage through the air.
The Cowboys Defense
This could get ugly. Bruce Arians is notorious for abandoning the run game early and allowing his quarterback to shoulder the burden. At least the Cowboys’ defense, which allowed almost 160 rushing yards per game last season, shouldn’t be too concerned with Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette.
But the Cowboys will have to worry about 44-year-old Tom Brady. As the 27th ranked secondary last season, this is a horrible matchup for Dallas. And with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown waiting on the other side of the ball, expectations are that the secondary won’t look particularly impressive.
Last year Dallas ranked just outside the top ten in terms of passing yards allowed. However, this was primarily due to teams running rampant on the Cowboys, with little need to put the ball in the air. For proof, the Cowboys were tied as the tenth worst team by passing yards per attempt.
With Brady and the Buccaneers receivers being significantly better against zone coverage, the Cowboys will have to play man-to-man. This means relying on the young secondary to make plays against one of the best receiving corps in football. To do so, Dallas will have to trust Randy Gregory, Demarcus Lawrence, and Micah Parsons to put pressure on Brady, making it easier for the secondary.
For an opening game win, Dallas needs to shut down the weaker running game of the Buccaneers early and make Brady throw. From there, the pass rush needs to disrupt the quarterback, or Brady will have a field day picking apart this defense.
If they can do that, there is a chance for the secondary to create turnovers and make explosive plays to give the offense decent field position. However, you should prepare for the worst against a Tom Brady-led offense.
Coaching and Special Teams
To put it simply, the Cowboys need to be perfect when it comes to coaching and their special teams. Since both the Dallas offense and defense have a difficult task on Thursday, they cannot afford to make it more difficult with errant mistakes.
The 53-penalty yards per game average that Dallas allowed last season needs to be limited. The Buccaneers are a well-coached team that will take advantage of any errors made by the Cowboys.
Turning the ball over just one time per game last year, the Buccaneers know how to protect the football. If Dallas’ fumbling problems continue into 2021, the game will get out of hand quickly.
Finally, Greg Zuerlein needs to hit every field goal. It will be to move the football on this Buccaneers’ defense, when the Cowboys get into a favorable field position, they need to produce points.
In Dak’s first game back, Dallas needs to prove that they can be competitive against a Super Bowl-caliber team. Fans are all hoping for a victory, but keeping it close against one of the best teams in the NFL would go a long way in demonstrating the potential of this team.
Whoever made the schedule is clearly not a fan of the Cowboys. However, it will be an exciting game. With Dak needing to carry this offense and a weak Tampa Bay rushing game, there will be plenty of passing in the season opener. Football is back, and it kicks off with a great matchup.
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 24%
Final Score: Tampa Bay 30, Dallas 20