After waiting for months, meaningful NFL football is finally back. The NFL’s 102nd season begins the only way it should: the reigning Super Bowl champion hosting America’s Team. Thursday night’s game will be stuffed with several juicy headlines.
How will the Buccaneers look after winning the Super Bowl? Can Tom Brady still defy Father Time? How does Dak Prescott play in his first game reps since his injury last year? How does this young, revamped Dallas defense do against a high-powered offense? With Zack Martin out, how much does that hurt the Cowboys?
All of this, and more will be answered shortly. Not surprisingly, the Cowboys are eight point underdogs in this one, although the first game of the season can always present some surprises. What do our writers expect?
When Tampa Bay has the ball
Make Tom Brady uncomfortable
Rookie defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa, who will be counted on quite a lot with injuries to Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill, summed things up perfectly last week when asked about the plan for stopping this Buccaneers offense, which finished last year third in offensive DVOA and returns every key player:
Cowboys rookie DL Osa Odighizuwa on Tom Brady’s weakness: “Not too mobile.”— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) September 2, 2021
“Get him off the spot, his passer rating goes down by a lot,” Osa tells us. “So our (DT) role is super important this week as far as getting after him, rushing our butts off.” pic.twitter.com/ca2GOHuyv4
It’s true that Brady can become erratic as a passer when he’s forced to move around, as that isn’t his strong suit. But one thing that is Brady’s strong suit is getting the ball out accurately before any pass rush gets to him. Last year, Brady had the ninth shortest time to throw, and his offensive line also finished third in the NFL in adjusted sack rate.
In other words, doing what Odighizuwa suggested won’t be easy. DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are forces to be reckoned with off the edges, but Dallas will need some stellar performances from their interior defensive linemen, as well as any blitzers (hint: Micah Parsons), to throw Brady off his rhythm.
When Dallas has the ball
Mitigate that front seven
The current word on Zack Martin is that he won’t play. With Connor McGovern lining up at right guard on Thursday, the Cowboys will have their hands full. Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is known for his exotic blitz packages, and last year he combined that with Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea to have the fifth-best pass rush win rate and second-best run stop win rate.
It goes without saying, but if the healthy Dak Prescott and slimmer Ezekiel Elliott don’t get much help from their offensive line, it’ll be a very long night. Dallas will have to mitigate that front seven as best they can on Thursday, and it’ll be a tall task even with Martin out there.
Now onto the predictions from your BTB writers...
I want to have hope. The first game of the season often surprises us. The Cowboys have their offensive weapons intact and it really looks like Dan Quinn has the defense headed in the right direction. But let’s be real. The Buccaneers are in better shape than any defending champion in league history with all 22 starters back, including the winningest QB ever. Zack Martin is out and La’el Collins is worrisome.
I’m looking for Dallas to put up a good fight, but fall short, 34-24
For the Cowboys to win this game they will have to play one of their cleanest games on defense. That means taking away Brady’s favorite targets in Mike Evans, Chris Goodwin, and Antonio Brown. If they can force this team to run the ball and dink and dunk, their linebacker’s speed should be able to take away or at least keep them in third and longs.
On offense the Cowboys will need to stay balanced and not force Dak Prescott to throw the ball like he was last season. Keeping them balanced will keep the Buccaneers guessing as to what they need to do to stop the Cowboys talented offense.
Prediction: Buccaneers 27, Cowboys 20
Even before the unfortunate Zack Martin news, this was going to be an extremely challenging game for the Cowboys. Tampa Bay is one of, if not the most talented team in the NFL. The defending champs return all 31 players who played 200 or more snaps on their championship team, something we have never seen be done before. I think Tampa Bay is going to be able to limit Ezekiel Elliott in the running game and put pressure on Dak Prescott all night long, making it hard for the Cowboys to generate any offensive flow.
I do however think the Cowboys’ defense, led by spark-plug linebacker Micah Parsons, will play much better than many believe. All in all, I think this turns out to be a pretty ugly game. Both offenses will struggle quite a bit before getting into a bit of a rhythm in the second half. I don’t think the Cowboys get blown out, but I just don’t see any way they beat the Buccaneers on the road without Zack Martin.
Give me the Buccaneers in a close one, 24-20
It’s been close to a calendar year since Dak Prescott last played in a meaningful game. To make matters worse, he spent the bulk of training camp nursing a strain in his throwing shoulder. That he should have some rust, be it his timing, pocket presence, or accuracy down the field should be expected.
That means Ezekiel Elliott is absolutely crucial to the Cowboys’ gameplan, but with Zack Martin suddenly out due to a positive COVID-19 test, the run game will also face a bit of an uphill battle. The defense, meanwhile, might be improved in 2021 but it’s doubtful it’ll be in top form in the opener, especially considering the talent it’ll be matching up against. Tampa jumps out early and a late Cowboys charge makes this one a one-score game in the end.
27-20 Tampa Bay
This is a worst-case scenario matchup for Dak Prescott to return from injury. The dominant defensive line for the Buccaneers is going to make it difficult for the Cowboys to establish the run, meaning Prescott will have to shoulder the burden. The Cowboys’ receivers have to prove they are the better pass-catching corps, winning in contested catches against the equally disruptive Tampa Bay secondary.
However, the true concern comes with Dallas’ defensive backs. The Cowboys should be able to contain Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, but the 44-year-old Tom Brady can still pick apart a defense. If Dallas’ pass rush is not able to make it difficult for Brady, the Buccaneers will be able to move the ball with ease. If the Cowboys can prove they still have the potential of being an elite team by making it competitive with the Super Bowl champions, it should be taken as a minor victory. This is a bad matchup, but just the first of seventeen games for the Cowboys. So do not panic if it looks bad at times.
Final Score: Tampa Bay 30, Dallas 20
Ever since the schedule has been released the Cowboys knew they had a tough week one opponent. That task got much harder with the loss of Zack Martin to Covid-19 protocols. Although Martin will be missed and losing your best player is certainly never easy, they have an adequate replacement in Connor McGovern that is ready to seize this opportunity and provide quality snaps in Martins absence. Ultimately Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense have more than enough weapons to allow for them to function properly and I expect them to get said playmakers the ball early and often.
This game will not be easy and I anticipate it being close and down to the wire like a lot of Cowboys games routinely are. The defense will be tested, however, they find a way to bend but don’t break and keep Tom Brady and their potent offensive attack from blowing this game out of reach. I anticipate Prescott coming out slow early and as a result I see Kellen Moore leaning on a fresh and motivated Ezekiel Elliott as they wait for Dak to find his rhythm. In the end Dak plays well enough to orchestrate a late game field goal to seal a week one win against the defending Super Bowl champs and fly out of Tampa Bay 1-0.
Dallas Cowboys 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24
I would’ve felt much better about the Dallas Cowboys chances had Zack Martin been in the lineup. With him out due to COVID, and Connor McGovern set to step in as his replacement, I’m a little worried about Dak Prescott and his surgically repaired ankle. McGovern is nowhere near the caliber of player the Cowboys are losing in Martin and that’s a huge blow to the interior of the offensive line.
Add that to the fact they are also starting Tyler Biadasz, a second-year player and fourth-round pick last year, and that’s a lot of youth/inexperience trying to keep the pocket clean for No. 4. These two youngsters will have their hands full trying to slow down Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea. If they can’t anchor down and hold the point of attack the Bucs DTs could destroy the Cowboys ability to both run and pass the ball. Because of that I’m predicting a Week 1 loss for the Dallas Cowboys.
Buccaneers win 34-27
Yikes. Tampa Bay returns everybody, they have Tom Brady, and the Cowboys will be without Zack Martin. Not good.
Making matters worse is the injury almost no one talks about anymore. Neville Gallimore will be out of the game. To beat Brady, you really need to create pressure up the middle of the line. That’s where Gallimore would have come in handy. Without him the Cowboys will have to gamble more to get to Brady. With suspect corners in the Cowboys secondary, that could be disastrous. The Cowboys offense will do its part and keep the Cowboys in striking distance, but ultimately Brady will wear the Cowboys defense out.
Bucs 31 - Cowboys 27
Starting out on the road against a Super Bowl champ with an unprecedented level of continuity from the year before is just about the hardest first game scenario I could think of. Then you add missing Zack Martin, and the neck stinger La’el Collins has been having, on top of some likely rust for Dak Prescott after so much time between this and his last game and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
This Buccaneers team was unstoppable when they started clicking towards the end of last year. Now, they have the confidence from their Super Bowl run, a full offseason with no real changes in personnel, and come into this one fresh and at home. Even if the Cowboys were a great team, I don’t think they could pull this one off, and I don’t think they’re a great team - yet.
Buccaneers win 38-25