It is down to a handful of hours. After an offseason and training camp that have seen tremendous change as well as lots of crossed fingers about recoveries from injury, the Dallas Cowboys will debut their 2021 edition against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL Kickoff game tonight. It looks to be a tough way to start a season with so many uncertainties. Tampa Bay is playing in this one because they are the defending NFL champions, and they bring back all of their starters from the Super Bowl, including Tom Brady. Dallas gets to participate because they are the most reliable ratings draw in the league. As they might say on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other.
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As a result, the Cowboys are overwhelmingly the underdog in this one, with almost no one giving them any real chance of pulling off an upset. But the game is not determined by predictions or betting lines. It will be played out just like the other 271 games this season. To paraphrase another source of childlike wisdom, we are saying there’s a chance.
It is going to take a lot, however. Here are things that we need to see for Dallas to have any possibility of not starting the season 0-1.
Dak has to be back
Dak Prescott only completed four games before he suffered the gruesome ankle injury in the fifth. But in three of those completed games, he exceeded 400 yards passing (and over 500 once) while throwing eight touchdowns with three interceptions. To put things in proper context, he was trying to lead his team from behind in all of those contests and Kellen Moore had been forced to basically go all passes with his play-calling.
As a result of that injury, Prescott has not played in any kind of game since October 11th of last year. His ankle appears to be completely healthy, but a minor shoulder issue kept him from seeing any work in preseason or the scrimmage with the Los Angeles Rams. He has looked great in practice since being cleared for full participation with no pitch counts, but to keep this article rife with lifted phrases, we are talking about practice. Most worrisome, he has not taken a single hit of any kind in getting ready for this season.
He is going to get that first hit, and more, tonight. The Buccaneers defense, with Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vae, and Jason Pierre-Paul leading the way, are coming after him. As we will get to in a moment, Prescott has some issues in his pass protection. His mobility is going to be vital to extend plays and use his legs when necessary. It means that our hearts will be full of fear every time he drops back. Physically, everything seems to be fine for him. What we have to see is how he responds mentally to that pressure. Again, all signs are that he is still the same elusive player he always has been, willing to do what is necessary to keep drives alive. What we need now is to see that manifest as reality - and for him to get through this game healthy.
Again with the negative offensive line waves that must be countered
On paper, Dallas has a potent and possibly league-leading offense. But as well as that falling into the same category of having to be proven in live games as Prescott’s recovery, it also depends on the offensive line being in much better shape than it was last year. Injuries just devastated the line. Our Justin Morris detailed how the shadow of more line problems hangs over this team once again. They are not yet to the level of 2020 when they were forced to try 15 different line combinations, and nothing season-ending has happened already as it did before the first game of last year, but Zack Martin is not going to come flying in on an emergency transport to run out WWE style to take his place at right guard after clearing the COVID protocol at the last minute. Instead, Connor McGovern will have to start.
Cowboys RG Zack Martin won’t play Thursday evening at Buccaneers, source said. Team held out hope, willing to fly him to Tampa on private jet Thursday. But his recovery from COVID-19 hasn’t reached that stage. Week 2 game at Chargers a realistic target.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) September 8, 2021
Connor McGovern to start.
Martin is arguably the best guard in football, and no matter how well McGovern steps up, he is a downgrade against a defense that will exploit such things with malicious glee.
We also have to hold our breath about La’el Collins, who missed several of the practices leading up to this game with a neck stinger. He was full go the last couple, but the final one was the usual walkthrough. If he is not able to make it the entire game, Dallas will have to rely on either Ty Nsekhe or Terence Steele to fill in. Neither inspires overwhelming confidence.
As if that wasn’t enough, center Tyler Biadasz only started four games his rookie season. You can be sure Tampa Bay has a target on him to try and collapse that pocket. This offense will rise and fall with the fortunes of the offensive line, and while things are not a dismal as they were even in the first game of 2020, it ain’t that good right off the bat.
The run game needs to be efficient
It doesn’t need to be dominant. Certainly no time needs to be invested in establishing it. But to help keep the pass rush honest, the ground attack has to be credible. Ezekiel Elliott looks to be in great shape and hungry to rewrite his story after a disappointing performance last year. Tony Pollard is ready to be that dangerous change of pace back. But those offensive line issues are just as critical for the running game as for protecting the quarterback. And Martin’s absence looks to be a huge factor.
How important is Zack Martin? According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Cowboys averaged 4.5 yards per rush with him on the field last season and just 3.8 yards without him.— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) September 6, 2021
Dallas may need every bit of effort that Elliott and Pollard have to offer. If the run game is not a viable threat, the Bucs are likely to pin their ears back and come at Prescott on every down. Moore cannot keep trying to run the ball if they are not getting good yards per effort, but he can’t just go entirely to the pass against this defense. It is a dilemma, and in this case it may be mostly on the shoulders of the backs to find a solution.
Dan Quinn needs to earn every penny of his paycheck
Remember those three games of over 400 yards passing for Prescott last year? Well, the team only managed to go 1-2 despite his herculean efforts. Early turnovers played a role, but the biggest problem was a defense that bore a disturbing resemblance to wet toilet paper. Even the one win was on a miracle onside watermelon kick, and the Cowboys really had no right to escape that situation.
That has to stop. The biggest move the ownership and head coach made was to dump defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and hire the newly available Quinn after the very team that they beat in that miracle finish, the Atlanta Falcons, fired him as their head coach. Hopes rest on the idea that he is a much better coordinator than head man. All indications are that his players have fully bought into him. The defense certainly looked much better in practices so far, but we’ve discussed the perils of that already.
Quinn has the additional challenge of incorporating a ton of new blood into his defense. He is expected to start two rookies in linebacker Micah Parsons and defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa, plus free agent pickups DT Carlos Watkins and safety Demontae Kazee. LB Keanu Neal is another free agent who will be a de facto starter in the nickel. He has also had a great camp. However, he is converting from safety, and we have to hope that experiment is a success. Kazee is one more key player who suffered a season-ending injury in 2020, and while he has seen action this preseason, we will also be crossing our fingers he is fully ready to go.
Linebacking may be the crux
The defense has to be improved at all levels. They were porous against the run and gave up too many big passing plays. But the biggest issues were the linebackers, with Jaylon Smith having a generally bad year and Leighton Vander Esch hardly any better. Neal and Parsons, along with rookie Jabril Cox, were brought into the mix primarily as a response. Parsons has been everything you would want from a first-round pick, with his speed in particular inspiring a lot of hope. But he still is a rookie, and like Neal, really has to show the problems in the middle of the defense have been fixed. They may need a lot of help from the middle of the defensive line, which as has been mentioned has a lot of untested aspects. How the linebackers look will not only be an indication of how that unit has or has not improved, but will indirectly tell us if Hard Knocks star Aden Durde and Quinn have molded the line into something better. It isn’t just the run defense, either. Dallas needs better coverage in the middle of the field as well, and expect Brady to test the linebackers early and often.
Those are the biggest things we a looking for in the game tonight. There are plenty of others as well. Let us know what you are hoping for.