The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the practice field at One Buccaneer Place Tuesday to begin preparing for their first opponent of the 2009 regular season – the Dallas Cowboys.
The Bucs actually began preparing for the Cowboys roughly two weeks ago as the preseason was nearing an end. Tampa Bay could use the extra work, evidenced by the fact that the Bucs are just 3-8 all-time in the regular season vs. the Cowboys.
The Bucs and Cowboys produced 9-7 season, but both teams missed the playoffs. With head coach Raheem Morris now in charge in Tampa Bay, many view the Bucs as a rebuilding team. Dallas' expectations, however, still are high.
That's because the Cowboys have a roster littered with talent on both sides of the ball. It starts with Dallas' defense, which notched a league-high 58 sacks. Twenty of those takedowns were recorded by Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
"He's definitely a game changer," Bucs center Jeff Faine said of Ware. "He's a guy that can disrupt a game if you let him. This is a good challenge for our team. It's not just on one guy. That's the way you have to attack guys like this. It's a good challenge."
Dallas' defense deploys a 3-4 defense, which Tampa Bay faced vs. Miami in the third game of the preseason. However, Faine cautioned that the game vs. the Dolphins won't really help the Bucs much in terms of preparing for the Cowboys.
"Not much," Faine said of what Miami and Dallas' defenses had in common. "Those are two different types of 3-4 defenses. Miami plays more of a traditional 3-4 with three big guys up front that are trying to stalemate the line and let everyone else make the plays. With Dallas, they have a 3-4 that tries to have everybody make plays. Assignment wise, it's kind of the same, but those are two totally different schemes."
On the offensive side of the ball, the Cowboys are led by their ground game, which features Mario Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. The Cowboys ranked 21st in rushing offense last year, but the Bucs believe that statistic is very misleading.
"Those guys are powerful and they run with authority," said Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes, who is making the first start of his pro career Sunday. "We have to gang tackle them. They have great backs, and Marion Barber is going to be a problem if we don't stop him."
A potent ground game will allow Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to move the ball effectively through the air, which the Bucs want to avoid even though controversial wide receiver Terrell Owens is no longer in Dallas and now plays in Buffalo. Romo still has dangerous targets in the passing game, including WR Roy Wililams and tight end Jason Whitten.
Tampa Bay recorded just 29 sacks in 2009. Jim Bates was hired as defensive coordinator to help the Bucs improve in that department, but getting after Romo won't be easy, evidenced by the fact that he was sacked just 20 times last year. Bates suggested the team had a plan to pressure Romo on Sunday.
"We'll get after him," Bates said of Romo. "We have to find a way to get after him. We won't just sit back and let him have a comfort zone because if you let Romo have a comfort zone he'll eat you up. We can't have that."
Romo completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 3,448 yards and tossed 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Tampa Bay is facing Dallas for the second time since 2006. Both games ended with losses, which last year's contest be decided by a score of 13-9.
Last year, the Cowboys were without Romo, who was sidelined due to injury and replaced by Brad Johnson, who is no longer in the league. On Thanksgiving Day in 2006, Romo torched Tampa Bay's defense for five touchdowns en route to a 38-10 win.
"He's got a lot of confidence, but if you're the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, you should have a little swagger," said Hovan. "Tony has made some big plays when he's had to and he's made a name for himself in this league.
"It's different because Brad [Johnson] isn't as mobile as Tony. Romo is able to take a broken play and turn it into something. Brad pretty much sat in the pocket and threw it. Tony is younger and has livelier legs. But both guys depend on the running game. If you let that get going things are going to get really uncomfortable. I think they passed 65 percent of the plays last year, instead of going 50-50 the year before. Their offense is predicated on running the ball and giving it to monster (Marion Barber)."
Even though the Bucs are entering their first season in new defensive coordinator Jim Bates' scheme, Hovan believes the players that have faced the Cowboys as members of the Bucs over the past few seasons will benefit in terms of this week's preparation for Dallas.
"We've played them two out of the past three years," said Hovan. "It's the same scheme, a lot of the same personnel and they've juiced it up a little bit. But [offensive coordinator] Jason Garrett is pretty much running his bread and butter of power football. Before they tried to get the ball to T.O. Now they are going to get it to [wide receiver] Roy [Williams]."
Many pundits believe the Cowboys are a Super Bowl contender. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, is viewed by man as a team competing for the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
The Bucs are a confident team, and they are hoping to change some opinions of the people outside One Buc Place with a big win over the Cowboys on Sunday.
"It's not just about me proving something, it's about all of these guys understanding where we stand in the eyes of other people," said Bucs WR Antonio Bryant. "We're aiming towards changing a lot of these opinions that say we're not going to win a lot of games.
"They're a great team. The type of rank they have amongst the league in terms of how people view them – they're always going to be contenders. It's a great opportunity for us, a group of a bunch of nobodies in the fans' eyes, to go up against great competition and do what we're supposed to do, which is win. Then maybe people will start saying other things. I like playing the top dog. I like being the underdog. I have no problems with that."
Tampa Bay owns the fifth-hardest schedule in the NFL in 2009. A win over the Cowboys, who were 3-5 on the road last year, could go a long way in helping to giving a young Bucs team the confidence it will need to earn some wins in 2009.
"This is where you set the tone," said Bucs WR Michael Clayton. "It's the season opener. They've gotten the best of us two times in their place, and now they have to come here. We have a hell of a schedule this year. It's packed with a lot of great players and great teams. Every opportunity we get to beat a good team it's going to be a stepping stone to lead us into the post-season."
The skeptics aren't expecting the Buccaneers to have much success in Morris' first year as Tampa Bay's head coach. In order to prove the doubters wrong and take the league by surprise, the Bucs must change the minds of many by performing on the football field. It all starts with Dallas.
"It would be a great statement," said Hovan. "It's the first game of the year and we're bringing a formidable NFC East opponent down into our place. It's always great to start off with a win, but we have to go out there Sunday and do it."