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OPPONENT: Dallas Cowboys
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
WHERE THE COWBOYS STAND: The Cowboys are 0-0 and tied for first place in the NFC East division.
COWBOYS HEAD COACH: Wade Phillips
COWBOYS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jason Garrett
COWBOYS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Brian Stewart
COWBOYS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Bruce Read
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE (2008)
OVERALL: 14th (341 ypg)
RUSHING: 15th (115 ypg)
PASSING: 11th (226 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE (2008)
OVERALL: 9th (306 ypg)
RUSHING: 19th (118 ypg)
PASSING: 4th (187 ypg)
DALLAS COWBOYS OFFENSE (2008)
OVERALL: 13th (344 ypg)
RUSHING: 21st (108 ypg)
PASSING: 9th (237 ypg)
DALLAS COWBOYS DEFENSE (2008)
OVERALL: 8th (294 ypg)
RUSHING: 12th (107 ypg)
PASSING: 5th (188 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW …
… Dallas has not won a playoff game since 1996?
SCOUTING THE COWBOYS
When Tampa Bay held Dallas' potent offense to just 13 points last season, it was an impressive feat for the Bucs defense. However, the Cowboys were without their starting quarterback, Tony Romo, in that 13-9 win over Tampa Bay.
The 6-foot-2, 224-pound Romo completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 3,448 yards and tossed 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 2008. His athleticism, accuracy and mobility contributed to the Cowboys having the 13th-ranked offense, and the offense converted 42.9 percent of its third down attempts. In addition to being able to throw the ball, Romo is quite mobile, which is an attribute the Bucs defense must prepare for.
Tampa Bay's run defense fell apart late last season, but this revamped unit, now led by new defensive coordinator Jim Bates, played exceptionally well vs. the run during the preseason.
In order to shut down Dallas' ground game, the Buccaneers must limit running backs Marion Barber and Felix Jones.
Barber (6-0, 225) is a physical back that could give Tampa Bay's front seven some fits. Despite playing through an assortment of injuries, Barber carried the ball 238 times for 885 yards (3.7 avg.) and seven touchdowns last season. He is also dangerous in the passing game, evidenced by his 52 receptions for 417 yards and two scores. The Bucs must tackle Barber cleanly and account for him on screen passes.
Jones (6-0, 212), a former first-round pick, is the faster of the two backs. He received a limited number of carries and finished the season on injured reserve last year, but made the most of his touches, rushing 30 times for 266 yards (8.9 avg.) and three touchdowns.
In addition to Barber, Jones and RB Tashard Choice, who is a fairly balanced player, the Cowboys have one of the best lead-blocking fullbacks in the NFL in third-year player Deon Anderson (5-10, 245).
Romo's primary target in the passing game is Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, who caught a team-high 81 passes for 952 yards and four touchdowns last season. Witten is one of the league's most balanced tight ends, which means Bucs linebackers Quincy Black and Geno Hayes, along with strong safety Jermaine Phillips, will have to account for Witten in both the running and passing games. That's a tall order for Black and Hayes since neither player has started an NFL game before.
With controversial wide receiver Terrell Owens released and now in Buffalo, the Cowboys have a few question marks at the wide receiver position.
Dallas made a mid-season trade with Detroit that sent WR Roy Williams to the Cowboys last year, and now the former first-round pick must deliver. Williams (6-3, 220) has good size, but has underachieved in the NFL. He caught just 19 passes for 198 yards and one score with the Cowboys last year. Bucs fans will recall that Williams' only TD as a Cowboy came in the game vs. Tampa Bay. He will be matched up with Bucs five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber. The Cowboys likely will test the 34-year-old cornerback early to see how he's adjusted to Bates' bump-and-run scheme. Barber, who led the team with four interceptions last year, will need to capitalize on those opportunities by creating some turnovers. Barber must excel in press coverage, especially with free safety Tanard Jackson suspended for the first four games of the year for violation of the league's substance abuse policy.
Starting opposite of Williams is WR Patrick Crayton, who is a fairly reliable target in Jason Garrett's offense. Crayton (6-0, 203) hauled in 39 passes for 550 yards and four touchdowns in 2008. He will be matched up with Bucs second-year CB Aqib Talib, whose fate has yet to be decided after his arrest during the preseason. We do know that Talib will play in Sunday's contest, which is good news for the Bucs defense.
If the Cowboys deploy three-receiver sets, they will feature Sam Hurd (6-2, 205) and Miles Austin (6-3, 216), which would call for second-year CB Elbert Mack to come on the field. However, Dallas likely will use more two-tight end sets, which would feature Witten and second-year TE Marcellus Bennett, a former second-round pick that hauled in four touchdowns as a rookie and has impressive athleticism.
One of the reasons why the Bucs hired Jim Bates as defensive coordinator is because they believe his system will help the team improve its pass rush, which notched just 29 sacks last season. Dallas will be good test out of the gate.
Despite throwing the ball 450 times, Romo was sacked just 20 times in 2008. While his mobility certainly played a role in those limited number of sacks, Dallas' offensive line deserves credit as well.
Dallas' O-line is littered with maulers and talent. Right guard Leonard Davis (6-6, 353) has made two straight Pro Bowls and will be a load to handle for Bucs defensive tackle Ryan Sims and rookie DT Roy Miller, who will be worked in to the rotation.
Cowboys left guard Kyle Kosier (6-5, 305) is coming off a fractured foot from last year. He will work with Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode (6-4, 318) to double team Bucs DT Chris Hovan and Miller.
Sims and Hovan are charged with the difficult task of taking on those big blockers in an effort to free up defensive ends Gaines Adams and Jimmy Wilkerson, who will be matched up with left tackle Flozell Adams (6-7, 338) and right tackle Marc Colombo (6-8, 318), respectively. Although he has not lived up to expectations as a top five draft pick, Gaines Adams notched two of his 6.5 sacks vs. Flozell Adams last year, but those takedowns came vs. Romo's backup, Brad Johnson.
Tampa Bay's revamped offense faced a 3-4 defensive scheme vs. Miami in the preseason. The Bucs didn't fare particularly well, failing to score a touchdown in that contest. However, the Bucs are hoping to reap the benefits of that experience vs. Dallas, which also deploys a 3-4 system under head coach Wade Phillips.
Dallas' front line features defensive ends Igor Olshansky (6-6, 309) and Marcus Spears (6-4, 315). Neither player is considered a playmaker. That title is carried by nose tackle Jay Ratliff (6-4, 302), who notched 7.5 sacks en route to making the Pro Bowl in 2008.
Not only will he have his hands full with Ratliff, Bucs center Jeff Faine, who is arguably Tampa Bay's best O-lineman even though guard Davin Joseph made the Pro Bowl last year, will be charged with the difficult task of helping veteran quarterback Byron Leftwich make line calls vs. Dallas' 3-4 defense, which will use its linebackers to put pressure on Leftwich and defend the run.
This might be the most talented unit on Dallas' team. It certainly is the one unit Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson should fear most. Dallas led the league in sacks with a whopping 58 last year, and the linebackers played an integral role in that success.
Weakside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (6-4, 262) made a serious push at Michael Strahan's single-season sack record in 2008, notching a league-high 20 sacks. In addition, Ware notched six forced fumbles. He will look to build on that success vs. Bucs left tackle Donald Penn, who excels in pass protection and actually performed quite well vs. Dallas last year.
Inside linebacker Bradi James led the Cowboys in tackles for the fourth straight season in 2008. He also contributed eight sacks, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed. James is a solid player.
Although he's no longer in his prime, OLB Keith Brooking is a starter in this group and a player that is quite familiar with Phillips' 3-4 scheme and Tampa Bay from his playing days with Atlanta. He has 17 career sacks and 12 career interceptions.
Although they likely will keep tight ends Kellen Winslow and Jerramy Stevens in to help run block and pass protect, the one player Tampa Bay could attempt to get Winslow in some one-on-one matchups with is SLB Anthony Spencer, a 2007 first-round pick that replaces veteran Greg Ellis. Spencer is talented, but inexperienced, which could help the Bucs in the passing game.
Although Tampa Bay has implanted a new zone blocking scheme, this team's starting offensive line is familiar with the 3-4 front it will face vs. Dallas. Unfortunately, Faine, Joseph, Penn, left guard Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood did not have great success vs. the Cowboys, who allowed opponents to convert just 35.6 percent of their third downs in 2008. The Bucs, who rushed for just 49 yards vs. the Cowboys in their meeting last year, will need to establish the running game early and often, which will be led by Cadillac Williams, Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham. Two of those three players didn't play in Tampa Bay's game vs. Dallas last year.
The Cowboys made some significant changes to their secondary during the offseason, parting ways with CB Anthony Henry and S Roy Williams.
Dallas' best weapon here is CB Terrence Newman, a former first-round pick that led the team with four interceptions and 11 passes defensed despite missing six games due to a hernia in 2008. Newman will be matched up with Bucs WR Antonio Bryant, who missed all of preseason while recovering from knee surgery, but is looking forward to going against his former team. The Bucs offense is designed to take some shots downfield off play-action, and that's what Leftwich will attempt to do with Gerald Sensabaugh, who had 24 career starts with Jacksonville, starting at strong safety.
Cowboys second-year CB Mike Jenkins had a somewhat disappointing rookie year. The former first-round pick had just one interception. Jenkins will cover Bucs WR Michael Clayton, who is coming off a nagging hamstring injury. If completely healthy, Clayton could have an advantage here, but Leftwich will have to be careful throwing him the ball since Cowboys FS Ken Hamlin will be around to help in coverage. Hamlin, a former Pro Bowler, is coming off a sub-par year where he notched just one interception, but has 14 career picks.
Leftwich cannot afford to turn the ball over in this game. One of the reasons why the Cowboys underachieved with a 9-7 record last year was because they had a minus-11 turnover ratio. The Bucs must win the turnover battle Sunday.
The Bucs dedicated a significant amount of training camp and practice time to special teams, which could come in handy vs. the Cowboys.
Dallas kickoff return man Felix Jones is a shifty and speedy player. He averaged 27.1 yards per return last year, including a 98-yarder for a touchdown. Bucs kicker Mike Nugent must place his kickoffs deep in the end zone in order to limit Jones' return opportunities.
Cowboys punt returner Patrick Crayton is a player the Bucs must account for as well. He averaged 9.3 yards per punt return in 2008. His longest return went for 33 yards. New Bucs P Dirk Johnson needs to get good hang time on his punts in order to allow his teammates the time to get to Crayton.
Dallas kicker Nick Folk and punter Mat McBriar will be kicking to Clifton Smith, who earned a trip to the Pro Bowl by scoring two touchdowns as a rookie. Smith must establish solid field position for Tampa Bay's offense, which could have a difficult time sustaining long drives vs. Dallas' defense.
McBriar pinned five of his 24 punts inside the 20-yard line last year, and averaged 49 yards per attempt. Folk was extremely accurate in ‘08. He made 20-of-22 (90.9 percent) of his field goal attempts, including 2-of-2 from 50-plus yards out.
FLYNN'S FORECAST: Cowboys 24 Buccaneers 13