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OPPONENT: Dallas Cowboys
WHERE: Texas Stadium in Dallas, Texas
WHERE THE COWBOYS STAND: The Cowboys are 4-3 and in third 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 OVERALL: 8th (353 ypg) RUSHING: 8th (130 ypg) PASSING: 14th (222 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE OVERALL: 9th (293 ypg) RUSHING: 10th (92 ypg) PASSING: 14th (201 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW … … Tampa Bay is 1-8 all-time vs. Dallas on the road, including 0-2 in the playoffs?
SCOUTING THE COWBOYS
Quarterbacks The wheels appear to be falling off the wagon in Dallas, and much of the disarray centers around the quarterback position, where Tony Romo is nursing a broken pinkie on his throwing hand. Romo completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,689 yard and tossed 14 touchdowns and five interceptions before getting hurt vs. Arizona. He was initially thought to be out for several weeks, but head coach Wade Phillips has Romo listed as week-to-week, which means he could play vs. the Buccaneers. Romo's absence from this game could be huge for Tampa Bay since he completed nearly 76 percent of his passes for 306 yards and tossed five touchdowns en route to a 38-10 win over the Buccaneers on Thanksgiving Day in 2006.
If Romo, whose mobility and arm make Dallas' offense difficult to defend, can't go, backup QB Brad Johnson will start in his place. Johnson, who was part of Tampa Bay's Super Bowl XXXVII team, has completed just 50 percent of his passes and thrown one touchdown and three interceptions in Romo's place. Should Johnson, 40, start vs. the Buccaneers, expect a fairly conservative offensive game plan from the Cowboys.
Running Backs Should Johnson start at quarterback vs. Tampa Bay, Dallas likely will come out and pound the football with running back Marion Barber. He has used his combination of size and speed to rush for 540 yards (4.2 avg.) and five touchdowns this season. Barber is also a capable receiver, evidenced by his 26 receptions for 247 yards and two touchdowns. Barber likely will be a favorite target of Johnson's in the flat should he start vs. the Bucs, who must take the proper angles and wrap up Barber in the open field. Tampa Bay can't afford to allow Dallas to be in favorable down-and-distance situations on second and third down. The Cowboys are converting 52 percent of their third downs this season mainly because of Barber's ability to gain significant yardage on first and second down.
Running the ball vs. Tampa Bay's defense won't be easy for the Cowboys. The Bucs are allowing just 91 yards in that area each game. Dallas normally has a two-back attack, but rookie Felix Jones will miss this game with a hamstring injury. How significant is Jones' ailment and absence? He rushed for 266 yards (8.9 avg.) and three touchdowns before sustaining the injury. Jones' absence should allow the Bucs front four and linebackers, particularly Derrick Brooks and Barrett Ruud, to key in on Barber. Brooks and Barber need to not only tackle Barber, but they also need to swat at the football. Barber has two fumbles this season, which is one of the reasons why Dallas currently has a minus-six turnover ratio.
Receivers Tampa Bay's secondary has been outstanding over the past two weeks in wins over Carolina and Seattle. It will be challenged by Dallas' offense, which features some dangerous pass-catchers in tight end Jason Witten and wide receiver Terrell Owens.
Witten is an outstanding blocker and receiver. He might be the best all-around tight end in the NFL. He currently leads the Cowboys in receptions with 45 for 541 yards (12.0 avg.) and two touchdowns. Bucs linebackers Derrick Brooks and Cato June, and safety Jermaine Phillips will play an integral role in defending the flats and seams vs. Witten.
One of the reasons why Witten has been so productive in the passing game is because Owens has been drawing double coverage more often than not. Complicating matters if the fact that the Cowboys have not had an effective No. 2 receiver and Johnson no longer has the arm to stretch the field. As a result, Owens has 25 receptions for 398 yards (15.9 avg.) and five touchdowns. Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, who still is looking for his first interception of the season, is very familiar with Owens, who played with San Francisco and Philadelphia before landing in Dallas. The key matchup could come when the Cowboys are in nickel situations, which would force Barber into the slot and could put rookie CB Aqib Talib in charge of covering Owens, who is one of the most explosive playmakers in the NFL. Talib, however, leads the Bucs in interceptions with three picks.
The Cowboys feel they landed a capable No. 2 receiver in Roy Williams, who was traded from Detroit to Dallas last week. However, Williams, who is a former first-round draft pick and possession receiver, still is learning the Cowboys offense. While he will play vs. the Bucs, Williams' role likely will be limited. Patrick Crayton likely will serve as the No. 2 guy. He's caught 22 passes for 321 yards (14.6 avg.) and two touchdowns. Bucs CB Phillip Buchanon was thrown at more last week than he had been in several games combined. Buchanon responded to the challenge and will need to be on top of his game on Sunday.
Not only must they cover Dallas' receivers, Tampa Bay's defense will have to turn in one of its best efforts in terms of tackling since the Cowboys' receivers have a knack making defenders miss and are capable of earning yards after the catch. It will also be important for the Bucs front seven to limit Dallas' production via the running game so Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin can keep safeties Jermaine Phillips, Tanard Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli back in coverage.
Offensive Line The strength of Dallas' offensive line is its ability to run block, which helps explain why the Cowboys have a top 10 ground game. While Dallas has only allowed 10 sacks through seven games, this stat is a little deceiving as Romo has incredible mobility and pocket awareness. Should Johnson start vs. Tampa Bay, the Bucs defense should have some shots at the quarterback since the 40-year-old Johnson lacks mobility and is considered a statue in the pocket.
Bucs left end Gaines Adams' pressure has been decent, but he really needs to show up more in the sack department. He has two sacks this season and will face left tackle Flozell Adams, who is responsible for protecting the blindside of the quarterback. Adams could be the beneficiary of some protection breakdowns since Cowboys left guard Kyle Kosier will miss this game with a foot injury. He will be replaced by third-year player Cory Procter, who is undersized and inexperienced. Kosier likely will attempt to help Procter in pass protection.
Procter will also work with center Andre Gurode to double team Bucs nose tackles Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, who have been extremely disruptive and active in the trenches, especially vs. the run. That should leave Bucs under tackle Jovan Haye in some one-on-one matchups with right guard Leonard Davis, but Davis' 354-pound frame gives him a sizeable advantage over the 290-pound Haye, who still is looking for his first sack on the season. Jimmy Wilkerson will also work into the rotation, but he also has a 290-pound frame and could have difficulty holding up against Davis. Bucs left ends Kevin Carter and Greg White will be matched up with Cowboys right tackle Marc Colombo, who is a solid perimeter blocker and often times leads the way for Dallas' running game.
Defensive Line Injuries have also taken their toll on Dallas' defense, which has not been playing well. The team's defensive woes reportedly prompted head coach Wade Phillips to strip defensive coordinator Brian Stewart of his playcalling duties this week. Phillips will now be directly responsible for the play of Dallas' 3-4 defense, which uses its linebackers to confuse quarterbacks and record sacks.
Dallas left end Marcus Spears appears to be over a stomach virus he had last week. Spears is sackless on the season. Jay Ratliff likely will start at nose tackle due to Tank Johnson's nagging ankle injury, although Johnson could still play. Ratliff has three sacks and will face center Jeff Faine, who has been a major upgrade at the center position. Right end Chris Canty, who has one sack, will match up with Bucs left tackle Donald Penn, who has been playing extremely well in pass protection lately.
Linebackers This won't be the first time Tampa Bay's offense sees the 3-4 defensive scheme. The Bucs faced a version of the 3-4 defense in Denver a few weeks ago, but their offense did not fare particularly well in that game.
The Bucs offensive line, particularly Davin Joseph and Arron Sears, will be responsible for picking up the variety of blitzers that Dallas could deploy on any given play. Center Jeff Faine will also play a part, especially when it comes to pre-snap reads.
Right outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware currently leads Dallas' defense with nine sacks. The good news for the Bucs is they faced some heavy blitzing from Seattle ROLB Julian Peterson and had great success in terms of holding him off last week. Bucs running back Warrick Dunn played an integral role in picking up some blitzes, but he could miss Sunday's game with a pinched nerve. That would be a significant loss for the Bucs offense.
Right inside linebacker Zach Thomas leads the Cowboys defense in tackles and has one sack. Dallas LOLB Greg Ellis has notched three sacks and one pick. Left inside linebacker Bradie James also has a sack. This group of linebackers is dangerous from a pass rushing standpoint, but those blitzes leave the short-to-intermediate part of the field vulnerable vs. the passing game, which is where quarterback Jeff Garcia, Earnest Graham, Dunn and Tampa Bay's tight ends must capitalize on opportunities. Picking up blitzes could also be huge for Tampa Bay's running game, which is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and has scored five touchdowns behind Graham and Dunn.
Secondary Don't be surprised if Bucs head coach Jon Gruden goes with the hot hand in Dallas and starts Sunday's game with a heavy dose of passing vs. the Cowboys' banged up secondary. Garcia is coming off an impressive effort vs. the Seahawks – he completed 75 percent of his passes and threw for over 300 yards en route to a 20-10 win over Seattle.
Dallas cornerback Terrance Newman (sports hernia) and strong safety Roy Williams (broken arm) will miss Sunday's game due to their respective injuries. Newman will be replaced by rookie CB Mike Jenkins, a first-round pick out of USF. Jenkins will play opposite of CB Anthony Henry. While Henry has two sacks, both he and Jenkins still are looking for their first interceptions of the season. Bucs WR Antonio Bryant had a coming out party vs. Seattle last week, catching six passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. He has replaced Joey Galloway as the split-end receiver in Gruden's offense. There's a chance Galloway will return from a foot injury this week. If Galloway does return and possesses the speed he has showcased throughout the course of his career, he could have some favorable one-on-one matchups with Cowboys nickel CB Orlando Scandrick, who is playing in place of suspended CB Adam "Pacman" Jones.
The Bucs need Galloway to return to action since Ike Hilliard might not play due to a concussion he suffered last week. Bucs WR Michael Clayton likely will continue to start at flanker and his physical blocking style could come in handy in the running game. With Williams out for the year and S Courtney Brown playing in his place, Garcia could decide to attack Dallas' secondary early and often, especially since free safety Ken Hamlin is the only member of his unit that has an interception.
With the potential for this game to be a high-scoring affair, the Bucs offense must find ways to get the ball in the end zone more often than not. It will be critical for the Bucs offense to keep the chains moving, which won't be easy to do since the Cowboys are allowing opposing offenses to convert just 39 percent of their third downs this season.
Special Teams Like the Buccaneers, Dallas' return game is in disarray. Running back Felix Jones is out due to injury, which is huge since he's averaged 27.1 yards per kickoff return and scored a touchdown. The Cowboys have used Miles Austin as their kickoff return man. He's averaging a respectable 26.1 yards per return in Jones' place.
Cowboys punt returner Adam "Pacman" Jones is out due to a suspension. Jones was averaging 5.0 yards per return. His replacement, Patrick Crayton, is a capable returner, evidenced by his 33-yarder vs. St. Louis last Sunday. Tampa Bay's punt and kickoff return units struggled last week without wide receiver Maurice Stovall (hamstring) and fullback Byron Storer (injured reserve). The Bucs need to shore up those two areas as they simply cannot afford to allow the Cowboys potent offense to have short fields to work with.
Kicker Nick Folk has made 7-of-9 (77.8 percent) of his field goal tries. Bucs K Matt Bryant is 14-of-16 on the season.
Cowboys punter Matt McBrian is out for the year with a broken foot. He has been replaced by first-year P Sam Paulescu, who is averaging 42 yards per punt. Paulescu likely will be punting to someone other than Bucs rookie return man Dexter Jackson, who has struggled mightily through the first seven games. The Bucs could turn to Joey Galloway (foot) or Ike Hilliard (concussion) to return punts, but both players have been hurt. Michael Clayton is also a candidate to return kickoffs. There's also a chance the Bucs will activate proven return specialist Micheal Spurlock from the practice squad. FLYNN'S FORECAST: Buccaneers 24 Cowboys 20