Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, CeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup are a nightmare for any defense – even one that held Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs to nine points in their prior meaningful game. That challenge is exacerbated with a creative and adaptable play-caller like Kellen Moore. 

Todd Bowles’ defenses start by taking away the run. The Tampa Bay Bucs are no exception, and they’ve had the league’s best run defense the past two seasons. They did this by basing out of single-high safety coverages and loading the box. Further, with a deep and talented front seven, Bowles has loved dialing up creative blitzes. 

With Dallas tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins returning from season-ending injuries, guard Zack Martin out due to COVID protocols and Prescott coming back from a devastating ankle injury while recovering from a precarious shoulder injury, Moore faced a long list of constraints. 

In Tampa Bay’s 31-29 victory over Dallas in Week 1, the Cowboys offense came out with a patient game plan. Knowing that the run would likely be ineffective, Dallas dropped back 62 times and had only 18 rushing attempts. Moore even used Bowles’ commitment to stopping the run against him by frequently calling play action and RPOs (11 out of 15 RPOs were passes).

Moreover, to help the offensive line against the Bucs’ ferocious pass rush and to exploit soft coverage from the Bucs’ secondary, Prescott and Moore stayed committed to the quick passing game. From 2016 through 2020, Prescott averaged 8.3 air yards/attempt. In Week 1, that dropped to 6.5 air yards/attempt. 

Some speculated that Prescott’s arm was not at full strength. However, he still excelled by using his high football IQ. Prescott’s pre-snap recognition and quick post-snap processing allowed him to get the ball out of his hands fast. Even when the coverage was strong, he used his savvy to create opportunities.

On the play below, Prescott used his eyes and pump fake to move Carlton Davis off of Gallup’s hitch route. As soon as Davis moved, Prescott hit Gallup for a quick gain. 

Prescott also showed incredible poise under pressure. With the pocket collapsing on him, Prescott pump faked and fired a pass into the honey hole (the soft spot along the sideline between the cornerback and safety in a Cover 2 zone defense).

Stand Out Players

Three Buccaneers stood out on tape – two of them for the right reasons. 


NT Vita Vea:

Vea wreaked havoc against the pass despite recording zero sacks. It’s incredible how much attention he demands from the offensive line. Honestly, there’s not much more to be said – so, enjoy the three clips below of a big dude just being a big dude. 

CB Carlton Davis III:

With 10 targets, Davis was attacked more than any other Tampa Bay cornerback. However, he held up well and only conceded four receptions for 43 yards. In addition to three pass break-ups, Davis also made a game-changing interception. This is particularly impressive when considering who Dallas’ top three receivers are. 

In the clip below, Davis drove down hard on the speed out off of the Cowboys’ RPO. While it can be dangerous to play a speed out so aggressively (as it may lead to a double move), Davis knew that an out-and-up was unlikely as the offensive line would illegally move downfield.

Not So Good:

Sean Murphy-Bunting:

Murphy-Bunting only played 16 snaps Thursday night, but he was impossible to ignore. In his 13 snaps in pass coverage, SMB was targeted eight times. He gave up five receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown. His play resulted in an abysmal 25.7 PFF grade. 

The Buccaneers defense played a Cover 3 zone blitz on their first snap of the game with Murphy-Bunting was responsible for the deep third on his side of the field. The Cowboys called Hoss (hitch/seam) to SMB’s side. If played correctly, Murphy-Bunting would have passed off the hitch route to Lavonte David and dropped back to cover the inside fade. Instead, he took the hitch and gave up a big gain. Antoine Winfield, Jr. was visibly frustrated with SMB after this play. 

By the way, note how Prescott used his eyes post-snap to hold Winfield in the middle of the field.

Murphy-Bunting bit hard on the fake smoke route on the play that resulted in a touchdown. However, his play is at least partially understandable given how well the Cowboys set this play up. Earlier in the drive, Dallas used the same stack formation and hit the smoke route for an easy gain.

Bucs Defense’s 3 Most Important Plays

While every play should be considered when assessing each team’s game plan, it can also be interesting to analyze plays that had the biggest effect on the game’s outcome. One way to do this is by using Win Probability Added (WPA). 

3) 3:26 Q2; third-and-6; TB 14 – DAL 13; TB 17-yard line

After Leonard Fournette’s drop led to a field-flipping interception, the Cowboys had an opportunity to take control of the game. Tampa Bay’s defense held strong, though, and forced Dallas to settle for a field goal. 

On third-and-6, the Cowboys came out in 3×2 and called four verticals with a shallow cross. The Buccaneers countered perfectly with their match quarters coverage. 

Prescott tried to split the defense and rip the seam to Lamb. While the coverage was strong over the top, anyway, David read the play and batted down the pass before it could even get there. 

This play added 4.6 percentage points to the Bucs’ win probability. 

2) 1:11 Q2; second-and-10; TB 21 – DAL 16; TB 21-yard line 

Minutes after the previous play, the Cowboys were back within striking distance with another opportunity to take the lead. 

Moore tried to create a high-low conflict for the Buccaneers by pairing an out route with a corner route. However, the Bucs played quarters, again, and took away all passing options. As Prescott rolled out of the pocket to buy time, Shaq Barrett used back-to-back spin moves, broke free from Smith, and sacked Prescott.

The loss of 12 yards increased the Bucs chances of winning by 8.2 percentage points. 

1) 8:44 Q3; first-and-10; TB 21 – DAL 19; DAL 25-yard line

With the game tight in the second half, the Cowboys were looking to put together a scoring drive. Instead, Prescott made a critical mistake.

Bucs CB Carlton Davis III

Bucs CB Carlton Davis III – Photo by Cliff Welch/PR

David stayed under the deep crossing route while Winfield drove down from over the top to break up the pass. Although the ball hit Lamb’s hands, the pass was forced into tight coverage. The deflection allowed Davis to make an interception and a long return.

The pick added a whopping 15.4 percentage points to the Bucs’ chances of winning. 


Although the Tampa Bay defense won’t be satisfied with its performance in which it conceded over 400 yards through the air and 29 points, it did enough to help the team win against a very challenging opponent. 

It’ll be interesting to see how the game plan changes in Week 2 when the Buccaneers take on a less-potent Atlanta Falcons offense.

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About the Author: Paul Atwal

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8 months ago

Good analysis Paul.

8 months ago

Davis is a solid corner but he doesn’t deserve Ramsey money. SMB seems serviceable in the nickel with some turnover upside (last postseason). The rest of the corners are a total gamble. Would love to see Tampa target a RB and CB in next years draft.

8 months ago

We definitely need better corner play. Davis is far and away the best CB on this team.