The Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell to 3-5 due to a 32-18 home loss to the New York Giants last Sunday. What are the six things PewterReport.com’s Scott Reynolds is looking for in Tampa Bay’s upcoming game against the 2-6 Dallas Cowboys? Find out right here in SR’s Pick 6.
Who: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Dallas Cowboys Where: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. When: 1:00 p.m. ET – FOX Last meeting: 16-10 loss at Dallas in 2012 Series notes: Cowboys have an 11-3 advantage over Buccaneers all-time
1. DON’T LET A BACKUP BEAT YOU
There are reasons why Dallas quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel are backups in the NFL. They’re mediocre. Weeden has completed 72.4 percent of his passes for 738 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, while Cassel, whom the Bucs are expected to face, has completed 61.1 percent of his throws for 623 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions. After a 2-0 start, Dallas has lost six straight without Tony Romo, who broke his clavicle in Week 2, at the helm.
The Buccaneers pass defense ranks among the worst in the NFL, and is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 70 percent of their passes – mostly due to playing a lot of Cover 2. Tampa Bay had a 0-3 record against backup quarterbacks last year, losing in Week 2 against the Austin Davis-led St. Louis Rams, and twice to Carolina, which started backup Derek Anderson in both games versus the Buccaneers. Lovie Smith’s defense cannot turn Cassel into a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback on Sunday by giving him time to throw, and needs to mix up coverages and cause confusion that allows the Bucs defense to either sack him or pick him off. Advantage: Cowboys
Cowboys WR Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten – Photo by: Getty Images
2. PLAY COVER 2 TO CORRALL THE COWBOYS
Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant is a game-breaking Pro Bowl-caliber weapon and the Bucs don’t have a cornerback that can cover him one-on-one. Bryant, who just came back from a broken foot and has 12 catches for 164 yards and a touchdown, is too big, too fast and too explosive to leave on an island against Sterling Moore, Jude Adjei-Barimah, Johnthan Banks or Mike Jenkins. Smith’s best stop of containing Bryant will be to play a good deal of Cover 2 like he did last week to limit New York’s Odell Beckham, Jr.
The problem is that there are holes in the Cover 2 zone defense that Bryant and Dallas Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten can exploit. Witten, who leads the Cowboys with 44 catches for 403 yards and two touchdowns. Linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander have been poor this year in underneath coverage and must get in the underneath passing lanes and break up and intercept a few of Cassell’s throws. The Bucs can’t focus too much on Bryant and Witten and forget about Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley, who have combined to catch 54 passes for 666 yards and four touchdowns, either. Getting pressure for Tampa Bay’s front four, which has been a problem over the past three weeks, will be key. Advantage: Cowboys
3. FOREGO FIELD GOALS
Tampa Bay has struggled in the red zone offensively over the past three games, settling for seven Connor Barth field goals. Five of those field goals have come from with the offense stalling inside opponents’ 10-yard line. It may be time for head coach Lovie Smith to gamble a bit more and forego the field goal attempt and try to use fourth down to get a touchdown. With a 3-5 record and any chance for the playoffs slipping away, Smith and the Bucs have nothing to lose inside the 10-yard line because a turnover on downs would force the Cowboys to march 90-plus yards for a touchdown.
Rookie quarterback Jameis Winston admitted not reacting quick enough inside the red zone on a few passing plays in last week’s loss to the Giants, and the more downs he has to work with the more opportunities he has to run or pass for a score. Every rep Winston gets inside an opponents’ 10-yard line is valuable experience, and it may be time to bet on the kid and give him an extra down in strategic situations at certain points in the game. The Bucs have kicked too many field goals over the last three weeks and have a 1-2 record – with their lone win coming in overtime – to show for it. Advantage: Buccaneers
Cowboys DE Greg Hardy – Photo by: Getty Images
4. KEEP THE KRAKEN AT BAY
Dallas’ front four is underrated and has been bolstered by the return of defensive end Greg Hardy, whose nickname is the Kraken. Hardy, who tortured the Bucs for years as a member of the Carolina Panthers, has 15 tackles, four sacks, an interception and a forced fumble since he returned from his four-game suspension for domestic violence. He will be a handful for Tampa Bay’s offensive line, and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter must account for him on every play.
The Bucs’ O-line has been good in pass protection lately and has given Winston plenty of time to throw. Because the Cowboys move Hardy around, he will face both rookie left tackle Donovan Smith and right tackle Gosder Cherlius on Sunday. Smith is quietly putting together a solid rookie season, but may need help from a chipping tight end or running back on occasion, and must win his one-on-ones when they present themselves. The same goes for Cherilus, an aging veteran who has given up the most sacks this season in Tampa Bay. Advantage: Buccaneers
5. BUCS CAN’T LET COWBOYS STAMPEDE
Dallas’ offensive line features three former first-round picks in center Travis Frederick, right guard Zack Martin and left tackle Tyron Smith, and has two other first-round-caliber talents in right tackle Doug Free and rookie left guard La’el Collins. With Cassel struggling to make plays, the Cowboys will lean heavily on their eighth-ranked rushing attack featuring Darren McFadden, who has rushed for 462 yards and a touchdown on 113 carries (4.1 avg.). Second-leading rusher Joseph Randle was a troublemaker and was jettisoned, which leaves Lance Dunbar and Christine Michael as McFadden’s backups.
Tampa Bay’s defense has been decent against the run this year, but will be without run-stuffing nose tackle Clinton McDonald, who is on IR with a pectoral injury, in addition to its best defensive end Jacquies Smith, who will miss a second-straight game with an ankle injury. If the Bucs can stop the run on first and second down and force the Cowboys into third-and-long situations Tampa Bay will need to get more pressure on Cassel than they have been able to in recent weeks. The Bucs only have two sacks in the last three games, including none against the Giants last week, and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy must rise up and make his presence felt. Winning individual battles against the run and pass in the trenches versus such a talented Dallas defensive line will be a tall order for Tampa Bay’s injury-ravaged defensive line. The likes of Will Gholston, George Johnson, Akeem Spence and Tony McDaniel need to step up and make plays. Advantage: Cowboys
Bucs RB Charles Sims – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
6. TWO-BACK ATTACK AGAINST DALLAS’ ‘BACKERS
With wide receiver Vincent Jackson out and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins questionable for Sunday’s game, Winston will not have a full arsenal of weapons at his disposal. Mike Evans, who had eight catches for 152 yards and six dropped passes last week, will have to be more sure-handed against Dallas. Rookie receivers Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries will also need to step up and make more plays, especially in the red zone. Humphries did have five catches last week with four of them going for first downs.
Where the Bucs have a decided advantage is against Dallas’ linebackers. If Seferian-Jenkins can play, he could have a big day with the Cowboys’ best defender, linebacker Sean Lee, out with a concussion. Strongside linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who has two sacks this year and has played well, is questionable with an ankle injury. Middle linebacker Rolando McClain isn’t playing well and has hand and foot injuries that are limiting him. In addition to pounding Dallas’ front four with a double-barreled rushing attack, Koetter needs to isolate Doug Martin and Charles Sims on the Cowboys linebackers in the passing game and beat them downfield on wheel routes and screen passes. Advantage: Buccaneers
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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