Anticipation for the Bucs 2021 season will reach a new peak tonight, when the NFL releases each team’s full schedule for the upcoming season. We’ve known who the Bucs opponents will be, and now we know they’ll face the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1 at Raymond James Stadium.
Some will be disappointed in the match-up due to the fact that Dallas hasn’t been among the league’s top teams over the past two seasons, but there is no shortage of incredible storylines. Bucs-Cowboys is a match-up wrought with intrigue and talent, as two of the game’s best quarterbacks square off in Tom Brady and Dak Prescott. Here are several of the biggest storylines the game will offer when the teams battle on September 9 on Thursday Night Football.
1. The Return of Tom Brady and Dak Prescott
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Yes, Brady’s injury wasn’t nearly as serious as Prescott’s gruesome broken ankle suffered in Week 5 against the Giants. But at 44 years old, Brady’s return from offseason knee surgery isn’t insignificant. How the 21-year veteran looks after an offseason of recovery is critical to Tampa Bay’s odds of repeating as Super Bowl champions. Week 1 will be an important litmus test for Brady.
Of course, the day is far more significant for Prescott, after his broken ankle left Cowboys players, coaches, personnel and fans distraught last season. Prescott entered Week 5 leading the NFL with 1,690 passing yards, the most by a Cowboys quarterback through four games in franchise history. Given the Cowboys’ overhaul on defense and the Bucs’ high-powered offense, Prescott may need to come out of the corner swinging in Week 1.
Brady has never lost to the Cowboys, going 5-0 in his career against Dallas.
Also worth noting ahead of Bucs-Cowboys opener: Tom Brady's career numbers in openers as a defending Super Bowl champ: 5-1 record, 15 touchdown passes, one interception.
The Bucs boast the unquestioned top receiving room in the NFL, highlighted by Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and tight end Rob Gronkowski. They’re extremely difficult to defend as a result, especially when Brady refuses to lock onto any one receiver. Add in the return of tight end O.J. Howard, Scotty Miller as a deep threat, and Tyler Johnson’s growth after flashing a lot in 2020, and Dallas’ new look defense will have their work cut out for it in Week 1.
Bucs WRs Chris Godwin and Mike Evans – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Cowboys revamped their secondary personnel this offseason, adding rookies Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright in the second and third rounds, after picking up Damontae Kazee in free agency. Second-year corner Trevon Diggs will start at one cornerback spot, with the other spot looking like a battle between Joseph, Jourdan Lewis and Reggie Robinson. Kazee and an unknown will start at safety, with new addition Keanu Neal reportedly moving to linebacker.
Needless to say, a secondary with zero proven studs and a couple of first-time starters beginning the season against Tampa Bay’s onslaught of weapons would not be ideal for Dallas. The Cowboys may be more talented on the back end than they were a year ago, but it will take some time for the group to come together. Week 1 could be big for the Bucs pass-catching group.
3. Bucs RT Tristan Wirfs vs Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence
Ignore Lawrence’s 11.5 combined sacks over the past two years when looking at this match-up. Those numbers may be pedestrian, but put on Lawrence’s tape and you’ll see one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. Equally dominant against the run and the pass, Lawrence takes zero plays off and will physically and mentally try to break his opponent. In this case, his opponent might be the best right tackle in the NFL in Wirfs.
Heading into Week 1 last year, there was some trepidation for Wirfs match-up against Cam Jordan. But the rookie tackle handled the Saints’ star rusher, and he’ll look to do the same against Lawrence this year. The Cowboys’ best edge rusher wins primarily with his hands, so Wirfs will need to be on his toes and check Lawrence’s coveted counter moves. Not many individual match-ups this season will hold more potential intrigue than Wirfs vs. Lawrence.
4. Can Bucs Pass Rush Stay Dominant vs. Healthy Cowboys OL?
Dallas played most of last season without several key pieces on its offensive line, including left tackle Tyron Smith and right tackle La’El Collins. Both players should return for Week 1, and star lineman Zack Martin will move back to his best position of right guard. The question marks are Connor Williams at left guard and Tyler Biadasz as center. Those two will be charged with handling Vita Vea, which could be a tough match-up for Williams due to his lack of anchor in pass protection.
Smith against Jason Pierre-Paul will be a heavyweight match-up we’ve seen many times before, hearkening back to when JPP was a Giant. On the other side, Collins returns after not playing a single snap last year, drawing Shaq Barrett in Week 1. If Dallas can handle Tampa Bay’s edge rushers, it’ll allow the team to concentrate more help on protecting inside against Vea and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ A-gap blitzes.
5. Huge Test For Bucs’ Sean Murphy-Bunting
For most of last season, Bucs fans wanted nothing more than to see Murphy-Bunting benched. The sentiment was understandable, as Murphy-Bunting was consistently shelled during the regular season, reaching a low point in Week 15 against the Atlanta Falcons. Murphy-Bunting surrendered eight catches on nine targets for 131 yards and two touchdowns, suffering most of that production at the hands of Calvin Ridley.
Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: USA Today
But since that point Murphy-Bunting orchestrated a shocking turnaround, intercepting passes in three straight playoff games after barely touching the football all season. His performance in the postseason was a complete transformation from the player we saw in the regular season, which leaves us wondering what direction his career is heading in entering 2021.
We should get a strong indication right away, as Murphy-Bunting begins his third season with a healthy dose of Cowboys’ first round pick CeeDee Lamb. Lamb erupted onto the NFL scene as a rookie last year, catching 74 passes for 935 yards and five touchdowns while working mostly from the slot. He’s already a dynamic receiving threat with the look of a future No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL. Can SMB handle a premier playmaker one-on-one? We’ll find out in Week 1.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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