For a second straight year, Dallas will open with a primetime contest against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers with the Cowboys led by quarterback Dak Prescott. Unlike last year, the game will be played at AT&T Stadium to give Dallas the home field advantage.
These are not the Buccaneers of the past few years, however. Brady had to take a leave of absence after retiring following a loss to end Tampa Bay’s title defense in last year’s playoffs. The offense doesn’t have tight end Rob Gronkowski, and may be without injured wide receiver Chris Godwin, who will be a game time decision. Meanwhile, there’s a new sheriff in town. Todd Bowles takes over for Bruce Arians as the head coach.
Things aren’t all perfect in Dallas either. After a tumultuous offseason that saw some downgrades in talent, the Cowboys come into this rematch a different team than the one from 12 months ago. Nevertheless, both teams are expected to compete in the NFC this season and opening weekend is always interesting.
Here are some keys to the Week 1 matchup with the Buccaneers:
Cowboys OL vs. Buccaneers DL
The Cowboys had a plan coming into the offseason to remodel the offensive line. Needless to say, the plan didn’t go smoothly. The team was short on quality tackles and when starting left tackle Tyron Smith went down, their strategy was shot. Dallas did sign veteran tackle Jason Peters, but he won’t be ready for the season opener.
For Prescott’s sake, the Cowboys must hope that rookie Tyler Smith is ready to play at high level at LT. The Buccaneers have a good pass rush and finished in the top 10 (7th) in sacks last year.
Smith isn’t the only worry along the offensive line as left guard Connor McGovern has always played better as a right guard and who knows what to expect from Terence Steele, who will be taking over full time at right tackle.
That’s a lot to sort out as the Cowboys prepare to play their first game this season and the offensive line has yet to take one meaningful snap together.
If the unit holds up well, however, the Cowboys should be in good shape.
Slow down the pass attack
It is uncertain whether or not the Buccaneers will have Pro Bowl wide receiver Godwin in this game, but the Tampa Bay offense has no shortage of weapons in the passing game even if he doesn’t play. Brady will still have an outstanding group to throw to, including WRs Mike Evans and Julio Jones. Evans is among the best receivers in the league as he has begun his career with eight straight 1,000-yard seasons, and has double-digit touchdowns in back-to-back years.
Training camp observers for the Buccaneers have mentioned how good they believe Jones looks and he provides a veteran option for Brady.
Tampa’s passing game also includes shifty wide receiver Russell Gage, former first-round pick Breshad Perriman, and third down specialist Scotty Miller. The Buccaneers might not have ‘Gronk’ anymore, but they do employ a solid duo at tight ends with Cameron Brate and Kyle Rudolph.
It’s a versatile group that is going to be tough to defend. Luckily, the Cowboys have a versatile group in the secondary that can match up with the receivers. Cornerbacks Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown will play a large role, as will safety Jayron Kearse.
If the Cowboys’ secondary can limit the damage in the passing game, they’ll have a chance to come away with the upset.
Sometimes the keys to winning a game aren’t all that complicated, and one of the keys to beating Brady has always been to pressure him up the middle. That’s what’s beaten the future Hall of Fame QB in recent years and the Cowboys can come after Brady with a restocked defensive line.
Dallas’ DL boasts a deep rotation of players who can stay fresh and push the pocket to wear down the Buccaneers’ offensive line. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will have a game plan that includes moving some of his defensive ends inside to help harass Brady. In addition, the Cowboys have LB Micah Parsons who was a pressure-creating machine in his rookie season last year.
The Buccaneers are also in the midst of reshuffling their offensive line, especially on the interior. Tampa lost two starters on the OL in training camp, including Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen. Up the middle is an area that the Cowboys can exploit.
If the Cowboys can put enough pressure on Brady and cause him to leave the pocket early, they’ll give themselves a shot at starting the season 1-0.
Do you think the Cowboys will be able to stop Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in Week 1? Share your predictions with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.