If you had the privilege of tuning into last night’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys, you left more than satisfied that football has returned for your viewing pleasure. A 31-29 nail-biter highlighted by a patented Tom Brady final-minute scoring drive, Tampa Bay kicked off their hopes as repeat champions in a successful fashion. For Dallas, however, much was the same from last year’s unit that finished 6-10.
The Cowboys finished their 2020 campaign without quarterback Dak Prescott for the final 11 games after a gruesome ankle injury ended his season in Week 5. Prescott returned to play against the Buccaneers and looks like he hasn’t missed a step. Following months of rehab tending to a compound fracture and dinged shoulder during training camp, Prescott was superb against Tampa’s electric defensive front, amassing 403 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
If there was a positional group of weakness for the Buccaneers entering the year, it was at corner—and nightmares became reality for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, as his secondary had no answer for the duo of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. Cooper, arguably the league’s top route-runner with magicianal detail in his footwork and balance, shredded Tampa Bay to the tune of 13 catches, a career high, for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Lamb, the Robin to Cooper’s Batman in Dallas, began his second season totaling seven catches and a touchdown, while also eclipsing the century mark in receiving yards (104).
But, it was all expected. And if Thursday night was a preview of what’s to come for the Cowboys, nothing has changed.
The newly minted defensive coordinator in charge of providing a jolt of energy into a lackluster Cowboys defense, Dan Quinn had to have felt he was looking into a mirror of Dallas’ lack of punch last season under Mike Nolan. While it’s never easy facing Brady and his array of pass-catching threats, the Cowboys’ defense, despite a full offseason and an allotment of eight of their 11 overall draft picks on the defensive side of the football, allowed 31 points on four touchdown passes through the air from Brady.
Dallas still can’t rush the passer, accumulating just two hits to Tampa’s signal-caller in his 50 pass attempts. While first-round pick Micah Parsons looked all the part of a bull in a china shop in his pro debut, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander-Esch combined for just 30 snaps, playing 25% and 22% of defensive snaps, respectively, for Quinn. Newly signed safety/linebacker hybrid Keanu Neal worked in tandem with Parsons primarily in nickel, ultimately limiting Smith and Vander-Esch’s usage, but a unit in which Dallas hangs its hat in its ability to attack downhill in the run, and fly sideline to sideline, 30 snaps combined from two of the Cowboys most talented defenders won’t cut it. And while all wasn’t negative as the secondary totaled two picks—one via a pre-halftime prayer from Brady—the performance from Anthony Brown was horrid. Brown earned a bulk of the work opposite Trevon Diggs and was torched from the opening whistle, allowing 116 yards and a touchdown on 5-of-5 passing as the closest defender in coverage, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Offensively, despite major concerns surrounding Prescott’s overall status and coinciding production, he put skeptics to bed. While he surely didn’t look 100% as his ability to scamper lacked and throws fluttered at times, he proved he’s still elite, which we all expected heading into the season. We saw last year just how dominant he can be under center.
However, 58 pass attempts on a gimpy shoulder and tender ankle can’t be a formula for success. While the offensive line held up well allowing just one sack against a formidable Tampa Bay front four, the Cowboys’ run game was non-existent, as offensive coordinator Kellen Moore used Ezekiel Elliott often as an extra body in pass pro. With just 33 yards on the ground via 11 carries (3.0 yards a pop), Elliott was a shell of himself Thursday night, a potential sign of the future if Moore is going to rely on Prescott to dissect defenses each Sunday. They proved to be one-dimensional, and despite the high-flying acrobatics that were the performances of Cooper and Lamb, they too were expected to show out, leaving much to question when projecting the Cowboys 16 games from now.
Dallas is still Dallas… their formula hasn’t changed. Points in bunches led by Prescott and his company of talent is expected to lead the way each and every Sunday for Mike McCarthy’s group, and rightly so. However, with as good as Dallas’ offense and Prescott can be, the lack of defensive firepower and an inability to keep teams off the field could see the Cowboys once again struggling to rid past demons in their ultimate attempt of qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2018.