We're at a point where the analysis, the predictions, the looks ahead will all end and the game will finally be played. That's right, the season opener is just about here. The Dallas Cowboy will be sauntering into Raymond James Stadium (sans big video board) to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It's the first time in 3 years the Bucs have opened at home, and will be Raheem Morris' first game as an NFL head coach.
The Bucs have a lot of question marks coming into this year, and most "experts" expect the team to roll over all year long and scrape out four wins. But rather than focus on the big picture, let's take a look inside the game 1 match up.
There are several key points for each team, and while we have exactly zero meaningful tape on the 2009 versions of each team, we'll take a look at both sides of the ball, special teams, some matchups, and key players to watch during Week 1 action.
When the Cowboys have the ball
The 2008 version of the Cowboys offense was a dynamic one. Run by Tony Romo, the Cowboys are able to air it out, or play a ground game with Barber. Although they are down T.O., the combo of Roy E. Williams and Witten will still give teams fits. Marion barber is a work horse that doesn't typically get taken down with the first hit. The Bucs D will have to swarm to Barber to keep him from running wild. The player I see giving the Bucs fits is Felix Jones. He's a better version of Reggie Bush who can catch it out of the backfield.
The Bucs D will have to put pressure on Romo to not allow him to set in the pocket. Romo will throw up some 50/50 balls when pressured, which is a huge key for the Bucs D. The Bucs should take away either Witten or Williams. By taking away one of the big options, it will force Romo to check down to Crayton or other receivers. Witten is the most logical target for a pressured QB and I would hope that Bates and the defensive players don't let the big tight end beat them.
When the Bucs have the ball
It's all about the run. The Bucs need to get off to a fast start. With an offense that's not built to play from behind, moving the chains will be essential. The trio of Ward, Graham, and Cadillac have to be able to churn out the yards and not take any big losses. Leftwich will be asked to manage the game and avoid the turnovers. If he can utilize play action and spread the ball between Antonio Bryant, Clayton and Winslow, it will set the offense up to be successful.
The Cowboys led the NFL in sacks last year but were middle of the pack in pressures. The easiest way for the Cowboys to win is to shut down the run. This will lead to an ineffective play action game, and will put Leftwich in an exposed state in the backfield. DeMarcus Ware will look to get in the backfield and disrupt plays.
This matchup seems to favor the Bucs in the return game, and the Cowboys in the kicking/punting game. Dallas is notorious for being undisciplined in kick/punt coverage, which could lead to a big day for Clifton Smith or Stroughter. The Bucs will need to win the field position battle to keep Dallas pinned on both ends.
Nick Folk has been a good kicker in the league for a few years now, which trumps Mike Nugent's up and down career. Nugent will have to have a strong day both kicking off and placekicking to equalize the battle. In the punting game, I'm still not sold on Dirk Johnson, who will have to place his punts better.
Key Match ups
The Bucs OL vs DeMarcus Ware - It's no secret what Ware can do. The Bucs OL will have to account for Ware on every play and keep him from getting in the backfield. He's athletic enough to bull rush or finesse rush and can drop in coverage.
Bucs safeties vs Williams/Crayton - Just play disciplined. Biting on play action, or not maintaining proper depth can lead to six pretty quickly. See the preseason games for references.
Barrett Ruud vs Marion Barber - I don't know that Ruud will be asked to cover Barber, but he will certainly lead the charge in the run game. Has to get to Barber quickly and hold him up until help arrives.
Kellen Winslow vs Cowboy's LB - A good tight end is a quarterback's best friend. If Winslow can be the playmaker he has shown he can be, Leftwich will have another great receiving option to rely on. This is a battle Winslow was paid to win.
Things to look for
Down the field plays - This goes for both sides. Look to see if the Bucs can stretch the field and if on defense they remain disciplined enough to thwart the deep attacks.
Installation of offense - We just heard that new OC Olson is installing new plays in the playbook over the last 10 days. If there isn't complete knowledge of the plays and assignments, this could be a disaster. It takes one missed assignment for a turnover to pop up.
Pressure - Seems obvious. Every talking head talks about pressure. If the Bucs can keep Leftwich upright and can force Romo to move around in the pocket, the Bucs have a good chance to take this victory.
Players to watch
Antonio Bryant - First game back from knee proceudre. He and Leftwich must be in sync. It's time to earn that $9.884 million. Will he be the #1 receiver we had last year? He has to have a solid game. 5 catches for 80 yards would be enough in a low scoring game.
Byron Leftwich - The job is yours. Now win. Doesn't have to be spectacular. We need a minimum of a 1:1 TD/INT ratio. If/when he gets sacked he must hold onto the ball. Must show poise in the pocket and utilize checkdowns
Barrett Ruud - His drive for a new deal starts on Sunday. Must be the leader of the defense. Will be responsible for getting in and out of plays and for crashing the running game of Dallas
Jermaine Phillips/Sabby Piscitelli - Losing T-jack meant Flip had to abandon project WLB. Sabby has to stay disciplined. He can ball hawk all he wants, but the minute he gets beat deep, he's failed. Maintain depth.
Roy Williams - Has shown he could be a #1 in Detroit, can he do it in Dallas? Must provide Romo with a big target. Bucs defense has to choose between him and Witten.
Felix Jones - I hope he stays on the sideline. He's a great compliment to Barber. Look for soem spell carries and a few swing passes or screens. Probably where he is the most dangerous.
From the eyes of Buc Wild
I think discipline is the most important thing. While the Cowboys have some good offensive pieces, I'm not afraid of them running us out of the stadium. I think Talib matches up great against Williams as he has a bit more size and can force Roy to make some adjustments. Witten is the guy that Ruud or the other LB's or safeties have to be aware of. We can't let him run free down the field. If we stay in our gaps, play team defense, I don't see Barber going for a 125 yard performance. They key will be to keep them off the field and grind it out on their defense.
Our team is built for this heat. With a heavy rotation on defense, and three tough running backs, we can grind out 3.4 yards a carry and move the chains. We need to keep their defense on the field. Even on drives where we don't score, it has to be long sustained drives. Wear them out so in the 4th quarter, the Florida heat has them gassed and we can continue pushing.
The kicking game will determine alot. Having the Cowboys start at the 35 yard line won't due. It has to be deep kickoffs, well placed punts, and good coverage on special teams. Make Romo beat you. The more he throws, the better chance we have to catch one. He will ad lib alot and is a classic gun slinger, so there will be a chance to create some turnovers.
Our season starts off rough, but I think this is the most winnable game until we visit DC and take on Washington. At Buffalo is rough (first trip there), and the Giants with their pass rush terrify me. Then its on to Philly and DC, so in comparison, this is a winnable game.
The closer and lower the score, the better chance for the Bucs to win. I can't see the Bucs taking a blow out and I don't see the Cowboys running away from us. Remember, the Cowboys haven't had any long term success either. No playoff wins since 1996. They have a quarterback who will throw interceptions, and #1 WR who was hurt all last year and a defense that can be attacked. All things being equal, I see our defense being solid against the Cowboys attack and with our run game wearing down their team in the heat, the Bucs can add a late score to give us a win. I'll go out on a limb and predict a 20-17 Bucs win.
As of this writing, the official Buc 'Em poll results show that 65% of you think the Bucs will beat the Cowboys.