It’s been a roller coaster of an off-season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. From losing Tom Brady to getting him back, seeing Ali Marpet retire, Alex Cappa leave for Cincinnati, the returns of Leonard Fournette and Carlton Davis, adding Russell Gage and later Julio Jones. Then there was the eleven day absence of Tom Brady for personal reasons, Mike Evans and Gage suffering injuries, Ryan Jensen’s injury, and Chris Godwin seemingly closer to returning than many anticipated at this stage in the year.
All that to say this; football is BACK. And what better way to kick it off than with a rematch of last year’s week one kickoff game - facing the Dallas Cowboys. Only, this time, it’s at their house and that hasn’t exactly been a welcome place for the Buccaneers in the past. In their history, the Buccaneers are a paltry 5-15 all time against the Cowboys and just 1-12 in Dallas with the lone win in September 2001, coming in the middle of three straight Buccaneers victories over Dallas in 2000, 2001, and 2003. The teams have split the last four meetings, with the Bucs coming out victorious last season in a 31-29 nail-biter where Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski combined for three touchdowns while Chris Godwin added a fourth.
And while two of those players won’t be on the field for the Bucs on Sunday, there’s a real possibility that the third won’t either.
While Chris Godwin has been a full participant in practice, without a knee brace and with a non-contact jersey, the Bucs may opt to hold him out of week one. Godwin’s availability is far more important in December and January than it is in September and rushing him onto the field too soon could put that in danger. Now, there is still a chance he does play, but expect snaps to be limited.
The player to look for in Tampa’s offense this week is Julio Jones. Tom Brady told the media a few weeks ago that Julio is “an easy guy to have chemistry with,” and the Bucs can exploit favorable matchups for Jones. Evans will certainly be a focal point of the Dallas defense and Jones will see some one-on-one opportunity that he can win. That is, if Brady has the time to throw the ball.
There’s a big question mark on the left side of the line for the Bucs. While Shaq Mason will be just fine in replacing Alex Cappa, you have Robert Hainsey filling in for Jensen and rookie Luke Goedeke replacing Ali Marpet. Goedeke “won” the starting job after Super Bowl starter Aaron Stinnie went down with a season ending injury - and while Goedeke has all the tools to be a solid starter in the NFL, he has shown that his level of play isn’t where it needs to be in order to protect Brady from the interior pass rush of opposing defenses. Then you have the question of Donovan Smith.
Smith is probably the single most criticized player on the roster by Bucs fans. While he has played extremely well over the course of the last few years, many question whether or not that was all him or thanks in part to the All-Pro caliber player lined up just to the right of him. With Smith now lined up next to Goedeke, you would hope to see Smith’s play continue along that upward trajectory and not take a step back.
Defensively, the Bucs find themselves in a situation where they can take advantage of a new found weakness for Dallas. With Tyron Smith likely out for the season, the Cowboys are looking to Tyler Smith to fill the void at left tackle and hoping that Jason Peters still has something left in the tank. The issue for Dallas is not only is that a massive downgrade at tackle, but they’re also weakening their left guard position in the shuffle. One of the issues facing the Cowboys is, when Tyron Smith isn’t on the field, their entire offense struggles.
Without Smith, running back runs go from number one in the NFL to thirty-first in efficiency. Passing efficiency on first down? Ninth in the NFL down to thirtieth. This was already a team that struggled to run against the Bucs last season as Ezekiel Elliott finished with just three yards per carry. Now, without their left tackle and against one of the best run defenses in the NFL the last few years, you’re also going to see a massive change in the pass catchers.
If Michael Gallup does not play on Sunday, the Cowboys will have one receiver on the field that scored a touchdown in an NFL regular season game - CeeDee Lamb. That’s it. Dak Prescott, for as good as he can be, will have to trust a ragtag group protecting his blindside while he looks to make something out of nothing with an inexperienced wide receiver group.
According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Bucs are coming into this as 2.5-point favorites and with an over/under of 51. Now, the Cowboys have covered the spread in four of their last five home openers and won ten of their last twelve against the NFC. On the flip side, the Cowboys remain one of five NFL teams that Tom Brady has never lost to, joining the Bucs, Patriots, Falcons, and Vikings. At age 45, this is likely the final time he will face Dallas unless they were to meet in the playoffs, so he’ll be ready to keep that streak intact.
The Buccaneers and Cowboys will kickoff on Sunday Night Football at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC with Mike Tirico, Cris Collinsworth, and Melissa Stark on the call.