The Bucs struggled with converting red zone opportunities in the opener, but they otherwise dominated a match-up that saw Cowboys QB Dak Prescott persistently harassed and later injured.
Alas, the Bucs could never find consistent footing and ended up with an unimpressive 8-9 record, while the Cowboys weathered those early stumbles to establish themselves as one of the best all-around units this year at 12-5.
So, on a position-by-position basis on the offensive side, how do these teams compare and what should we expect on Monday night? Let’s take a look.
Neither signal caller was overly dominant this season, as Brady was the centerpiece of an incredibly sluggish offense and Dak missed multiple games and is currently in the midst of an ugly turnover streak. In fact, the latter led the NFL in interceptions with 15 while starting only 12 games.
Brady led the NFL in attempts and completions and finished top 3 in yards (4,694), but he threw only 25 touchdowns (compared to 43 last year and 40 in 2020). His ability to take over games and test the defense deep noticeably diminished, but it’s still in him given his huge performance against the Carolina Panthers in Week 17.
Ultimately, it’s fairly important to remember we’re talking about Tom Brady...the greatest postseason QB in NFL history. If we’re betting in favor of him or Prescott, it’s not really a competition. Brady is 4-2 in Wild Card games, and he’s 7-0 against Dallas.
Here are the players that generated the most surplus value this season based on PFF Wins Above Replacement.— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) January 12, 2023
1. Joe Burrow
2. Justin Herbert
3. Geno Smith
4. Jalen Hurts (WAR struggles with QB rushing)
5. Tom Brady
If Byron Leftwich actually decides to let the GOAT work aggressively, we should see vintage Brady. On the flip side, Prescott riding a seven-game turnover streak means that he’ll need to do a serious 180 on his in-game mentality, and that’s tough to buy so late in the year even when he’s playing well otherwise.
This one isn’t even close.
Dallas has built its offensive assault around Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott — mostly the former rather than the latter. Pollard has truly broken out as a top 10 running back, as he accumulated nearly 1,400 total yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s an explosive play threat every time he touches the ball, and he’ll be a new wrinkle for Tampa to deal with since he received only eight touches in the Week 1 match-up, which totaled only 22 yards (his second lowest output of the season).
Elliott was much less effective on a touch-by-touch basis, but he still found the endzone 12 times and rushed for 876 yards. He’ll get his opportunities as a change-of-pace option and can still be a threat if not taken seriously.
While the Cowboys have struggled recently with running the ball (collectively averaging less than 4 yards per carry in the last five games), they still have the second-most rushing TDs in the NFL and are a top 10 rushing offense.
On the flip side, the Bucs presented one of the worst running games in recent history. A lack of understanding when it comes to playcall sequencing, situational game planning, and simple execution are all largely to blame for this, as was the over reliance on a declining Leonard Fournette. Fournette put up a miserable 3.5 yards per carry en route to 668 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He also kept his role as a checkdown king, catching 73 passes for 523 yards and three additional scores.
The rookie White didn’t fair much better, but there was a clear difference in explosiveness with the Arizona State product on the field. He averaged a slightly better 3.7 YPC with 481 yards, and he caught 50 passes for 290 yards and two scores. If the Bucs are wise, they’ll feature the rookie more if they hope to have any semblance of balance come Monday.
That all said, the Cowboys will likely try to re-establish their strength, and the Bucs likely won’t come close to matching that approach. The latter would be wise to ignore the ground game as much as possible and focus on their passing attack.
This is the first actually tight comparison.
The Bucs saw depressed production across the board for their receivers and tight ends, again largely due to poor coaching and execution with some bad injury luck mixed in. That said, they still produced a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Godwin also became the second Buccaneer to record 100+ receptions in a year; Keyshawn Johnson stood alone with that distinction for 20 years.
Tom Brady has seen his aDOT decline from 9.1 yards in 2020 and 8.1 yards in 2021 to just 6.7 yards in 2022, no doubt motivated by his offensive line injuries. I'm thinking it could be more of a Chris Godwin than Mike Evans week vs. the #Cowboys pass rush.pic.twitter.com/XZQutLaYfv— Scott Spratt (@Scott_Spratt) January 12, 2023
When all cylinders are firing, this tandem is still among the tops of the league, and they have strong support in Julio Jones and Russell Gage when both are healthy, which both look to be. Jones didn’t create an Antonio Brown-like impact because of his persistent knee issue, but he honestly has looked useful in his limited usage. Gage has also settled in after being hampered by hamstring for months, and he came up huge down the stretch.
Rookie Cade Otton produced some moments, but he still presented the inconsistency that’s typical with first-year tight ends. His fellow rookie Ko Kieft was much less utilized in the passing game but flourished as a blocker. Father Time has caught up with Cameron Brate, but he may be useful as a third tight end in the playoffs, where he proved integral in 2020.
For Dallas, their key weapons are CeeDee Lamb and Dalton Schultz. Lamb blossomed into a true No. 1 option after Amari Cooper departed and Michael Gallup recovered from a serious leg injury. Lamb — a second team All Pro — finished with 107 receptions for 1,359 yards and 9 TDs, but only two of those grabs came against Tampa in Week 1. Like Godwin, he receives most of his action in the slot, and he owns that role as well as anybody.
Schultz finished with 57 catches for 577 yards and five scores, and he did well against Tampa in Week 1 with seven receptions for 62 yards. He’ll need to be monitored closely in the seam and on other intermediate routes in the middle of the field.
A big difference from Week 1 will be the presence of Gallup and recent addition T.Y. Hilton. Gallup has been iffy, much like Godwin was in his return from a similar injury, but he still shows glimpses of his usefulness downfield. Hilton has seven catches for 121 yards in three games, including a 52-yard reception against the Philadelphia Eagles. While he won’t see volume, the Bucs will definitely need to be weary of those deep shots.
Ultimately, most will bet Tampa’s sheer upside but it’s not a runaway.
Dallas doesn’t have an elite unit like in years past, but it takes the advantage here given far superior run blocking and fewer injury questions.
Rookie Tyler Smith has played well given questions about his readiness, as he held up at left tackle all year as a very good road grader and respectable pass protector (6 sacks allowed). He did tie for the league lead in penalties though with 13, so he’s far from a polished product. The Cowboys also recently got back Tyron Smith, a dominant force when healthy but still working his way back.
The interior is fairly respectable but they’re much better at run blocking than pass blocking. Connor McGovern is a mediocre guard who has rotated with Jason Peters, and Tyler Biadasz is as average as it gets at center. The big difference maker is Zack Martin, who remains the best right guard in football. Akiem Hicks and Vita Vea will need to bring their A reps against him.
Oppositely, the Bucs have been solid at pass protection but putrid in the ground game. Brady’s outrageously quick time to throw helps, but they honestly have held up well on longer developing plays when given the opportunity. Tristan Wirfs, who was recently named second team All-Pro, is in the conversation for best right tackle in football. He pairs with Shaq Mason to form one of the best right sides in the game.
Robert Hainsey has been perfectly fine in his first full year at center; a more than admirable job replacing Ryan Jensen. He’s beat up right now though with a hamstring tweak, so his performance will need to be monitored. Nick Leverett also played well enough at left guard but will miss Monday with knee and shoulder ailments, which likely forces Luke Goedeke back into the action.
The rookie looked completely unprepared in the first quarter of the season, and he eventually found his way to the bench until playing right tackle during the final week of the year. His 43.7 grade on Pro Football Focus is bottom 5 among guards.
Veteran Donovan Smith has similarly struggled. Whether due to injuries, regression, or both, Smith has played like a bottom-tier player who has been consistently abused by elite pass rushers. Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence will be licking their chops unless the Bucs wisely give Smith help throughout the evening via a heavy dose of 12 personnel.
This unit mismatch might prove to be the deciding factor of the evening. With a positional shuffle looming for Tampa and Dallas gelling at the right time, both units’ performances will be monitored closely.
Overall, it’s hard to name a clear winner with these breakdowns, especially when both teams excel in different areas. The goal is more to help visualize the strengths and weaknesses of each unit and how the other might take advantage of disparities.
If we’re talking about sheer potential, the Buccaneers should probably be considered a notch above. They have the better QB and a litany of dangerous receiving options that should only be augmented by Dallas have some serious health issues in the secondary.
On the other hand, Tampa’s flimsy offensive line against a strong Dallas pass rush could lead to serious hindrances in the downfield passing game, which could theoretically take the heat off the inconsistent secondary.
The Cowboys’ run game can be dangerous and robust, and the Bucs’ defense has been far less stout in that area this year (six games of 150+ yards allowed). However, Vita Vea and Akiem Hicks have done well when both are healthy, which has been rare. Their collective presence against Carolina a few weeks ago led to the Panthers’ lowest rushing output since Week 11. Devin White and Lavonte David play a huge role in that as well.
The #Bucs ended the year as the No. 4 cutter of expected TD runs per game, the same ranking as in their 2020 Super Bowl season. And Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard combined for just 60 yards on 16 carries in Week 1 against them.pic.twitter.com/oJXRSfmGAj— Scott Spratt (@Scott_Spratt) January 12, 2023
It should be a fascinating offensive chess match between two teams with stark philosophical differences. The gulf in overall talent is fairly small, but the biggest differences could be all the more magnified because of that.