Our first Sunday Night Football game of the season sees Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys hosting Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
These two teams met in the season-opener a year ago, and kick their seasons off against each other once again. There have been plenty of changes on both sides of the ball, and both teams are dealing with injury issues on offense. But the defenses are loaded with talent, especially in the pass rush department.
Can Prescott and Brady manage the rush and figure out a way to take advantage of openings further down the field? Will Chris Godwin and Tristan Wirfs suit up for Tampa? How will Dallas' new-look offensive line fare against the likes of Shaq Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka? Will Todd Bowles use Carlton Davis to shadow CeeDee Lamb, and will Kellen Moore figure out enough ways to movie his top playmaker around to ensure that he gets some free releases?
We'll find out the answers to all of these questions and more, soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here's how you can watch Sunday evening's game.
How to watch
When the Buccaneers have the ball
The area of the field that seems most likely to tip the balance of power in this matchup is the trenches. The Buccaneers have undergone some dramatic changes along the offensive line, and it's a near-guarantee they will not be at full strength on Sunday night.
This offseason, Tampa lost guard Ali Marpet to retirement, Alex Cappa in free agency, and guard Aaron Stinnie and center Ryan Jensen to injury. Star right tackle Tristan Wirfs has been dealing with an injury as well. It's entirely possible that Tampa could have four new starters along the offensive front for this game. Even if Wirfs is able to suit up, the entire interior of the line will be turned over -- and two of the new starters (second-year center Robert Hainsey and rookie guard Luke Goedeke) have combined for 31 career offensive snaps.
None of that is ideal against a Dallas defense that boasts two of the most ferocious pass-rushers in the NFL in Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence. Parsons, in particular, could cause major problems for Tampa because of the way Dan Quinn moves him around the formation to generate advantageous matchups. When Parsons blitzed up the middle last season, he was nearly impossible for guards and centers to deal with. But the Cowboys can also send Parsons off the edge, either on the same side as Lawrence or across from him. If Wirfs can suit up, he's likely to see a lot of one-on-one matchups with Lawrence, who rushes from the left side of the Dallas defensive line. But if he can't, Tampa will likely have to send help in that direction, potentially compromising the rest of the pass-protection unit.
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Of course, nobody is better at neutralizing pressure from opponents by getting the ball out quickly than Tom Brady. Incredibly, Brady was pressured only 23.6 percent of the time when he was blitzed last season, according to Tru Media. That's because he threw the ball in an average of 2.19 seconds when opponents sent extra rushers -- the second-fastest mark in the NFL. (Ben Roethlisberger got rid of the ball quicker, but Brady averaged a full air yard per attempt more against the blitz than did Big Ben. You're not supposed to be able to get the ball out that quickly and push it down field. It makes no sense. But then, neither does Brady.)
The best way to get to Brady in recent seasons has been to generate pressure up the gut, so he cannot step up in and/or through the pocket, and instead has to move his feet side-to-side and then reset in order to deliver the ball. That makes Cowboys defensive tackles Osa Odighizuwa and Neville Gallimore two of the more important players in this contest. How they fare against the interior of Tampa's offensive line will play a major role in how comfortable Brady is, and how much time he has to attack Dallas' back-end defenders.
When these two teams met last season, the second level of the Cowboys defense looked much different than it eventually would throughout the rest of the year. Parsons didn't even start the game, for example, and we barely saw any of the three-safety looks featuring each of Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, and Donovan Wilson on the field together. Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee were heavily involved in the festivities. That won't be the case this year.
The two players who did the most damage in the Tampa passing game in last season's opener are also not around anymore. Rob Gronkowski is technically still retired and who knows where Antonio Brown is. Mike Evans was very quiet against Trevon Diggs' shadow coverage in that matchup a year ago, and Chris Godwin dropped multiple passes from the slot. Evans seems likely to see a lot of Diggs again due to the size matchup (Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis are too small to handle him), and if the Bucs can give Brady enough time, Diggs is burnable. But if they can't, he is liable to jump even the widest passing windows and secure himself a turnover. If Godwin can suit up, he will likely see a lot of Lewis in the slot. If he can't, then Russell Gage figures to spend the most time in that matchup.
The Dallas defense was easier to run against last year than it was to throw on, and that figures to be the case again this season -- even if they get better play from their nose tackles. But the Bucs are among the pass-happiest teams in the league, and they would prefer to keep the game in Brady's hands. Even Leonard Fournette's best contributions last season came as a pass-catcher. If Tampa has to be run-heavy here, that likely means something has gone wrong up front, and that's a win for Dallas.
When the Cowboys have the ball
Here, too, the most important battleground is up front. Dallas, like Tampa, has three new starters along the offensive line this season.
Terence Steele at least made a bunch of starts over the past two seasons in relief of both La'el Collins and Tyron Smith, and he's now locked in along the right side of the line. He's a better run-blocker than pass-protecter, though, and could deal with a lot of Shaq Barrett on Sunday night, which is less than ideal. At left guard, Dallas is going with Conner McGovern after allowing Connor Williams to leave in free agency. The Cowboys tried to have McGovern supplant Williams in the role last season, but he struggled so badly that they returned Williams to the lineup. McGovern was expected to be an all-purpose interior backup this season as first-round pick Tyler Smith played left guard and apprenticed at Tyron Smith's side for his future as the team's left tackle... but Tyron Smith suffered a major injury and is out until at least December. Now, the rookie will slide outside to tackle after not having worked there at all this offseason. It's possible the recently-signed Jason Peters plays tackle and kicks Smith back inside eventually, but he's not going to be ready for this matchup.
With not just Barrett but also Vita Vea, Akiem Hicks, and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (among others) to deal with, none of that is good news for Dallas. Luckily for the Cowboys, Dak Prescott is also among the game's best at neutralizing pressure by getting the ball out quickly. He is one of the league's premier, pre-snap orchestrators, able to identify with relative ease where the rush is coming from and which receiver will spring open because of it. At times, he is almost too attuned to the possibility of pressure, and gets the ball out on a checkdown so quickly that he doesn't even give other routes a chance to develop. (This happened quite often in the playoff loss to the 49ers, where he was often under siege and decided he needed to just take the first throw available to him.) How he balances managing the pressure with pushing the ball down the field so the Cowboys can try to find explosive plays will be one of the most consequential factors in this matchup.
If and when he has time to throw, he'll be working with depleted weaponry compared with what was available to him when these two teams met in last year's season-opener. Amari Cooper was traded to Cleveland. Blake Jarwin retired. Michael Gallup is still working his way back from an ACL tear. In their place are Noah Brown, formerly the team's No. 4 receiver; rookie third-rounder Jalen Tolbert, who struggled for much of training camp; and rookie fourth-round tight end Jake Ferguson, who is, well, a rookie tight end.
Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is going to have to get creative, particularly with his usage of CeeDee Lamb and (hopefully) Tony Pollard. Lamb is now the unquestioned top option in this passing game, and the days of him playing 75-80 percent of the team's snaps should be over. He should also be utilized in the slot more often, sent in motion more often, and be Prescott's first read on almost every dropback. He's going to be the focus of the lion's share of defensive attention, so Moore needs to make sure it's difficult to track him.
Other than Lamb, Pollard is really the only big-play threat on this offense. Ezekiel Elliott has been out-performed by Pollard each season he has been in the league, and Pollard has created an explosive run TWICE AS OFTEN as Elliott over the past two years: 10.8 percent of Pollard's carries have gone for 15 yards or more, compared with just 5.4 percent of Elliott's. The Cowboys are once again insisting that they will use both players on the field at the same time, and really, they better -- because they really need to get Pollard on the field more often and Jerry Jones likely won't allow them to take Zeke off it.
Prediction: Buccaneers 24, Cowboys 21