When you start a season on the road against a team like Tampa Bay, you feel a fair amount of pressure to bring home a win by any means necessary. And you should. Simply put, if you closely examine the 2009 Dallas Cowboys schedule, there will not likely be a more favorable road match-up all season than this week 1 matchup against the Bucs. Kansas City is the other candidate for "easiest road matchup", but with a decent QB in Matt Cassel, a loud stadium, and 5 weeks to learn their new offensive coordinator, I think the Chiefs should present a more difficult match-up than Sunday.
Things working against Tampa Bay on Sunday:
1) New Coach who has never run a football game as a head coach at any level.
2) QB who is only starting by default until the "next one" (Josh Freeman) is ready.
3) QB has not practiced with either starting WRs since winning the job due to health issues.
4) New OC, named last week, who has had less than 10 days to install his offense - without healthy WRs.
5) New DC and new scheme with 6 new starters on defense.
So, yes, it will be hot on the field. And yes, you are on the road. But, for all of the reasons listed above, the Cowboys must place the highest level of priority on Sunday's season opener. Losing is not an option.
To me, when the Cowboys are on offense, we will finally get a feel for the philosophy that Jason Garrett and Wade Phillips (and Jerry Jones) had in mind when they made the decision to let Terrell Owens go. They clearly had many meetings and discussed that if they said goodbye to one of the most dynamic producers in this generation, then how would the offense go about its business?
What did Jerry mean by Romo-Friendly? And how will it be employed?
It has been said in countless places that all the Cowboys did was subtract Owens from last year's team. I beg to differ. The offense in December 2008 had no Marion Barber, no Felix Jones, and very little Martellus Bennett. I submit to you that those 3 playmakers will offer a substantial boost to the offense that will mitigate the losses that cutting Owens cost them. The key to me comes back to Protection schemes.
Check this out from Football Outsiders :
Last year, the Bucs had the league's third best defensive DVOA when they hurried the quarterback -- and Tony Romo was hurried more often than any quarterback in the NFL.
Jason Witten, Marion Barber and Felix Jones are expected to be a big part of the Cowboys' passing game, but more passes to the wide receivers might make sense against the Tampa Bay defense. Last year, the Bucs ranked fourth in DVOA against passes to tight ends and third against passes to running backs.
No QB in football was hurried more than Tony Romo? And you thought this OL was decent. The facts show that Romo was hit on a regular basis. Witten stayed in to pass block less and less, and Romo got hit more and more as he waited for his Wide Receivers to get through their routes.
1) Flozell Adams must keep Gaines Adams from turning the corner at LT. Gaines is not stout against the run, but he is a speed rusher. In fact, he had 2 sacks last year in this match-up. He has no real inside moves, so his best strategy has been to get around the corner. Look for many chips if Flozell starts slow.
2) Play a relatively clean offensive game. If you make Tampa drive the field, you likely will not lose. If you give them free points by turning the ball over carelessly, the Bucs can stay in this game. Punts are good, INTs are bad. Do not challenge Aqib Talib at the sideline. He will jump routes and if he guesses right...
3) Demonstrate a plan to utilize Felix in space. When he is on the perimeter, he is electric. Further, the Tampa OLBs are green and unproven. Isolate and watch the yardage.
4) Be Patient. Understand that 21 points should be plenty. Take the TE for 8 yards and move the chains.
Really, the Bucs will have two ideas on Sunday. Pound the rock with their stable of capable backs, and then go over the top on Play Action when the Cowboys Safeties sneak a peak into the backfield and forget about the WRs streaking down the sideline.
So, the Cowboys must stop the run. Teams look at the Dallas defense and think they can run against the 3-4 because of the size of the front 3. Jay Ratliff is a superb player, but because he is undersized as a NT, teams want to test him. Tampa has a veteran offensive line that is led by their Left Tackle, Donald Penn. Penn will be a good match-up against DeMarcus Ware, and although he will get some help should hold up pretty well. In fact, Ware's consecutive game streak with a sack ended last year against Penn.
1) Respect Antonio Bryant. You may think of him as the petulant child who the Cowboys gambled on and then regretted it. But, he is a grown man these days. He was franchised (wisely) by the Bucs this spring when they elected not to give him a big extension and instead want him to prove that 2008 was no fluke. I am not sure he is healthy, as he has missed almost all of training camp with his injury, but he is going to play and therefore must be respected with safety help all day. Our first test of the season for the new safety tandem of Ken Hamlin and Gerald Sensabaugh. It will be tempting to crash the line and blow up run plays, but Tampa is waiting for 2 or 3 chances to take a shot and hit a home run on play action fakes. DO NOT get sucked up.
2) Dial Up that Blitz. There is no reason for the Cowboys not to employ plenty of 5, 6, and 7 men pass rushes. Pick your spots for sure, but when you have limited pass catchers, and a stationary QB who does not get the ball out of there very fast, it would seem to scream for more pressure being brought. I cannot imagine many 3 WR looks from Tampa, so expect minimal Nickel looks from the defense. Derrick Ward is a back who has cost the Cowboys in the past as a receiver, and Kellen Winslow should not be slept on, so the LBs will be tested in coverage. But, I believe it all starts with pressure.
3) Keep your bodies fresh. Rotate plenty in the heat, and don't allow your team to be worn down. This will be a good chance to examine this team's depth. Gulp. Ever wondered what is behind Jay Ratliff?
4) Plug the gaps in the defense, and keep the guards off the MLBs. This falls to Olshansky and Spears to be anchors in the line and occupy blockers. If they do that, then James/Brooking will be able to get the defense off the field. If they can't, then the safeties will creep up, and that leads us back to #1.
This should be a win. Turnovers and big plays are the great equalizers, but I have to assume the Cowboys will be prepared for this low-hanging fruit. A loss would be unacceptable.
Dallas 24, Tampa 14