Two weeks ago, it appeared the Dallas Cowboys were on their way to winning the NFC East and hosting a first-round playoff game. But back-to-back losses have dampened those chances as coach Jason Garrett and his team head to Tampa to face a Buccaneers squad that has taken a step back in 2011 after contending for a playoff spot of their own in 2010.
Buccaneers defense relying on youth
For years the Buccaneers were known for their defense, with players such as John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks anchoring the unit. This current group doesn’t have that type of players; rather it depends on some young guys in key roles. Defensive ends Da'Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn are the best players on this Bucs defense, but both are just rookies.
Second-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is on injured reserve, so it's up to Bowers and Clayborn to make plays. Both are up-the-field players who like to get wide and attack the outside shoulder of opposing offensive tackles. Bowers is longer and stronger than Clayborn, who is more explosive off the snap. Bowers does a much better job of playing off blockers with his upper-body strength, whereas Clayborn plays more upright and tries to beat the blocker with his quickness. As such, Clayborn will get hung up on blockers more often than Bowers.
Another characteristic of both young defensive linemen that Cowboys offensive linemen Doug Free and Tyron Smith must watch for: Bowers and Clayborn will chase the ball all over the field. The Cowboys have given up some bad sacks this season when protectors such as Free, Montrae Holland and Phil Costa have not finished their blocks, allowing defenders to beat them on effort. Bowers and Clayborn play with a great deal of effort; their motors are always running on both runs and passes.
On the inside of the Buccaneers defense are tackles Brian Price and Albert Haynesworth. Price has been battling an ankle injury but still has been the more productive of the two players. I have not been one bit impressed with what Haynesworth has shown on film in the games I was able to study. Teams had an easy time moving him off the spot, and he has struggled to push the pocket. This is where the Bucs miss McCoy. But Price has been workmanlike in his approach. I'm impressed not only with his ability to play against the run, but also give the Bucs an inside push on the pass rush.
The Bucs like to use Price on twist stunts, and for a big man he does a real nice job of showing athletic movement and skill. You have heard me say this about the inside players on the Cowboys offensive line: The twist stunt has allowed many defenses to cause problems with pressure. Phil Costa and Montrae Holland have struggled when there is movement in the middle of the defense, with the down linemen and linebackers working together.
Tampa's veteran secondary struggling with penalties
The secondary for the Buccaneers is a veteran group with Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib at the corners with E.J. Biggers at the nickel spot. There is plenty of contact down the field from this secondary, so the Bucs do struggle with penalties. When the Cowboys bring their three-receiver package on the field, Barber will move inside over Miles Austin, leaving Biggers on the outside. With Biggers on the field, look for Garrett to do all he can to throw the ball in his direction. Biggers gives opposing receivers a lot of room to run their routes, and he's not physical enough to handle any of these Cowboys receivers.
On the flip side, Talib is a physical cornerback who likes to play tight and run with opposing receivers. He doesn’t give them much room, which forces quarterbacks to make tight throws to complete the pass. Where teams can take advantage of Talib is on the double-move, because he is super-aggressive. Talib is not afraid to jump routes and gamble on plays. Meanwhile, Ronde Barber has played in this league for a long time because of his smarts and ball skills. Barber has never been the fastest or the quickest corner, but he is adept at reading routes and making plays. Barber is also one of those players that can get to the quarterback quickly on a slot blitz when he's playing the nickel. He has a real feel for how to time his rush, usually with good results.
If this secondary has any issue, it's tackling. Other than safety Sean Jones, the defensive backs can struggle to bring down opposing ball carriers. Barber and safety Tanard Jackson are the guys who tend to struggle the most. The physical and athletic Cowboys receivers will have opportunities to break tackles and make some big plays.
What to make of Josh Freeman and his receivers?
I must admit I had two feet squarely on the Josh Freeman bandwagon dating back to 2010, and when the 2011 season rolled around, there was no reason for me to change my view of the talented signal-caller from Kansas State. In fact, I was eager to get my first opportunity this season to study him closely ... after doing so, I must say that all those times I co-hosted "The Football Show" with Tim MacMahon and Ted Emrich, I probably should have tapped the brakes a bit on my praise of the young Bucs quarterback.
As a scout, Freeman draws you in with his tremendous size and big NFL arm, but he's not always as accurate as he needs to be with that arm. When I studied him, I was surprised with the number of open targets he misses with his passes during the course of a game. Sure, there are times when he is under duress from the pass rush, but he also will miss on simple throws even without pressure. Every pass seems to have too much velocity on it, forcing receivers to adjust to it. Also, the Bucs like to run crossing routes with their receivers, and Freeman has trouble getting the ball out in front of his receivers so they can run after catch.
I do like receiver Mike Williams, and you will see Freeman throw down the field to get him the ball. One of Williams’ true strengths is going after the ball. He can be a problem for opposing defenses, and so can Kellen Winslow, who is listed as a tight end but plays more like a big receiver. Winslow is not a huge "point-of-attack" blocker, but he does enough to get in the way. Where he causes the most damage is his ability to work off the line and in the flex position. Earlier this season, I would have said that Frank Walker would have been able to match up with Winslow, but I can't say that with any real confidence now. Winslow is much too athletic for Walker to deal with, so if Rob Ryan does decide to match up that way, Winslow could hurt the Cowboys.
Dealing with Blount's force
This week the Cowboys once again will have to deal with a running back that has size and runs with power. LeGarrette Blount is a better back than last week's battering ram, the Giants' Brandon Jacobs. Blount is a load to deal with. He has a slam- bam running style in which he just bounces like a pinball off tacklers. In a matchup earlier this season against the Packers, Blount bounced off seven would-be tacklers on one long touchdown run. Blount doesn’t have outstanding speed or quickness, but he does work his way through holes and gets up the field.
Against the Giants, the Cowboys did a poor job of getting defenders to the ball to bring down Jacobs before he got to full speed. One-on-one defenders in space will struggle to bring Blount down. This will be the type of game linebacker Bradie James must be a factor in. Against the Giants, I thought James was the one defensive player who brought a physical style to that game, and while he attacked blockers on run plays, his teammates often struggled to get off their blocks and get in position to make the tackle.
Bucs O-line is vulnerable
The Bucs offensive line is a group of push-and-shove type of run blockers. There really are no "flat-back" players in this group. The two best O-linemen are left tackle Donald Penn and right guard Davin Joseph. Penn is a bad-bodied player, but he plays with impressive feet and strength. There are times in which you see him struggle with the hard inside rush, but on a majority of snaps, he does a nice job adjusting on the move. Joseph is a physical player who has nice upper-body strength and plays light on his feet. Rarely do you see his man make a play. He does a nice job getting his hands inside to control rushers, and you'll see him in space on screen passes, which the Buccaneers like to use to try and control the pass rush.
If there is a weakness on this offensive line, it's at right tackle. Jeremy Trueblood plays with straight legs and does not adjust too well to movement. Against the Packers, Clay Matthews hurt him a couple of times using a spin move. Each week I talk about a matchup that Rob Ryan can take advantage of, and this appears to be the area he can attack Saturday in an attempt to sack the quarterback, something the Cowboys didn't do against the Giants last week.