Grudge Match: Cowboys-Buccaneers keys

December, 16, 2011
12/16/11
11:00
PM ET

Cowboys' run defense vs. Buccaneers RB LeGarrette Blount: The run defense for the Dallas Cowboys has been very up and down this season. After a week where they struggled against the Giants’ Brandon Jacobs, the Cowboys get a similar challenge with another physical back in Blount.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to run the ball on the Cowboys' front seven to take the pressure off quarterback Josh Freeman. Freeman has struggled the most with his accuracy. Having success with Blount running the ball would create better down-and-distance situations for Freeman. It sounds simple, but it's true: When a team is ahead of the chains, it makes the offense work that much better. When teams have been able to keep Freeman in long down-and-distances, he has had his most difficulty.

Scout's Eye
Blount is a punishing runner who pinballs his way through tacklers. He is not explosive or fast, but he is powerful. In the Green Bay game, I counted seven tackles that he broke on his way to a rushing touchdown. It will take more than one man to bring Blount down.

If the Cowboys struggle to get off blocks and don’t get defenders to the ball, it will be a long night for this defense, much like it was against the Giants. Look for Rob Ryan to commit early to trying to stop the Buccaneers from running the ball with Blount. If he doesn’t, that will take a great deal of pressure off Freeman.

Cowboys WR Miles Austin vs. Buccaneers CB Ronde Barber: I am looking for this matchup to be a battle out of the slot when Jason Garrett puts three receivers on the field.

Barber is a veteran corner who has had his share of big plays, whether it is in coverage or blitzing out of the slot to make a sack. Barber doesn’t have the physical skill to shut down Austin, but he has an advantage because he is very smart and has an outstanding feel for how to position himself en route to defend the ball.

Barber has struggled the most this season with his tackling. Tony Romo needs to find ways to get Austin the ball on the move and force Barber to play a physical game. Barber is not a big guy, and when he has to play against a physical receiver, he struggles to match that style.

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Listen Listen
The biggest weakness of the Buccaneers' defense is that the secondary struggles to tackle. Aqib Talib is the most talented of the cornerbacks and safety Sean Jones is physical player, but Barber and safety Tanard Jackson struggle to get guys on the ground.

Next to the St. Louis Rams, this was the poorest tackling secondary that I had studied. When you are a poor tackling defense, it leads to big plays. Look for Garrett to use Austin a number of ways out of the slot and on the outside to take advantage of a secondary that will give up space to work.

Cowboys OLB Anthony Spencer vs. Buccaneers RT Jeremy Trueblood: The Giants visited Cowboys Stadium with an offensive line that was banged up and struggling to protect Eli Manning but managed to keep him upright against a Cowboys front that did not do a good enough job of applying any type of pressure or getting off blocks in the running game.

The Cowboys will face a Buccaneers offensive line that is solid at left tackle and right guard but tends to have problems everywhere else. If the Cowboys are going to make any type of real playoff push, they are going to have to get players outside of DeMarcus Ware to step up and play at a higher level.

This week, the Cowboys have a winnable matchup on the outside with Spencer against Trueblood, who is a straight-legged player who struggles to move or adjust. Trueblood plays way too tall, and you see defenders drive him back off the ball in the passing game. You also see him playing with little or no power in the running game.

The one player that saves the Buccaneers on the right side is right guard Davin Joseph, who in my view is an outstanding player. If the Cowboys are able to attack the middle of the pocket and force Joseph to have to focus inside, it leaves Trueblood on an island with Spencer or whomever Ryan puts to that side. The Cowboys need to have someone step up and this is the side where some success could be had.

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