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3 & Out

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3 & Out: 3 Keys To Thursday…And The Entire Season


FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics ahead of Thursday's blockbuster season-opening matchup down in Tampa:

  • The O-Line
  • A Parsons Comparison
  • Dak & The Backups

I Know…
the Buccaneers' pass rush is the most intriguing (and critical) matchup Thursday -- particularly given the Cowboys' current challenges on the offensive line.

Every season is a new entity, and replicating past success is no guarantee. But roster continuity is a precious commodity in today's NFL. The Super Bowl champions have it. Everywhere. Tampa Bay's entire defensive front is back, and besides Tom Brady's GOATness, their relentless pressure on Patrick Mahomes was the biggest factor in a 31-9 Super Bowl LV victory.

The Cowboys likely won't be at full strength to counteract that rush. Connor McGovern -- entering his second healthy season -- is expected to start at right guard unless Zack Martin can return from the Reserve/COVID-19 list at the 11th hour. McGovern says he gained confidence from eight fill-in starts at right guard last year. That experience will be important against the Bucs' massive, productive interior line featuring Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston and Vita Vea.

The Cowboys did get some good news with left guard Connor Williams (COVID protocol) and right tackle La'el Collins (stinger) returning to practice this week. Collins has dealt with that neck stinger for at least a couple weeks now, and he sat out last week to let it calm down. If indeed he starts Thursday, perhaps the time off will prevent any flare-ups.

Let's rewind seven months to the last time Tampa Bay played a meaningful game. They dominated a transcendent Chiefs offense with one major issue: a seriously depleted offensive line.

With a major personnel advantage, Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles -- known for creative and selective pressure packages -- blitzed Mahomes on less than 10% of drop-backs, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Truth was, he didn't have to. The Bucs got home over and over again with only a four-man rush, allowing Bowles to keep two safeties over the top and limit downfield throws. Shaq Barrett was a blur off the edge, racking up four quarterback hits and a sack against guard-turned-right-tackle Mike Remmers.

Watching it back, Barrett's pressure on Mahomes just before halftime – chasing him backward for what seemed like 50 yards before the all-world quarterback heaved the ball out of bounds on third down, trailing 14-3 – summed up the entire game.

Again, that was February. This is September. And this is a talented Cowboys offensive line that should be mostly intact Thursday. It's definitely the primary matchup to watch, though, because the line isn't whole. And there's a reason the Bucs tied for fourth in the league with 48 sacks last season: they're also really good.

Can the Cowboys handle the Tampa rush and open up downfield opportunities for quarterback Dak Prescott? Huge, huge key to Week 1 (and the 2021 season, even though Martin should be back soon).

I Think…
when I watch Bucs linebacker Devin White on film, I see a little of Micah Parsons.

That's high praise, because in just two seasons White has emerged as one of the NFL's premier defenders. He checked in at No. 28 on the NFL's annual Top 100 list and was the fifth-highest ranked linebacker. He piled up 140 tackles and led all inside linebackers with nine sacks in 2020.

Parsons, the 12th overall pick in April's draft, will make his NFL debut Thursday night. The Cowboys put a ton on his plate in training camp, asking him to learn a variety of roles in the front seven, because they believe he can be an instant contributor as an off-the-ball linebacker and pass rusher.

White (6-0, 237) and Parsons (6-3, 248) aren't built the same, but they both are true sideline-to-sideline linebackers. White ran a 4.37 40-yard dash coming out of LSU in 2019. Parsons ran a 4.39 at his Penn State pro day in March.

The things that make White such a tough assignment for the Cowboys on Thursday night – his sense of timing on blitzes, his instincts and quickness shooting gaps in the run game, the sheer force of his tackles – remind me of Parsons.

A big impact from the first-round pick – Thursday and the entire season – will accelerate the defense's rebuilding job under new coordinator Dan Quinn.

I Have No Idea…
if the Cowboys made the right decisions at backup quarterback, but if things go according to plan over the next four months, we'll never have to find out.

The fact is that Prescott has zero limitations from last year's ankle surgery or the strained shoulder muscle he suffered early in training camp. The expectation is he plays a full 17-game season with 1,200 or so straight snaps. Period.

It goes without saying that Prescott's injury and 11-game absence ended the Cowboys' title hopes last season. It was a freak injury and a complete deviation from Prescott's proven durability in his first 68 career games.

Typically, if your franchise quarterback goes down for that long, expectations have to be adjusted. But I would argue the true measure of a backup quarterback is the scenario the Cowboys faced in 2008, not 2020.

Remember when Tony Romo broke his pinky finger halfway through the '08 season? Missed three games. The Cowboys lost two of three with Brad Johnson and Brooks Bollinger. They missed the playoffs by one game: that 44-6 debacle at Philly in the season finale.

If you're a playoff-caliber team, do you have a backup quarterback that can keep you above water for, say, a three-game stretch? The Cowboys obviously think Cooper Rush can do that, if needed, based on his knowledge of Kellen Moore's offense.

Again, they hope they never have to find out.

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