3 & Out

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3 & Out: Sam's Debut; Run Game Rematch; More

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FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics heading into (finally!) the Cowboys' Week 1 rematch on Sunday Night Football against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

  • Lean On The Run?
  • Sam Williams' Debut
  • The Kicking Game

I Know…

if the Cowboys plan to re-establish a consistent running game in 2022, there's no better -- or perhaps tougher -- place to start than against Tampa Bay.

Last year, the Cowboys' run production dropped after the bye week thanks to a perfect storm: offensive line rotations, challenges with pre-snap movement, injuries to Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. This year, it's clear they want to re-establish a physical play style up front.

As Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said on 105.3 The Fan, "With our plan and our personnel, we hope to be able to run that football more than we ran it, let's say, in the last few years, and Zeke will be critical to that."

A healthy Elliott certainly helps, and the club continually says Pollard will have a valuable role, too. If the Cowboys can find success on the ground, it should take pressure off an offensive line that must play without Tyron Smith (hamstring) Sunday night and for a large chunk of the regular season.

The Bucs won't make it easy. Last year, they ranked third against the run, allowing just 92.5 yards per game. In the opener against Dallas, they stacked the line of scrimmage with a dynamic defensive front headlined by 347-pound Pro Bowler Vita Vea. No Zack Martin (COVID) that game didn't help. The Bucs seemingly invited the Cowboys to beat them through the air.

"That game we had a lot of runs called, but there were throws that became completions that are tagged passes," offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. "And so statistically in the box score it looks like there's a lot of passes. But plenty of run opportunities. They did a really good job stopping the run. We took advantage of some other opportunities on the perimeter. We'll see how this one takes its course."

Indeed, the Cowboys ran only 18 times for 60 yards, and quarterback Dak Prescott tied a career high with 58 pass attempts that led to 403 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-29 loss.

With rookie Tyler Smith and Connor McGovern the expected starters on the left side of the line, what will be the Bucs' approach this time? Will they load up against the run again and test the Cowboys' depleted receiver corps?

It's one of many chess matches we'll see Sunday night.

I Think…

Sam Williams' regular-season debut might not have the same hype as Micah Parsons' first game against Tampa Bay a year ago, but there's a lot of excitement about the second-round draft pick's potential.

Early in training camp, Williams said he was focused on adding to his "toolbox" at defensive end. At Ole Miss, he showed a terrific first step and closing speed as an edge rusher. In March, he posted Parsons-like combine numbers – impressive for someone who's 6-foot-4, 260 pounds.

From camp to now, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is seeing Williams grow into a complete player.

"We knew he could run. He's got the physical traits to run and to rush. I saw a real improvement (defending) in the running game," Quinn said. "The second piece from my exploring with him (was) can we put him over a guard and rush to that spot? And now I saw that's another dimension to his game because he does have enough strength to do that. Not only can he play defensive end, but he can also line up over a guard and rush in that space. The more guys you have that can do that and have that kind of versatility, I think that's big."

It's clear Quinn has a lot of belief in the defense heading into their second season in his scheme.

"We've got a deep crew and we're going to roll hard," he said.

Williams will be a big part of that rotation, even if he's not a Year 1 starter.

I Have No Idea…

what the long-term results will be at kicker, but on a roster with so much overall youth, the Cowboys chose experience with Brett Maher.

That's not the only reason, of course. As special teams coordinator John Fassel said Monday, "I think Brett Maher is the right guy because once we got him, he was the best guy."

Maher won the job pretty quickly from Lirim Hajrullahu after arriving in the middle of camp. The Cowboys have been impressed with Maher's accuracy and leg strength on field goals and kickoffs. The kicking operation with long snapper Jake McQuaide and holder/punter Bryan Anger has been smooth, too.

But obviously there was a comfort level in Maher's experience level over previous candidates Hajrullahu or rookie Jonathan Garibay. He was the Cowboys' full-time kicker in 2018 and 2019. He kicked well for the Saints in spot duty last year. He has 84 career field goal attempts. He's been around NFL training camps off and on since 2013.

The Cowboys expect to be in close games. That's the nature of the league. Their two-point loss to Tampa last year would have been a two-point win if former kicker Greg Zuerlein had made an extra point and a 31-yard field goal try. In 2021, they played two overtime games and four games decided by a field goal or less.

In Maher, they're rolling with someone who's been in the big moments.

"He's been here before, so he knows that there's pressure to kick in Dallas," Fassel said.

If Sunday is anything like last time against Tampa, Maher will be called on to make clutch kicks again.

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