Patrik [No C] Walker joined the Dallas Cowboys digital media group as a staff writer and media personality in July 2022, having professionally covered the NFL and, more specifically, the Cowboys since 2007.
He most recently did so for CBS Sports by way of 247Sports, where he also spent time delving into collegiate recruiting as well – ultimately becoming well-known for his level of unapologetic objectivity labeled by many as his own unique brand of football "science".
Welcome to "The Science Lab", a place where football facts and in-depth analysis always triumph over feelings.
FRISCO, TX — There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion. Those words from the incomparable Edgar Allen Poe ring magnificently true when assessing how the 2022 version of the Dallas Cowboys got to this point. And now, on the precipice of either soaring or sinking, it's time to find out how the sculpture of this season will ultimately look.
As the Cowboys get themselves together to travel and take on Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it's the strangeness in the proportions of their 12-5 season that have to become fuel for what is now four one-week seasons.
And so it goes that lessons are abound from the Cowboys regular season that they can and better pull from to avoid another one-and-done postseason:
The opening day loss to the Buccaneers. The loss in Philadelphia to the Eagles. The overtime losses at the hands of the Packers and Jaguars. The first half against the Lions. The first three quarters against the Colts. All but the final two minutes against the Texans.
"I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity." - Poe
Every single one of those situations carries more than enough hurt serve the greater good, if channeled correctly, and as efforts ramp up at The Star in Frisco with their season on the line and Tom Brady tugging at the other end of it, let's have a look at what the Cowboys are up against on NFL Super Wild Card Weekend.
In dissecting what the Buccaneers do well or poorly, it quickly became evident what the Cowboys should be thrilled about versus what they better saddle up against in Tampa.
This should be a point of emphasis for Dallas, in a big way, at several points in the game.
This is a game they'll have a shot at establishing the run in (more on that in a moment), but the Buccaneers are not exactly lights-out in stopping the pass. The key for the Cowboys will be in the hands of Prescott, who is accountable for the majority of his interceptions since returning from injury, but also with his receivers — who are accountable for the others.
Prescott needs to take what the defense is giving him and live to fight another play, because there will be opportunities later for big plays if he does.
- t-31st in passing TDs allowed (29) behind only the Chiefs (33)
- t-27th in INT tally (10)
- 5th in sacks gained (45, 2.6 sacks per game)
See green? Take off and gain yardage to either move the chains or create third- or fourth-and-short yardage to allow offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and head coach Mike McCarthy the chance to make a decision versus taking it out of their hands with a giveaway; and a combination of getting the ball out quickly and using play-action pass will go a long way to keeping that pass rush at bay.
And so will the return of three and four tight end sets, something that has been highly productive for the Cowboys before they began peeling back on it in December. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see it fully unleashed again in Tampa — especially seeing as it would inherently help the rushing attack as well (linebackers would begin playing back and not forward).
I get it, the Cowboys struggled to run the ball against the Buccaneers in Week 1, but let's all keep the same energy here in understanding that this isn't the same rushing attack the Tampa front faced to open the season. It's not the same offense at all, as a matter of fact. The addition of T.Y. Hilton to the mix adds another threat for Todd Bowles to worry about, and that makes it more difficult to collapse down into the box in the rematch.
Also, the Cowboys were about as committed to running the ball in the first matchup as the late Hugh Hefner was to being faithful.
Elliott had a team-high 10 carries and Pollard was allowed only six on the day, and that combined with struggles in the passing attack (one that was still trying to find its way re: Lamb as a WR1, was absent Michael Gallup with injury and, as stated, did not have Hilton).
- 15th in rushing yards allowed (2,052 total, 120.7 per game)
- 23rd in rushing yards allowed per carry (4.5 per carry)
This time around, the Zeke + Pollard combo is arguably the most dominant in the league, both healthy as well, and Prescott's arsenal also includes the emergence of rookie tight ends Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot.
Assuming Tyler Biadasz is back at center, the offensive line should be more efficient as well in both the run and pass, so that turns the onus to Prescott to avoid tossing interceptions and his receivers from creating their own version of them. If the Cowboys can take advantage of a Bucs front that allows nearly 120 rushing yards per game and almost four yards per carry, the passing attack can start nailing the coffin closed.
Considering the Bucs have allowed 150+ rushing yards or more in a game on seven separate occasions this season, well, it's science, but it's not rocket science.
Ah, Mr. Brady, the nucleus of the football tumor that must be excised on Monday.
Many talk about matchups but, to be frank here, I do not care about all of that. I'm a bigger fan of catharsis and that means running through the best to prove you're better than them. Brady's team is struggling in 2022, sure, but he's still the best and that's not up for debate. And yet, while that's true, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer isn't doing anything that can't be contained.
His biggest attribute, other than his clutch gene, is that he is still doing what Prescott was also once known for: not turning the ball over. Therein lies the formula to defeating Brady on Monday, which is to say forcing him into the uncharacteristic mistake.
Easier still, however, would be to force his targets into making mistakes (e.g., knocked off of the spot at the LOS to disrupt timing, locking in hip-to-hip on routes, forcing indecision on smart routes) to make even the best throw from Brady escalate into a chance at a takeaway.
- 7th in passing yards (4,746)
- 7th in passing TDs (26)
- t-4th fewest INTs in the NFL (10)
The challenge for the Cowboys is obvious, because Brady will target Nahshon Wright and every other cornerback not named Trevon Diggs or DaRon Bland, heavily, making this a big opportunity for Wright to take the next step forward … or backward as he passes the baton to two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
Here's what's interesting about the Bucs' passing attack, though: a large chunk of it comes on screen plays/passes to RBs out of the backfield. Leonard Fournette has been targeted 83 times this season by Brady and his 73 receptions are third-most on his team, as is his receiving yard mark of 523 yards, as is his receiving touchdowns tally of three. That is very eye-opening as it relates to how the Cowboys need to attack the Bucs, and makes the return of Vander Esch that much more invaluable.
Vander Esch will often be tasked with beating Fournette sideline to sideline on screens and bubbles, and I like that matchup, considering Fournette is far from a speed back (which would be more challenging for a LB to cover horizontally) but more so a bruiser. But in case you haven't noticed, Vander Esch also packs a wallop of his own, making this a matchup that will help determine the outcome of this game.
Brady will make plays, because he's Brady, but minimizing the number of others who do will give the Cowboys a chance at taking a lead into the fourth quarter — if they play clean football themselves — and that lead better be two possessions or more to weather what will inevitably be a late-game rally by Brady with his home crowd pushing him forward.
So, at this point, I've told you where the Buccaneers are either solid or not so much, and where they're very good (Brady's passing attack), and now comes the anchor on their boat and a glaring reason that team finished with a sub-.500 record.
Their rushing attack is fugayzi, fugahzi, it's a whazy, it's a woozie.
It's fairy dust. It doesn't exist.
- 32nd in NFL in total rushing yards (1,308, 76.9 per game)
- 32nd in NFL in yards per rush (3.4 per game)
- 32nd in NFL in rushing gains 20+ yards (3)
- 32nd in NFL in rushing gains 40+ yards (0)
This levels the playing field in gargantuan fashion for the Cowboys, seeing as one of the Achilles heels for much of the season has been their struggles in stopping the run.
In this contest, they'll not only go against a Buccaneers rushing attack that is the worst in the entire league in all categories that matter, but they'll do it with the return of both starting nose tackle Johnathan Hankins and starting middle linebacker Leighton Vander Esch on schedule to return.
With both Hankins and Vander Esch on the field, the Cowboys allowed only two running backs to exceed 100 yards through six games (Aaron Jones, Travis Etienne), having not coincidentally losing those games, but routinely bottling up some of the best in the league — e.g., David Montgomery, Dalvin Cook, Jonathan Taylor and Damien Pierce.
The duo will return to try and halt the statistically worst rushing attack in the league, and one that only gets the ball 22.83% of the time on first down. That statistical tidbit also makes it easier for the Cowboys to key in on the reality that, more than three-fourths of the time on first down, it's a pass and not a run.
That's because of what I mentioned above as well, in that the Bucs target Fournette as a receiver out of the backfield — screens, bubbles, flats — to an exponential degree as a way of being an extended part of their rushing offense.
Stopping those quick outs to the RB would effectively neuter their entire "rushing" attack.
And when the Buccaneers do call the traditional run, they average only 3.4 yards per game and less than 77 yards total on a week-to-week basis. By the way, even without Hankins and Vander Esch, the Cowboys run defense has, through a total of 18 games, only allowed nine rushing touchdowns.
That's the second fewest in football, period.
"Never to suffer would have been never to have been blessed." - Poe
Red Zone Efficiency:
Yet another area that tilts wildly in favor of the Cowboys, and on both sides of the ball.
The Buccaneers have proven they can matriculate the ball down the field, but they struggle at punching the ball in once they get to the 20-yard line or closer. Contrarily, the Cowboys offense is literally the best in the league at doing exactly that, their struggles recently having been more in the area of matriculation itself; but let's put some numbers to this point for maximum visual.
- Bucs RZ Offense: 26/50 attempts (52%) — ranked 22nd
- Cowboys RZ Offense: 40/56 attempts (71.4%) — ranked 1st
Now a look at each defense:
- Bucs RZ Defense: 30/48 attempts by opponent (62.5%) — ranked 26th
- Cowboys RZ Defense: 26/50 attempts by opponent (52%) — ranked 9th
These numbers, plus the accompanying film, demonstrate another glaring opportunity for the Cowboys to get a stranglehold on the matchup. The Buccaneers defense doesn't fare well against teams in the red zone and they're going against the best in the league in that area, which means if Dallas can get to Tampa's 20-yard line, they have an excellent chance at walking away with touchdowns.
Contrarily, the Cowboys defense, as noted, is top-10 in the league in keeping opponents out of the end zone once they make it to the red zone, so any respective drive from Brady is far from over just because they might find themselves near the end zone.
Chunk plays against the Cowboys are only devastating if that play results in a touchdown itself because, otherwise, the opponent is far from guaranteed a trip to pay dirt; and the Buccaneers are in the bottom third of the league in trying to convert them anyway.
"Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see." - Poe
Never underestimate the importance of field position and the chess match that goes into winning it on a weekly basis, and the value of that game within the game is why KaVontae Turpin earned a Pro Bowl nod and NFLPA All-Pro honor as a rookie in Dallas — on a team that has long been deficient in the area of kick/punt returner (since the days of Dwayne Harris).
Two muffed punts, though? Can't happen. A third might send the Cowboys fishing.
Turpin knows this, and I'm more inclined to believe he will not cough up the ball in Tampa than I am to believe that he will. And as long as he fields each kick/punt cleanly, my next item would be for the Cowboys special teams unit to maintain discipline and not delete any of Turpin's would-be potent returns, as has been the case at several points this season.
There is a dangerous returner in a Bucs uniform as well, however, or rather a committee of them, those duties split between Rachaad White, Deven Thompkins and Jaelon Darden. None of the below have a return TD just yet, but each are an instant threat to change that on Monday.
- KaVontae Turpin: 28 KRs, 508 KR yards, L-63 yards, 24.2 YPKR
- Bucs Return Committee: 26 KRs, 574 KR yards, L-54 yards, 22.13 YPKR
And now, the punt return numbers, which do not include White (who doesn't participate in that role):
- KaVontae Turpin: 29 PRs, 303 PR yards, L-52 yards, 10.4 YPPR
- Bucs Return Committee: 37 PRs, 392 PR yards, L-24 yards, 10.4 YPPR
Rather similar in all regards, I'd say, and it's why the Cowboys special teams unit needs to be as effective at gunner duty against the Bucs returners as they need to be disciplined in not cutting Turpin off at the knees in the biggest game of the season thus far. From there, or rather before they're given a chance to clean up the latter, will be the importance of Turpin staying focused on first fielding the ball before trying to blast off.
What needs to happen for the Cowboys on Super Wild Card Weekend is far more predicated upon their ability to defeat the person in the mirror than the guy lined up in front of them, because I continually contend that the best version of this team is virtually unbeatable by anyone other than the team wearing the Star on its helmet.
All that's left to do now is to bottle up every ounce of the strangeness from the 2022 season and form it into the most beautiful work of art they've seen since the mid-1990s.
The tournament has arrived and, as such, the time for self-inflicted wounds has officially expired.
"Quoth the raven: 'Nevermore.'" - Poe