FRISCO, Texas – It took a while, given the lateness of the game, but of course I found the time to break down the Cowboys' win on tape.
I trust that you watched the game, so you're aware that there was a lot of ugliness the Cowboys will want to clean up – from the penalties to a lackluster third quarter. But as always, the tape reveals just as many positives as negatives, and the positives always shine through after a win.
Anyway, here's a few highlights that stood out to me when I re-watched the game.
- It was a tremendous effort by Zack Martin, Travis Frederick and Ronald Leary to hold Gerald McCoy off the stat sheet Sunday night. There were several snaps where Martin and Leary were matched up one-on-one and he was unable to generate any significant pressure on Dak Prescott. Frederick was there in support, but he only had to work in McCoy's direction when he felt it was necessary to give a shot to him to slow his rush down. The Buccaneers tried to free McCoy up on some twist stunts but each time they tried, the inside three were up to the task.
- I honestly didn't know that much about Cameron Brate until I studied him on film in preparation for this game. But after seeing him play, I have even more respect for him. He is a combination of athletic and pass catching ability. The best matchup for the Cowboys was to put Byron Jones on him and work to try to deny him the ball -- which was always going to be a difficult task. Early in the game, Jones made a four-point play while in coverage on a crossing route from the Dallas 7-yard line. Brate, moving right to left, was unable to gain any type of separation on Jones, who was in his hip pocket. Even with the lack of a window, Jameis Winston still tried to fit the ball in there. Jones, reading the route, was able to take his off-hand (left) and put it in front of Brate to knock the ball to the ground -- forcing the Buccaneers to have to kick the field instead of scoring a touchdown.
- It's fascinating to watch Jason Witten affect coverage, especially on third downs. In this particular situation, Cole Beasley was able to run a post for a first down because Witten's route pulled safety Bradley McDougald off the hash. Without that space created in the route, there is a great chance Beasley was going to likely have to make a difficult contested catch with McDougald sitting in the hole. Instead, he was able to get inside of Vernon Hargreaves for 22 yards.
- I thought we saw better use of Lance Dunbar and his role in this game. Scott Linehan came up with some creative ways to get him out in the route, working on linebackers instead of asking him to pick them up on blitzes. I loved the design of walking him out of the backfield and to the outside stacked behind Jason Witten. Using this alignment, when Witten went off on the snap, it created a wake up the field, putting pressure on Bradley McDougald and Lavonte David to have to try and find Dunbar in coverage. David was caught flat footed, allowing Dunbar to break to the outside for an easy pitch-and-catch from Dak Prescott for 15 yards and a first down. Linehan came back later in the game and gave the Buccaneers the same look with Witten and Dunbar, but instead of breaking him to the outside, he moved inside against Kwon Alexander -- who was overplaying the route. Dunbar made the reception and raced into the end zone untouched, but the play came back due to a holding call on Tyron Smith.
- I had a good feeling going into this game that Terrell McClain and Maliek Collins were going to have some success against the Buccaneers' inside three. The first turnover of the game came on a blitz where they covered the center and guards, creating one-on-one blocks while running Byron Jones on Doug Martin. McClain was lined up on the right shoulder of center Joe Hawley and on the snap, crossed his face to attack his left shoulder. Hawley was unable to get his hands on McClain, who lunged into the backside of Jameis Winston – forcing the the ball straight up in the air. Alertly, Collins was able to hustle over to the ball for the recovery, putting the offense in great shape field position-wise.
- How about Taylor Stern on Cowboys Break last week calling for Darren McFadden and Ezekiel Elliott to be in the backfield at the same time? Who knew that would actually happen with McFadden lining up as the fullback. It was a well-blocked "Belly" play with McFadden following the double-team block of Zack Martin and Travis Frederick. That duo was able to take care of Gerald McCoy, which gave him the crease he needed to secure the first.
- Give credit to Dak Prescott for the long completion to Brice Butler that put the ball on the Tampa Bay 2-yard line. It was his play fake to Darren McFadden that sucked the blitzing Lavonte David inside, which gave him the room to spin to the outside and throw a strike to Butler. Also give Butler some credit as well for the route that he executed against Brent Grimes. Without his athletic ability, he doesn't get his feet in bounds while securing the catch. That reception set up the very next play, with Prescott scoring easily on a quarterback draw.
- You never know what might happen when a team tries a "Hail Mary" at the end of a half or game. The Buccaneers have the perfect player when it comes to those types of situations in Mike Evans. Other than Dez Bryant, I am not sure I've seen a player that is as good as Evans in the air. With the arm strength of Jameis Winston and the leaping ability of Evans, there was no question that this was a dangerous play before the half. Defensively, it was textbook execution by Barry Church, Sean Lee and Byron Jones to not allow Evans the opportunity to even get in the air. As a group they were able to bang on Evans to the point where he was knocked off balance and was left flat-footed. The only player that was able to get in the air was Jones, who high-pointed the ball for his first career NFL interception.
- One of my favorite plays that Dallas runs is the toss sweep to Ezekiel Elliott. They hit one early in the game for a large gain and then came back to it late, running it to the short side of the field. What I do enjoy most about the play is when Jason Witten captures the edge, allowing Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith to pull around the corner. You can see the secondary start to get width instead of coming up to attack the ball. No defender wants to take on any of these offensive linemen, especially with their ability to stay on their feet and adjust to movement. It's impressive to see Frederick running step-for-step with Elliott, looking for someone to block 15 yards down the field. It is this type of play that gives the offense the chance to run fakes like we saw last week to Terrance Williams, when he was all by himself off the play action to Elliott.
- The best way this defense has been able to create pressure is through coverage. An example of this was on the interception by Jeff Heath. The Cowboys had their dime package on the field with a two-deep look. The huddle call was to play man coverage underneath and try to help with the safeties. As the routes begin to develop, there was not one Buccaneers receiver that was open, which left Winston no choice but to attempt a brave, tight window throw inside to Adam Humphries with Anthony Brown and Heath in coverage. The problem with this decision was that Winston had to hold the ball a tick longer because of the coverage. This allowed David Irving to beat Gosder Cherlius to the inside. It was all that Irving needed to reach out with his right hand and hit Winston's elbow, causing the ball to direct badly off target. Heath was lined up exactly where he needed to be to finish the play.
- As impressive as Benson Mayowa has been as a pass rusher recently, it's been his ability to defend the run that has caught my attention. Where he is having success is playing on the move and not trying to take on blockers toe-to-toe. When he has been able to quickly get inside before the blocker has a chance to react is where he has been at his best. Mayowa is doing a great job of taking away any contact surface that blockers might use against him. He is making himself small, but once in the clear, he's making himself big to finish. He is becoming more of an every down player and that reliability will allow him to play for snaps in all situations. I'll be interested to see how they use him and Randy Gregory playing off that right side -- especially with DeMarcus Lawrence dealing with back problems.
- Super smart play by Dak Prescott taking sack on that 3rd-and-4 play with 1:50 left in the game. He had a chance to hit Terrance Williams on the crossing route for the first down, but the motion didn't fool Robert Ayers. If Ayers had chased the motion, it's an easier throw. Ayers was so close to Prescott that trying to throw the ball over the top of him would have likely resulted in a turnover and a game-changing play. Prescott did the right thing by getting down and making the Buccaneers use their last time out, then punting the ball. It was a play that could have been a huge negative if he had handled it poorly. Instead, they punted and the defense was able to hold on down to end the game with an Orlando Scandrick interception.