The Buccaneers were very close to the playoffs last year, and–after seven straight losses–they will be watching from home again this time around. Their passing game just isn’t what it was last year, and their defense has been equally as bad.
Common sense says that it should be Dallas who wins this game, as they need to fight for their playoff spot, but they’ve been one of the hardest teams to predict, though they’ve typically pulled out victories when facing the weaker teams in the league. The loss of DeMarco Murray at running back certainly doesn’t help and every year we see a handful of games where the team playing for pride pulls it off, so this one’s far from in the bag for Dallas.
Can the Buccaneers be one of those teams that has a late-season upset to hurt someone else’s playoff chances? Here are three matchups that can help answer that question.
Dallas Passing Attack vs. Tampa Bay Secondary
Who needs a run game when you have the passing options that Dallas has. In his sophomore season, Dez Bryant (+9.0) has pushed towards becoming one of the elite receivers in the league. He’s forced 10 missed tackles which ranks ninth for receivers, and his eight touchdowns ranks fifth. Miles Austin (+2.1) is finally healthy and Laurent Robinson (+4.5) has stepped up as a viable receiving option. All three of them average over 14.6 yards per catch, numbers that are above average in that category. While Jason Witten (+7.8) hasn’t been the receiving threat he’s been in the past, he still has been playing well and has forced eight missed tackles; fifth-best in the league for tight ends.
Tampa Bay will have a problem stopping one of these receivers let alone all four. Cornerback Ronde Barber (-21.8) has allowed 66.2% of balls thrown his way to be caught and his 21 missed tackles are very high total. Safety Sean Jones (-10.4) has only allowed 14 catches this year, but it’s been for a league-high 23.9 yards per catch. Their nickel cornerback E.J. Biggers (-9.1) has been thrown at seven times in each of the past four games, and has allowed four catches in each game as well. Safety Tanard Jackson (-8.9) has missed 17 tackles which is the most at the position.
Taken all together, it sure looks like we can expect the Dallas receivers to haul in some balls and do some dancing afterward.
LeGarrette Blount vs. Cowboys Run Defense
If there is one player that can make Buccaneers fans optimistic, it’s LeGarrette Blount (+6.8). He has an elusive rating of 67.0, which is second to only the now-injured Fred Jackson. The only problem with him is he will have some excellent games mixed with some sub-par ones. In six games this year he has averaged 4.8 yards per carry or more, while in the other five he’s played in he has averaged 3.4 yards per carry or less.
It’s hard to tell what kind of day Blount will have against Dallas. All seven starters in their front seven have positive run defense ratings led by Sean Lee (+9.7) who has had nine stops over the last two games. Dallas did, however, struggled last week against Brandon Jacobs who had 101 yards on 19 carries. Blount is similar to Jacobs in terms of their size and the Cowboys could see similar issues crop up.
Buccaneers Passing Attack
Quarterback Josh Freeman (-16.8) has not played nearly as well in 2011 as he did in 2010. When he’s not under pressure, he averages just 6.9 yards per attempt, and has more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10). And, naturally, the numbers don’t get any better when he is under pressure.
To be fair, he hasn’t received much help from his receiving group, led by Mike Williams (-5.8). Last year he averaged 5.3 yards after the catch per catch, and this year it’s down to 3.4. They might be in luck this week, though, against Dallas’ group of below-average cornerbacks. Recently, Terence Newman (-4.2 coverage), Mike Jenkins (-2.3 coverage), and Alan Ball (-5.2 coverage) have taken the snaps out wide and each allows over 12.6 yards per catch. While it might not be as entertaining as a battle of strength vs. strength, one of these units will probably get the best of the other, which will go a long way in determining if this game is kept close or not.