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Dallas Cowboys: Most Critical Matchups vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Justin BonnemaContributor IIOctober 27, 2016

Dallas Cowboys: Most Critical Matchups vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    There’s nothing wrong with starting the season 1-1. In fact, that’s what we expected the Cowboys to be entering Week 3.

    What happened in Seattle can be forgotten. We’re moving on.

    Having said that, a bad loss like that does cause us to look at the schedule and see it a little bit differently. This Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers suddenly takes on more pressure. You hate to talk about must-wins this early in the season but Dallas can’t afford a 1-2 start in what’s shaping up to be a very tough division.

    So, yes, this is a must-win game. Here are a few must-win matchups that lead to the path of victory.

Cowboys' Offensive Line vs. Bucs’ Defensive Line

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    It’s common knowledge that one of the biggest issues facing the Cowboys each week is their offensive line.

    It’s a good thing that Tony Romo is a mobile and elusive quarterback, or this team wouldn’t stand a chance.

    The Tampa Buccaneers feature two good defensive ends in Adrian Clayborn and Michael Bennett, who were formally introduced to Dallas offensive tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free when the two teams met last December. Smith held up okay against Bennett, but Free had a few issues with Clayborn (Free had a few issues with every defensive end last year).

    This time, the matchups will be flipped. Free will lineup against Bennett; Smith will lineup against Clayborn.

    I’ll give Smith the advantage over Clayborn, who hasn’t played well this season. Smith needs to make sure Clayborn doesn’t have a bounce-back game against the Cowboys.  

    Free is going to struggle but hopes to at least contain Bennett in third-down passing situations. His ability to neutralize Bennett will also help the interior line create lanes for DeMarco Murray.

    The obvious goal here is to give Romo some time. He’s been spending a good part of the season running for his life. It’s out of the question to expect a great game from this group, especially considering that the starting center, Ryan Cook, wasn’t even on the roster until a few weeks ago.

    But even so much as a mediocre-to-slightly-above-mediocre performance will go a long way toward helping Dallas in a game the Cowboys have to win.

Dez Bryant and Miles Austin vs. Aqib Talib and Eric Wright

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    It’s hard to be positive about what we’ve seen from Dez Bryant so far this year.

    He had an okay game against the Giants in Week 1, catching four passes for 85 yards, but his performance against Seattle illustrated the losing culture that has permeated the Dallas Cowboys in recent years.

    Bryant had a couple of passes bounce off his hands; he fumbled once (recovered by the Cowboys); he muffed a punt on special teams and then disappeared for the last 15 minutes of the game.

    Winning teams don’t have their star players completely vanish for entire games. It’s unacceptable. Granted, the Seahawks secondary is very good, but they’re not so good that they can completely shut down an explosive duo of receivers like Bryant and Miles Austin.

    Well, at least we’ve been led to believe that they’re an explosive duo. It’s been kind of hard to judge their impact as a tandem with Austin missing as much time as he has and Bryant being hit or miss.

    It’s very important that both of these players come through in a big way against Tampa Bay. After seeing Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz completely abuse Aqib Talib and Eric Wright last week to the tune of a combined 378 yards and two touchdowns, the expectations are high.

    The pressure is especially high for Bryant to have a good game. He doesn’t need 199 yards; he just needs to be a part of the offense. He needs to gain Romo’s trust so that, as the season wears on and the Cowboys find themselves in tough spots, Romo knows he has No. 88 to bail him out when the pocket collapses.

    There’s no question that defensive coordinators are going to game-plan for him and that he’s going to see a lot of double-coverage, but when his number is called, he needs to answer.

    He can’t have drops and fumbles. And he needs make his presence felt in the red zone.

Cowboys’ Defensive Line vs. Bucs’ Offensive Line

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    The injury report coming out of Dallas highlights a major concern this team has had since training camp: depth at defensive line.

    Starting nose tackle Jay Ratliff has yet to play a snap in 2012, forcing backup Josh Brent into action. It’s unclear whether Ratliff will be making his debut in the Cowboys’ home opener.

    Veteran Kenyon Coleman is doubtful, and Marcus Spears missed practice on Wednesday, leaving only four healthy defensive linemen.

    Getting pressure up front has been a problem for this group and now it’s going to be even more difficult given their health. We’re going to see a lot of rookie Tyrone Crawford Sunday. If there is a silver lining in this mess, it’s that the Cowboys are going to find out sooner than later just how much value they’re going to get from their third-round pick.

    Thankfully, they won’t have to worry about their cornerbacks. With Michael Jenkins practicing in full, and Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne healthy and playing well, this group shouldn’t have much trouble taking care of the likes of Tampa's Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.

    That’s not to say that getting pressure on quarterback Josh Freeman isn’t important. But the focus is going to be on stopping the run. Rookie Doug Martin is off to a good start and even if LeGarrette Blount is slipping down the depth chart, he’s still the kind of big, physical running back this defensive line has trouble with. (See the 4.7 yards-per-carry Marshawn Lynch gashed them for on his way to 122 yards and a touchdown.)

    It’ll be interesting to see how Rob Ryan handles this situation.

    Ryan backed off on the blitz last week and it worked against him. This week he doesn’t have a healthy crew, so we’re not sure if he has the talent on the field to dial up pressure with any success. It makes me wonder if he’ll entertain the idea of using four down linemen instead of three. Putting another body up front certainly can’t hurt.

    Whatever the case, expect the defense to be a big factor in the final outcome Sunday.

    We’d like to say that Romo and his offense are good enough to win, regardless, but it’s not ideal to put that kind of pressure on him—much like the way the Giants D put so much pressure on Eli Manning, who needed 510 yards and 25 fourth-quarter points to avoid an upset loss against Tampa Bay.

    That’s a situation the Cowboys have to avoid in this game. And it starts with how well the defensive line plays.

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