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NFL Preview - Dallas (0-0) at Tampa Bay (0-0)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A disastrous conclusion to their respective 2008 campaigns triggered both the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to make some very noticeable changes during the offseason. The two teams will officially begin life without their former franchise faces in this Sunday's season-opening clash from Raymond James Stadium.
When the Cowboys last took the field for a game that counted, the expected Super Bowl contenders were dealt a startling 44-6 loss at the hands of the rival Philadelphia Eagles in late December. That humiliating defeat, the club's most lopsided in the 20-year reign of ever-present owner Jerry Jones, was a symbolic end to a season that fell well short of expectations.
After winning 13 regular-season games and capturing the NFC's top overall playoff seed in 2007. Dallas finished with a disappointing 9-7 record and missed out on the postseason altogether after dropping three of four December matchups. A fractured locker room was believed to be the genesis of the Cowboys' shortcomings, and Jones took measures towards correcting the problem with the well-publicized release of self-absorbed star wide receiver Terrell Owens in March.
While Owens' constant distractions and finger-pointing of teammates clearly haven't been missed, Dallas will have a challenge in replacing the nearly 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns the big-play wideout averaged during his three years in Big D. The team is counting heavily on Roy Williams, a one-time Pro Bowl performer with the Detroit Lions, to replace Owens' steady production following a quiet 10-game debut upon being acquired by the Cowboys midway through last season.
The Buccaneers failed in their quest for a second consecutive playoff nod due to an epic collapse of their own in 2008. Four straight losses, capped by a shocking 31-24 setback at home to the four-win Oakland Raiders in the finale, left Tampa Bay out of the mix with a 9-7 record and brought about the dismissal of head coach Jon Gruden after seven mostly successful seasons. Longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, architect of the team's trademark "Tampa 2" scheme, also departed at season's end, while nine-time Pro Bowl honoree Derrick Brooks, considered the quintessential linebacker of Kiffin's speed-based defense, was not brought back after a glorious 14-year tenure with the organization.
Gruden's place has been taken by neophyte Raheem Morris, who turned just 33 years old 10 days before the season opener and spent six of the past seven years serving as an apprentice under Kiffin as a Buccaneers' defensive assistant. Morris' hiring was the headliner of a flurry of moves made by new general manager Mark Dominik in a massive offseason makeover.
Five starters are gone from a defense that is undergoing a major transition in philosophy in the wake of Kiffin's exodus, while talented tight end Kellen Winslow and running back Derrick Ward were brought in to add weapons to an offense that will begin the year with a new quarterback in Byron Leftwich, the former first-round flop in Jacksonville who takes over for the aging Jeff Garcia under center.
Dallas has a 8-3 advantage in its all-time regular season series with Tampa Bay, including a 13-9 home win when the teams met at Texas Stadium in Week 8 of last season. The Buccaneers are 0-2 against the Cowboys since beating them by a 16-0 margin in 2003, also the most recent matchup played at Raymond James Stadium. The Cowboys are 0-2 in Tampa since last winning there in 1990.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met twice in the postseason, with Dallas scoring victories in a 1981 NFC Divisional Playoff (38-0) and a 1982 NFC First-Round Playoff (30-17).
Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips is 2-2 in his career against the Bucs, including a win while he was serving as interim head man of the Falcons (2003), and the losses in stints with the Broncos (1993) and Bills (2000). Tampa Bay's Morris will be making his initial foray as a head coach.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
The question that seemingly everyone wants answered in regards to the Cowboys pertains directly to Owens (69 receptions, 1052 yards, 10 TD in '08) and how much of an impact his absence will have on an offense that's averaged better than 240 yards and 30 touchdowns through the air over the last three years. Williams (36 receptions, 2 TD), who racked up 82 catches and 1,310 yards with the Lions back in 2006, certainly has the ability to be a capable substitute, but was a virtual non-factor after coming over in a trade with Detroit last October. The passing game still has a pair of very dangerous players in quarterback Tony Romo (3448 passing yards, 26 TD, 14 INT) and tight end Jason Witten (81 receptions, 4 TD), a five-time Pro Bowl choice and Romo's preferred option downfield, as well as an accomplished front line that sent three players (center Andre Gurode, guard Leonard Davis, tackle Flozell Adams) to Honolulu at season's end. Look for second tight end Martellus Bennett (20 receptions, 4 TD) to be more involved in the game plan this year after putting together a very promising rookie season.
With Owens no longer in the fold, Dallas will likely rely more upon a rushing attack that ranked just 21st in the NFL (107.7 ypg) a year ago. There's more than enough talent in the backfield to improve those numbers this season, with the hard-nosed Marion Barber (885 rushing yards, 52 receptions, 9 total TD) teaming with sophomore sensation Felix Jones (266 rushing yards, 3 TD, 2 receptions) to form an effective inside-outside duo. Barber, a Pro Bowl participant in 2007, excels between the tackles in addition to being a skilled receiver, while Jones brings a home run threat to the offense with his speed and elusiveness. The Arkansas product averaged an eye-popping 8.9 yards per rush attempt as a rookie before suffering season-ending toe and hamstring injuries in Week 6.
The Buccaneers ended ninth overall in total defense (306.1 ypg) and fourth against the pass (187.3 ypg) in Kiffin's final season, but the group will have a markedly different look under Morris and new coordinator Jim Bates. In addition to releasing Brooks, veteran staples such as linebacker Cato June, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and tackle Jovan Haye were all allowed to leave via free agency, with youngsters like second-year corner Aqib Talib (23 tackles, 4 INT) and linebackers Quincy Black (20 tackles) and Geno Hayes (13 tackles) all thrust into more prominent roles due to the changes. Veteran linemen Jimmy Wilkerson (23 tackles, 5 sacks) and Ryan Sims (16 tackles, 1.5 sacks) will also be asked for an increased contribution as starters after working as reserves under the old regime.
Tampa Bay also has a big hole to fill in the secondary during the early part of this season, with speedy free safety Tanard Jackson (69 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack) forced to sit out the first four games for violating the league's drug policy. Although the team has an experienced alternative in Jermaine Phillips (59 tackles, 3 INT), a regular on the strong side over the past few years, the hard-hitting veteran has bulked up to 230 pounds after shifting to linebacker in the new system and may have lost some quickness as a result.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Morris has made it clear he wants to employ a power-based ground game to take advantage of Tampa Bay's depth at the running back position. Ward (1025 rushing yards, 2 TD, 41 receptions) totaled over 1,400 yards from scrimmage as a backup with the Giants last year, the oft-injured Carnell Williams (233 rushing yards, 4 TD, 7 receptions) is a former NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and the versatile Earnest Graham (563 rushing yards, 4 TD, 23 receptions) amassed nearly 900 yards and scored 10 touchdowns two seasons ago. All three are expected to receive carries in a timeshare approach, with Williams and Ward currently 1-2 atop the depth chart. The Bucs are hopeful the concept will enable them to better the rather ordinary 114.8 rushing yards per week (15th overall) they averaged in 2008.
Leftwich (303 passing yards, 2 TD with Pittsburgh) will attempt to re- establish himself as a No. 1 quarterback after beating out fellow journeyman Luke McCown (traded to Jacksonville during the final roster cuts) in a preseason battle. It may be a short-lived scenario, however, with 2009 first- round draft choice Josh Freeman waiting in the wings. Leftwich has some talented targets to work with in Winslow (43 receptions, 3 TD), who's two years removed from an 82-catch, 1,106-yard season with the Browns, and wideout Antonio Bryant (83 receptions, 1248 yards, 7 TD), who resurrected a career that had been on life support with a banner 2008 campaign. Both he and starting flanker Michael Clayton (38 receptions, 1 TD) missed the majority of the preseason while nursing minor injuries, however, a concern for a team breaking in a new signal-caller. Rookie Sammie Stroughter, a seventh-round surprise, claimed third receiver duties with a strong showing in camp.
If the Cowboys can contain what looks to be a solid rushing offense on Sunday, they'll be able to turn loose a fearsome pass rush that produced a league-high 59 sacks in 2008. All-Pro outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (84 tackles, 6 forced fumbles) led all individuals with 20 quarterback takedowns last year and had a sack in all but two of the team's games, while inside linebacker Bradie James (116 tackles, 8 sacks) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff (51 tackles, 7.5 sacks) were also adept at pressuring the passer. Dallas did cut loose veteran Greg Ellis, who's compiled 20 1/2 sacks over the last two seasons, in June, but is confident that 2007 first-round pick Anthony Spencer (34 tackles, 1.5 sacks) is ready to become an impact player opposite Ware. The Cowboys finished fifth in the NFL in pass defense (187.7 ypg) last year, but the secondary will have two new starters this season in second-year corner Mike Jenkins (19 tackles, 1 INT) and strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh (70 tackles, 4 INT), a free-agent pickup from the Jaguars.
Dallas also made a few changes along the front seven from last year, with ex- Charger Igor Olshansky (29 tackles, 2 sacks) replacing the sturdy Chris Canty (signed with the Giants) at right end and 12th-year vet Keith Brooking (102 tackles) coming over from the Falcons with the team opting not to bring back the declining Zach Thomas at one of the inside linebacker spots. The Cowboys did retain their leading tackler in James, one of the key cogs to a run defense that was spotty during last year's frustrating season.
Tampa Bay's committee principle creates a very murky situation for anyone owning one of the team's three running backs, so it's probably best to take a wait-and-see approach for at least the season's first week. While Dallas will have a backfield split as well, Barber's track record (37 touchdowns over the last three years) and Felix Jones' growing role in the offense make both worthwhile plays. With the Cowboys expected to run more and Owens having taken his act to Buffalo, Romo can no longer be viewed as an elite fantasy quarterback. He's still an above average one, though, and will be facing a Tampa secondary that looks a little suspect this week. Witten is an every-week start at the tight end spot, and Roy Williams should make at least a solid choice as a No. 2 fantasy receiver now that he's had a full offseason to digest the playbook. Both Winslow and Bryant are good players on the Tampa side, but optimism should be tempered for both with the quarterback switch and the club's likely reliance on the run. Leftwich is no better than a bye-week fill-in at this point, with little long-term value in dynasty leagues. Finally, start the Dallas defense in Week 1 unless in an IDP format, where Ware, James and Buccaneers middle linebacker Barrett Ruud (137 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) would all be shrewd selections.
While the Cowboys haven't proven to be an astute pick in the winter months over the past few seasons, the team has often looked like world-beaters in September during Phillips' first two years at the helm. With the Buccaneers clearly going through a transitional phase on both sides of the ball, it's reasonable to expect Dallas to get 2009 off to another blazing start. Romo should be able to connect for a couple of big plays on a Tampa secondary that appears quite shaky, while the fact that the Bucs just fired their offensive coordinator last week doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the home team's attack. Morris may very well be a rising star in the coaching ranks, but he and his troops are likely to encounter some early bumps on what could be a very long road to success.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 24, Buccaneers 14
09/10 13:01:50 ET