FRISCO, Texas- back with three quick topics Heading into (finally!) the Cowboys’ Week 1 rematch on Sunday Night Football against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
- Lean on the run?
- Sam Williams debut
- the kick game
If the Cowboys plan to reestablish a consistent running game in 2022, there’s no better, or perhaps more difficult, place to start than against Tampa Bay.
Last year, the Cowboys’ run production dropped after the bye week thanks to a perfect storm: offensive line rotations, challenges with pre-center movement, injuries to Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. This year, it’s clear they want to re-establish a physical style of play up front.
As Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said on 105.3 The Fan: “With our plan and our staff, we hope to be able to run that football more than we have in, say, the last few years, and Zeke will be instrumental.” For that”.
A healthy Elliott certainly helps, and the club continually say Pollard will play a valuable role as well. If the Cowboys can find success on the ground, it should take pressure off an offensive line that must play without Tyron Smith (hamstring) on Sunday night and for much of the regular season.
The Bucs won’t make it easy. Last year, they ranked third against the run, allowing just 92.5 yards per game. In the opener against Dallas, they stacked the line of scrimmage with a dynamic defensive frontline spearheaded by 347-pound professional bowler Vita Vea. No Zack Martin (COVID) that game didn’t help. The Bucs apparently invited the Cowboys to beat them through the air.
“That game we had a lot of runs called, but there were pitches that turned into passes,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “And, statistically, in the scoring box it looks like there’s a lot of passing. But a lot of running opportunities. They did a really good job of stopping the run. We took advantage of a few other opportunities on the perimeter. We’ll see how this one plays out.”
In fact, the Cowboys rushed just 18 times for 60 yards, and quarterback Dak Prescott tied a career high with 58 pass attempts that led to 403 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-29 loss.
With rookie Tyler Smith and Connor McGovern expected starters on the left side of the line, what will the Bucs’ focus be this time? Will they get back on the run and test the Cowboys’ exhausted receiving corps?
It is one of the many chess matches that we will see on Sunday night.
Sam Williams’ regular-season debut might not have the same buzz as Micah Parsons’ opener against Tampa Bay a year ago, but there’s plenty of excitement about the potential second-round pick.
Early in training camp, Williams said he was focused on adding to his “toolbox” at defensive end. At Ole Miss, he showed excellent first step and closing speed as an edge runner. In March, he posted combined numbers similar to Parsons’, impressive for someone who is 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds.
From camp to now, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is watching Williams develop into a complete player.
“We knew he could run. He has the physical characteristics to run and run. I saw real improvement (defensively) in the running game,” Quinn said. “The second piece of my exploration with him (was) can we put him over a guard and run to that spot? And now I saw that it’s another dimension to his game because he has enough strength to do that. He can not only play defensive end, but he can also line up on a shooting guard and run in that space. The more guys you have that can do that and have that kind of versatility, I think that’s great.”
It’s clear that Quinn has a lot of confidence on defense heading into his second season in his scheme.
“We have a deep team and we are going to ride hard,” he said.
Williams will be a big part of that rotation, even if he’s not a Year 1 starter.
I have no idea…
what the long-term results will be as a kicker, but on a roster with so much youth overall, the Cowboys chose the experience with Brett Maher.
That is not the only reason, of course. As special teams coordinator John Fassel said Monday, “I think Brett Maher is the right person because once we got him, he was the best person.”
Maher won the spot pretty quickly from Lirim Hajrullahu after making it to the middle of the camp. The Cowboys have been impressed with Maher’s accuracy and leg strength on field goals and kickoffs. The kicking operation with long snapper Jake McQuaide and starter/punt Bryan Anger has also been smooth.
But obviously there was a comfort level in Maher’s level of experience over previous candidates Hajrullahu or rookie Jonathan Garibay. He was the Cowboys’ full-time kicker in 2018 and 2019. He kicked well for the Saints in his turn last year. He has 84 career field goal attempts from him. He has been in NFL training camps on and off since 2013.
The Cowboys expect to be in close games. That is the nature of the league. Their two-point loss to Tampa last year would have been a two-point win had former kicker Greg Zuerlein had an extra point and a 31-yard field goal attempt. In 2021, they played two overtime games and four games decided by a field goal or less.
In Maher, they are shooting with someone who has been in the big moments.
“He’s been here before, so he knows there’s pressure to kick Dallas,” Fassel said.
If Sunday is like the last time against Tampa, Maher will be called on to do clutch kicks again.