America’s team is once again in the spotlight this season. The Dallas Cowboys sit atop their division and their conference, sporting an impressive 11-2 record. After losing a close contest last week to the Giants 10-7, the Cowboys are looking to get back to their winning ways against a feisty Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that has surprised many with how quickly they have developed into a contender.
Tampa Bay (8-5) has most impressed with the progress the team has made on defense. While the playmakers on offense tend to get much of the attention, it is the defense that has overachieved. Currently, the Bucs are ranked 10th in overall defensive DVOA, a stat which measures the efficiency of a defense compared with league average in terms of how they limit yards and points.
The strength of the Bucs' defensive unit begins with their pass defense, which Football Outsiders ranks 6th in the NFL. The team generates its pass rush through a variety of personnel, but the key to the defensive line is Gerald McCoy. The defensive tackle out of Oklahoma has been a handful ever since he entered the league, and his presence on the line typically requires a double team from the offensive line, opening up space for the edge rushers. Despite seeing these double teams often, McCoy excels as a pass rusher, tallying 7.0 sacks so far this season, and 33.5 over his last four seasons.
Behind McCoy is Pro Bowl linebacker Lavonte David, one of the players who leads by example on this Bucs' team. David been efficient both as a pass rusher and a coverage linebacker, racking up 65 tackles, a sack, an interception, four forced fumbles and one defensive touchdown.
While the overall production for David might be a little down compared to prior seasons, defensive coordinator Mike Smith singled out David for his play following their victory against the San Diego Chargers in which David took an interception back for a touchdown.
"Lavonte, I think, has had a solid season," Smith told the Tampa Bay Times. "I know his numbers are not what they've been in the past, but what he's doing for this defense is an integral part of what we're trying to get accomplished."
Offensively, Tampa Bay has one of the league’s most formidable passing attacks. Second year quarterback Jameis Winston has come into his own, throwing for 244.5 yards per game with 23 touchdowns to only 12 interceptions. Winston has cut down on his mistakes in year two and has benefited from a healthy and productive wide receiver in Mike Evans. Evans is torching anyone he lines up against this season and has caught 80 passes for 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns.
While Tampa has struggled at times offensively to get their running game going, Dallas has not had the same issues.
The NFL’s second-ranked rush attack, averaging 152.2 yards per game, might actually be even better than the raw numbers indicate. According to Football Outsiders, Dallas is sporting the third best offensive line in terms of adjusted line yards, which is a stat measuring all running back carries and assigning significance to the offensive line based on their success. As a result of the excellent line play, rookie Ezekiel Elliott is enjoying a breakout campaign, running for 1,392 yards on 4.9 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns.
In the end, Dallas can only go as far as rookie quarterback Dak Prescott can take them. Prescott has been stellar behind center so far, throwing for 3,139 yards and 20 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions. His 81.2 QBR is good for second best in the league, tied with Matt Ryan and behind only Tom Brady. Dak struggled last week against the Giants, completing only 55.6 percent of his passes and throwing for only 5.0 yards per pass. In order to keep the critics who favor now backup QB Tony Romo quiet, Dak will need to be sharp against Tampa Bay.
The matchup to watch on Sunday night will be Tampa Bay’s star wideout Mike Evans against Dallas’s secondary. While cornerback Brandon Carr will draw a majority of the man-to-man coverage, Dallas will need to use its safeties and be creative if they hope to slow down Pro Football Focus’s No. 1 rated wide receiver.
The Cowboys are looking to rebound and will be at home Sunday night (8:30 E.T. on NBC), but Tampa is clicking on all cylinders right now and is more desperate for a win. Look for the Bucs to pull off the surprise upset and beat Dallas at Jerry World.