As the Bucs and Cowboys get set this week to play each other in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, both teams will likely be keying in on the trenches. When the two teams met in Week 1 of the regular season, the Cowboys defensive front proved to be a formidable adversary for the Bucs offensive line. Dallas was able to get pressure on Bucs quarterback Tom Brady on nine of his 29 drop backs which accounted for a 31% pressure rate. They were able to accomplish this despite only blitzing six times.
That’s not to say the Bucs offensive line failed that day. As a matter of fact, in the running game they had one of their best games of the season. Tristan Wirfs, Josh Wells, Donovan Smith, and Robert Hainsey all had plus run blocking grades per Pro Football Focus enroute to the Bucs running for 152 yards on the day in their best rushing performance of the season.
This battle will be one of the keys to the game in the playoff rematch. The Cowboys feature one of the most formidable defensive front sevens in the game. The unit is led by young superstar hybrid linebacker Micah Parsons who has 42 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, and 13.5 sacks on the season. Parsons is one of the most effective pass rushers in the NFL in just his second season, as he is tied with Nick Bosa for the most pressures on the season with 90.
In the initial Bucs-Cowboys matchup Parsons went off, recording five combined tackles, two quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, and two sacks while generating five pressures on the night. He was the bane of Smith and Wells’ existence and a large reason why Smith ended up with a pass blocking grade of 5.2 from PFF before leaving the game due to injury.
But Parsons isn’t the only player the Bucs have to worry about. Fellow edge rushers Demarcus Lawrence, Dante Fowler Jr., Dorance Armstrong, and Sam Williams, paired with defensive tackles Osa Odighizuwa and Chauncey Gholston create an intimidating front that can win from just about any spot and helped the team log 54 sacks on the year. And Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn loves to send his pass rushers after the quarterback in non-traditional ways.
Cowboys’ Pass Rush Plays Games To Leverage Their Playmakers
Just because Quinn has a bunch of dudes up front doesn’t mean he will just line them up traditionally and expect them to just win in standard pass rush sets. Quinn has become much more of a mad genius in Dallas than in his previous stops in Seattle and Atlanta. The Bucs saw some of that at the beginning of the season. Never was that more evident than their final drive of the first half when Quinn sent multiple stunts/twists after Brady including this back-to-back play sequence.
Later during that same drive Quinn decided to move to an overload look to get test the communication of the Bucs line. On this particular play the line picked up the variation well.
But Quinn and the Dallas defense have only become more brazen with their pass rush and the use of their front seven. Here is an example from their Week 13 matchup against the Colts.
You can see there is only one traditional “down lineman” with his hand in the dirt (No. 56 – defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.). The other five Dallas defenders in the box are standing upright. This makes it difficult for the quarterback and center to figure out their protection calls because they can’t say with any certainty who is dropping into coverage and who might be coming on the pass rush. Ultimately Dallas sends all six defenders on a blitz.
The Colts don’t pick up the protection correctly. For my money it looks like the running back here misses his assignment as he kicks to the outside to pick up defensive end Armstrong. This isn’t an ideal matchup with little blocking big. My assumption, and what it looks like the center was counting on, was the running back to step up to take safety Donovan Wilson where the size matchup would have been more advantageous to the Colts. Dallas’ plan to tax the communication of the protection call works and Wilson gets home for what is probably the easiest sack of his life from him.
Good Donovan Smith Will Have To Show Up On Monday
Smith has faced a lot of criticism this year for his play. In the original matchup between these two teams, Smith had an abbreviated game cut short by an elbow injury. His performance before leaving the game was that of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde nature, with him grading out well as a run blocker, but struggling mightily in pass protection.
Since coming back in Week 4 his play flipped, with him grading out largely well in pass protection and very poorly in the run game. Add on top of that the fact that he is has been one of the most penalized offensive linemen in the entire league, having taken three touchdowns off the board for the Bucs due to holding penalties this season, and you can see why many have called for his benching this year and potentially having him cut before next.
But Smith ended the season on a bit of a high note, playing much better over his last three games against San Francisco, Cincinnati and Carolina. In order for the Bucs offense to succeed this week, Smith will need to continue and advance that trend of good play, while improving his technique to prevent any more holding calls in order to win. No doubt the Cowboys will attempt to see if he is up for the challenge by lining Parsons up over him and seeing if Smith is ready to handle the young defender’s unique combination of speed and power like they did on this back-to-back play sequence from the first meeting.
One Big Change For The Upcoming Matchup Vs. Week One
One thing to keep in mind for this upcoming matchup is Dallas has changed how they use Parsons. In week one Parsons played 62 snaps with 40 coming as an edge rusher and 21 as an off-ball linebacker (he played one snap out wide as a corner). This was the way Quinn deployed Parsons for much of the first half of the season. Through Week 10 Parsons had spent just under 70% of his snaps from a traditional pass rusher alignment.
Over that time period, he averaged about 17 snaps per game from an off-ball linebacker positioning. But since week 10 (when he lined up as a traditional linebacker on 47 of 61 snaps), he has been used almost exclusively as an edge rusher. From Week 11 on, Parsons has lined up as a defensive lineman 95% of the time and has averaged just 2.5 snaps per game off the line of scrimmage.
While Parsons was drafted to be an inside linebacker, Quinn and the Cowboys have found that he is truly a special edge player and have transitioned him to that role full-time. And they have gone so far as to take Parsons completely out of coverage duties altogether. Since Week 14, Parsons hasn’t logged a single snap in coverage. Quinn wants his special pass rusher doing just that – rushing the passer.
The Bucs Offensive Line Will Be Key To Victory
If the Bucs have any hope of winning this game, their offensive line will need to give Brady enough time in the pocket to stretch the defense. In order to do that they will have to play lights out against a defensive front that features both elite talent (Parsons and Lawrence) as well as a creative play caller who will test the communication of a unit that recently gave up three sacks to Carolina due to miscommunication. Look for this to be a key matchup that determines the outcome of the game.