If the first two weeks of the 2012 NFL regular season are any indication, this is a different and improved Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad under new head coach Greg Schiano than it was a year ago under Raheem Morris.
On the other hand, we’re still not sure what to make of the Dallas Cowboys.
More answers will be forthcoming after Sunday’s game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington when Dallas plays host to the Bucs. A quick check of the Don Best Pro Odds screen notes the Cowboys as 7-7½ point favorites at most Las Vegas sports books, with the total hovering between 46 and 46½.
Kickoff time on Sunday is 1:00 p.m. (ET) with FOX providing the TV coverage. The network’s number one broadcast team of Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Pam Oliver will be on hand to describe the action.
The transformation of the Bucs from an erratic outfit under the deposed Morris into a no-nonsense platoon under the all-business Schiano has been one of the more interesting storylines in the first two weeks of the season. Stressing fundamentals, discipline and accountability (a recipe that Schiano use to help put Rutgers back on the college football map in recent years), Tampa Bay bears little resemblance to last year’s 4-12 mess that resulted in Morris’ ouster.
While the Schiano Bucs are still a work in progress, evidence of upgrade is hard to ignore. The defense, while still seeking to upgrade its pass rush, has improved markedly against the run, allowing the Panthers and Giants to just 53 ypg and 2.7 ypc in the first two weeks. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, in particular, has looked unblockable at times in the first two games.
Meanwhile, third-year QB Josh Freeman, who regressed noticeably a year ago, appears headed back in the right direction. The infantry might have also discovered the sort of all-purpose back it was looking for in the draft thanks to ex-Boise State charge Doug Martin, a late first-round pick who has already rushed for 161 yards in the first two games.
Moreover, main offseason FA addition WR Vincent Jackson (via San Diego) has developed a quick rapport with Freeman, catching five passes a week ago at Met Life Stadium and now with nine receptions in two games.
Not all is positive off Dale Mabry Highway, however, as most of the headlines in Tampa/St. Pete after last week’s 41-34 loss to the Giants regard the defense and Schiano himself after a disturbing fourth quarter meltdown vs. the G-Men. Eli Manning & Co. scored 25 points in the final period to erase a 27-13 deficit, and many wonder if Schiano’s insistence on blitz pressure (due to lack of push from his defensive front) made it too easy for the savvy Eli to rally his troops. Manning ended up with a Giants franchise-record 510 yards passing in New York’s comeback win.
Then there was Schiano, breaking an unwritten NFL rule in the final moments by ordering his defenders to attack as Manning and the Giants took a knee at the end of the game, drawing the ire of New York’s venerable Tom Coughlin and many NFL observers.
One wonders, however, if Schiano might be emboldened to try the same sort of defensive pressure tactics on Sunday against the Cowboys. Seattle was certainly able to discombobulate the Dallas offense last Sunday at Century Link Field in the Seahawks’ 27-7 win. With DeMarco Murray and the ground game going nowhere, Cowboy QB Tony Romo was forced to the air and was continually being flushed from the pocket and forced to throw on the move, not his speciality.
Seattle, however, did not need to bring constant blitz pressure to rattle Romo, as its defensive front was able to supply an ample pass rush. Like a year ago when ranking at the bottom on NFL sack stats with just 29, the Bucs are having trouble sustaining a pass rush without aid of blitzing LBs and DBs, which could provide a much different set of dynamics than were present for the Dallas offense last week at Seattle.
The template for Cowboy games, however, has been laid out in the first two weeks of the season. If defenses can control Murray and the ground game and bring pass rush pressure on Romo, the Cowboys are going to sputter as they did at Seattle. Give Romo time to throw, and he can still burn defenses, as was the case in the opening win over the Giants.
Sunday’s battle marks the first home game of the season for Jason Garrett’s Cowboys, although Dallas has hardly proven reliable in the chalk role the past couple of years, logging a 3-11-1 spread mark its last 15 as a favorite. The Buccaneers, either a 'push' or a winner (depending upon using 7 or 7½ as the spread) last week vs. the Giants, have lost eight in a row straight up away from home, and closed last season dropping six of their last seven vs. the number on the road.
Totals-wise, note how the Cowboys have been trending ‘under’ (13-6 since late 2010) lately.
These teams met last December 17 at Raymond James Stadium with Dallas cruising to a 31-15 win and cover as the Bucs were slumping badly late in the campaign. The Cowboys have also won and covered the last four series meetings, not losing to Tampa Bay since October of 2003 at “Ray Jay” when dropping a 16-0 verdict.