The Dallas Cowboys are coming off of their second loss of the season and panic has begun to set in. It’s not entirely warranted, considering they still have the best record in football and are one of two teams to lock up a playoff berth, but there is some cause for concern.
That worry comes by way of the quarterback position, which has been one of the most reliable and consistent all year. Dak Prescott has taken care of the football, completed a high number of passes and played extremely smart … except for last week. He threw two interceptions – the same number he had through 12 games – and had another fumble due to lack of pocket awareness.
Things won’t get any easier for the rookie this week, either. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are arguably the hottest team in football, having won five in a row, largely thanks to the defense. They’ve allowed more than 20 points in a game just once during their winning streak, holding the Chiefs, Seahawks and Saints to 17, five and 11 points, respectively.
They’ve shut down Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees the past three weeks, which doesn’t bode well for Prescott. However, that’s not what this game will come down to. It won’t be about Prescott throwing it 40 times and trying to prove he’s worthy of being the starter. It’ll be decided by Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys’ dominant ground game.
The Bucs are good against the pass, but they struggle against the run. They’ve allowed the 13th-most rushing yards this season, surrendering 110.7 per game. The Cowboys, on the other hand, excel at running the football, ranking second with 152.2 yards per game. While Prescott has struggled and seemingly hit the proverbial rookie wall, Elliott hasn’t missed a beat. He’s rushed for at least 83 yards in 12 straight games and gone over 100 in six this season.
The Buccaneers have an outstanding defensive tackle along the line in Gerald McCoy, but they lack some bulk up front – particularly on the edges. Robert Ayers isn’t the biggest defensive end, and Noah Spence’s biggest knock out of college was his lack of bulk and struggles against the run. Gaining significant yardage up the middle might be difficult, but Elliott has the ability to bounce runs outside and take advantage of Dallas’ great blocking receivers. Jason Witten has held his own in run blocking, Dez Bryant is among the best in that department and Terrance Williams can get it done too.
That doesn’t mean the Cowboys will avoid McCoy and Clinton McDonald up the middle, though. Zack Martin, Travis Frederick and Ronald Leary can open up running lanes for Elliott, and they will. The Cowboys have the rare ability to stick one lineman on a guy like McCoy and succeed, allowing other blockers to get to the second level.
Dallas’ offensive line will bully Tampa Bay’s defensive front, much like it did against the Bengals and Packers. Those were two of Elliott’s best games on the ground despite both teams boasting strong front sevens. Geno Atkins got his share of shots in, as did Letroy Guion for the Packers, but the majority of their tackles were made at the second and third levels. The Cowboys can do the same to the Buccaneers, and I expect them to.
The focal point of this game will be the Cowboys’ quarterback “controversy,” if you will, but as the clock ticks, it’ll become less and less about that. Instead, Elliott and Dallas’ offensive line will set the tone and establish the run, showing the Buccaneers and the rest of the NFL what the Cowboys do best: control the clock and dominate on the ground.
Yes, the Cowboys need to see what Prescott can do, how he rebounds after a terrible game and see if he’s truly their starter. And they will – they’ll get a good look at all of those things. But this is a time to lean on Elliott and get back to basics. When Elliott is dominating, it makes everyone’s lives easier. From Prescott to Scott Linehan to Bryant, everyone has more success when Dallas runs the ball well early.