The time has finally arrived. All of the talking and speculating that has gone on since the end of last season is finally going to give way to the new season. What can we expect out of the Dallas Cowboys this season? No one knows for sure but I do know that they need to win games like the game on Sunday if they want to be in the playoff picture. We all saw last season what happens when you lose games you should win. It can cost you your season.
It is very important for this version of the Dallas Cowboys to get off to a good start to build confidence in a still developing team. The players can talk all they want about how confident they are about the upcoming season but there has to be some lingering doubt after the way 2008 ended. The defense has gone through a significant transformation in terms of starters and no one really knows what they can do yet.
So what do the Cowboys need to do to win the game against the Bucs? Here is what I think will get it done.
1. Play tough defense from start to finish. The Bucs running game could be dangerous if the Cowboys let the Bucs get it going. If they can stay tough against the run it will force the Bucs to resort to their passing game. That should play into what should be the strength of the defense...rushing the passer. Byron Leftwich has a notoriously slow delivery. If the Cowboys can put the Bucs in obvious passing situations then they can get after Leftwich and dominate by sacking the quarterback and forcing turnovers. Turnovers will come if they can force Leftwich to get rid of the ball before he is ready or strip the ball while he is being sacked. I think the Bucs are going to have a tough time moving the ball against the Cowboy defense with any consistency. Gerald Sensabaugh needs to stick with Kellen Winslow because I can see Leftwich being forced into quick throws to his backs and tight end by the pass rush.
2. Run the ball effectively. I'm not talking about a three yards and a cloud of dust attack. I mean make it count when they do run the ball. It is imperative that the running game get off to a good start. They were so bad early in several games last year that it gave Jason Garrett every reason to essentially abandon the running game. The running game needs to be respected by the defense this season because more of the passing game is going to rely on the defense overplaying the run. If the Bucs start to overcommit to the run then we might see some big plays in the passing game.
3. Limit turnovers on offense. This is going to be a weekly key to victory but it is always important. Tony Romo has made a commitment privately and publicly to change his ways. We've seen throughout the preseason that he is keeping two hands on the ball while scrambling and he is trying to limit his forced throws. I expect to see the fumbles drastically reduced this season, but the one or two boneheaded throws per game that we are accustomed to seeing from Romo are what concerns me. If he can eliminate those bad throws in this game then the Bucs will have a tough time finding ways to score points. This seems like the type of game that the Cowboys have to give to the Bucs and turning the ball over is a good way to lose a game.
4. Tackle on special teams. I think the Cowboys are clearly better on offense and defense than the Bucs, but it only takes a couple of big special teams plays to change the outcome of a game. I don't have much faith they can do it consistently but they need to tackle the returners. It sounds easy enough but I didn't see anything in the preseason to give me much confidence that there has been improvement. Nothing changes momentum of a game faster than a big return.
5. Don't try to win the game on one play. If the Cowboys are patient and play their game then their superior talent will win out. If both teams play a clean game meaning no turnovers or busted plays then I believe the Cowboys are clearly the superior team. There is no reason to force the action on offense if they can't find their rhythm early...especially in the passing game. The defense will get to Leftwich at some point if they keep their noses to the grindstone.
6. Get Felix Jones involved in the offense. This seems like a no-brainer but Jason Garrett seemed to struggle with the idea in the few games he had the services of Felix last season. He will open everything up for the entire offense just by being on the field.
In my mind the Cowboys are just a much better team than the Bucs. I don't see the Cowboys laying an egg in this game after waiting so long to redeem themselves. My prediction is a 27-10 victory for the Cowboys.