Dallas Cowboys (0-0, 0-0 ATS) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-0, 0-0), 8:20 p.m., TNF
Implied Team Totals: Cowboys 22, Buccaneers 30
Spread/Total Movements: 6.5 to 8, 52 to 50.5 to 52
Weather: 80 degrees, 5 mph, 25% chance of scattered showers
Cowboys Injuries to Watch: OG Zack Martin (COVID-19, doubtful)
Buccaneers Injuries to Watch: S Jordan Whitehead (hamstring, out)
Brolley’s Cowboys Stats and Trends
The Cowboys finished a league-worst 5-11 ATS last season, including an 0-5 mark in games started by Dak Prescott.
They did end the year with a 4-1 ATS run as underdogs and their last four games as underdogs finished over the total.
Prescott is ready to play after a lat strain limited his throwing during training camp. Dak averaged 28.5 FPG and he was on pace for 5939 passing yards before his catastrophic ankle injury in Week 5 last season. He’s heading into another pass-heavy game script to open 2021 as eight-point road underdogs against a defense that faced the second-most pass attempts per game (39.6) last season.
CeeDee Lamb averaged 17.1 FPG in his five games with Dak last season, and he had at least five receptions in every game during Weeks 1-5. He had five such games over the remainder of the season. Sean Murphy-Bunting allowed the second-most yards per slot snaps among CBs who played 200+ snaps in the slot.
Amari Cooper’s 52 targets with Prescott at QB (10.4 per game) were by far the most of any Cowboy receiver, and he saw just 78 targets in 11+ games without Prescott. Cooper was the WR8 and averaged 17.8 FPG in games with Prescott, and he was the WR23 and averaged 13.4 FPG without him. The Buccaneers allowed the fifth-most receptions (14.8) and targets (21.6) to WRs last season.
Michael Gallup’s production fluctuated the least out of Dallas’ top-three WRs, averaging 11.6 FPG with Prescott in the lineup and 10.5 without him. Gallup’s average depth of target was 17.6 yards with Prescott (fifth-highest among WRs in this span), and it was just 10.3 without Prescott in the lineup. The Buccaneers allowed just 11.7 YPR to WRs last season.
Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz are likely to split snaps and targets for at least the early part of the season, if not all season, especially with Jarwin returning to the lineup off of his ACL injury. Tampa Bay allowed the seventh-most receptions per game (5.4) to TEs.
Ezekiel Elliott posted career-lows in rushing yardage (979), yards per carry (4.0), yards per reception (6.5), and touchdowns (8) while tying a career-high with six fumbles. He also finished with a career-worst RB13 with just 15.2 FPG. Elliott was, however, much better with Prescott in the lineup, averaging 22.7 FPG and scoring six of his eight touchdowns in that span. He gets a brutal first matchup against a Buccaneers defense that allowed league-lows in rushing yards per game (60.0) and carries per game (17.9) to RBs. They at least allowed a league-high 6.3 catches per game to RBs.
Brolley’s Buccaneers Stats and Trends
The defending Super Bowl champion is 9-3-3 ATS in Thursday openers.
The Bucs covered seven of their final nine games last season (postseason included), including their last four games at Raymond James Stadium.
They finished 12-8 ATS overall.
Tampa Bay returns all 22 starters from its Super Bowl-winning team, which is the first time a returning champion has done it in the salary cap era.
The Buccaneers’ offense really hit its stride at the end of last season with Tom Brady throwing multiple TD passes in his final 11 games (playoffs included). Brady finished as the QB10 with 21.1 FPG in 16 games. He finished third in passing yards per game (289.6), second in attempts (610), and tied for second in touchdown passes (40). He also reached 40+ TDs for the first time since his historic 50-TD campaign in 2007, and his 6.6% TD rate was its highest since 2010. The Cowboys allowed the third-most TD passes per game (2.1) to opposing quarterbacks.
Mike Evans needed a mad dash at the end of the 2020 season but he reached 1000+ receiving yards for the seventh straight season to start his career. He bested his childhood idol Randy Moss’ previous record of six straight seasons with 1000+ yards to open a career. Evans finished with a career-high 13 touchdowns in his first season with Brady, which was the fourth-most at the position, and his touchdown production propelled him to a WR16 finish with 15.5 FPG. Evans finished with career-lows in targets (109) and target share (18%) with Brady spreading the rock all over the field, and he actually finished third on the team in target share. The Cowboys allowed a league-high 1.7 receiving TDs per game to WRs last season.
Chris Godwin finished as the WR15 with 15.9 FPG in 12 games last season, but he had an uncharacteristic nine drops last season (10.7%) with an additional seven drops in four postseason games after needing surgery on his index finger. Godwin came into the season with just four career drops through three seasons so last season is likely just an anomaly. He also averaged just 12.9 YPR in his first season with Brady after averaging 15.1 YPR in his first three seasons with Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick — his aDOT also sat at a career-low 9.9 yards last season. The Cowboys allowed the fifth-most FPG to WRs (42.2) last season.
Antonio Brown ranked as the WR25 with 14.6 FPG in Weeks 9-17, and he averaged a healthy 2.07 yards per route run and a seven-year best 5.2 yards after the catch. Brady also didn’t have a favorite receiver in the final nine weeks of the regular season with Evans (21%), Brown (20%), and Godwin (18%) each finishing with similar target shares in Weeks 9-17. Brown picked up a knee injury in the Divisional Round against the Saints, which slowed his production in the playoffs and the injury required a clean-up procedure this off-season.
Rob Gronkowski finished as the TE13 with 9.3 FPG and he registered his first full 16-game season (while playing 75% of the snaps) since he did it in his first and second seasons in 2010 and 2011. Gronk’s role in the passing game diminished after Brown joined the team. He posted two or fewer catches in nine of his final 12 games and he averaged just 4.3 targets per game in that span (playoffs included). Gronk will be hard-pressed to match his TE13 fantasy finish with Cameron Brate emerging as a Brady favorite in the postseason and with O.J. Howard returning to the lineup after tearing his Achilles last season. The Cowboys faced the second-fewest TE targets per game (5.6) and they allowed the third-fewest yards per game (40.6) last season.
Ronald Jones is the favorite to lead Tampa Bay in early-down carries this season while Gio Bernard is the favorite to handle the most passing-down work. Leonard Fournette established himself as the team’s best back in the playoffs and he will likely spell Jones and Bernard in all situations this season. RJII averaged a career-best 5.1 YPC and 3.0 YAC per attempt last season, but he still doesn’t bring much to the table as a receiver with 20 or fewer receiving yards in 13-of-14 games. Fournette managed 64/300/3 rushing (4.7 YPC) and 18/148/1 receiving on 21 targets to average 21.7 FPG in four postseason games. He also had a 69% snap share or better in each of the Bucs’ four playoff games, a share he topped just once during the regular season. Gio still excels as a receiver after catching 79.7% of his targets for a 7.6 YPR average last season. The Buccaneers could have a positive game script as heavy-home favorites and the Cowboys allowed the 15th-most FPG (24.1) to RBs last season.
Barfield’s Pace and Tendencies
Buccaneers (2020 season)
Pace (seconds in between plays): 26.6 (T-6th)
Plays per game: 62.6 (24th)
When the game is within a score — Pass: 62.1% (4th) | Run: 37.9% (29th)
When the team is ahead — Pass: 55.3% (7th) | Run: 44.7% (26th)
When the team is behind — Pass: 71.7% (1st) | Run: 28.3% (32nd)
Cowboys (2020 season with Dak Prescott)
Pace (seconds in between plays): 22.5 (1st)
Plays per game: 74.0 (2nd)
When the game is within a score — Pass: 63% (1st) | Run: 37% (32nd)
When the team is ahead — Pass: 43% (24th) | Run: 57% (9th)
When the team is behind — Pass: 67% (5th) | Run: 33% (28th)
The Buccaneers defense certainly offers a tough matchup for the Cowboys both through the air and on the ground, but that may not matter much with the way this game is projected to play out. Vegas views Tampa Bay as a touchdown favorite and ironically, this is an exact carbon-copy of how the season started last year with Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense. Their defense routinely got stomped and it forced Dak to throw a ton. So, while HC Mike McCarthy and OC Kellen Moore might want to ease Dak back in after his long layoff and missed practice time this summer — they likely won’t have another choice but to keep chucking the ball to keep up with Tom Brady and the Bucs’ offense. This game is a perfect setup for a high-scoring, pass-heavy affair.
Huber’s Key Matchup Notes
Buccaneers QB Tom Brady will face a revamped Dallas defense under the direction of new DC Dan Quinn. We can look back on film from his days as the Seahawks’ DC and Falcons head coach to know what kind of schemes he’ll deploy. And while Brady puts up points on everyone, Quinn’s new-look defense will serve points on a platter to Tommy Terrific.
With the exception of Mike Evans, who could draw primary coverage from top CB Trevon Diggs, this is a primo matchup for Chris Godwin (who crushes zone coverage) and Antonio Brown, who crushes all coverages and could get a favorable matchup with CB Anthony Brown. The Bucs are primed to score in bunches through the air here.
As for Dallas, we know there’s a challenge here, especially with RG Zack Martin likely to miss because of COVID-19. But Dak Prescott and company will have to throw to keep up, and that could be a strong endorsement for WR CeeDee Lamb. While we have just a small sample on Lamb, especially when playing with Prescott, we know his skills stood out against schemes with multiple deep defensive backs. That’s a Buc DC Todd Bowles staple.
Dolan’s Vantage Points
It’s great to see Dak Prescott back on the field, but this is not the ideal matchup for him to get his feet wet — with star RG Zack Martin almost certainly out with COVID-19, the matchup with the Buccaneers’ elite defensive line becomes even more difficult. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Buccaneers generated pressure on 45.4% of opponents’ dropbacks in 2020, 6th-highest in the NFL. And keep in mind the Bucs added a potential stud to their rush in first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, a Greg Cosell favorite who had a strong preseason. This is a heck of a test for Prescott and his repaired lower leg, but he still has QB1 upside in a game with a projected total in the 50s, one of the highest of Week 1.
But the Martin absence doesn’t just affect Prescott — it affects RB Ezekiel Elliott as well. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Cowboys averaged just 3.8 YPC in 2020 without Martin on the field, and 4.5 with him. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers were 5th in the league in “stuff” rate at 22.9%, meaning the percentage of carries that resulted in gains of zero or fewer yards (SIS). (Elliott was “stuffed” on 16.8% of his carries last year.) We still presume Elliott will get the majority of the work in the backfield, and his numbers were far better last year with Prescott on the field, but he’s more of a low-end RB1 given the circumstances.
At WR for the Cowboys, I’m locking and loading CeeDee Lamb, my preferred of the trio, and Amari Cooper. I think I’ll wait for a better matchup to use Michael Gallup, though the potential for a shootout makes rostering him as a volatile WR3 defensible.
As for the Buccaneers, this is a golden matchup for the passing game, as outlined above. Tom Brady is a top-five QB on the week, and I am likely to start any of the three WRs at his disposal. My favorite is Chris Godwin given his favorable matchup in the slot, and the quad issue that popped up in practice on Tuesday is a nonfactor.
Here’s the final injury report for Bucs — safety Jordan Whitehead is out, as expected, but otherwise good news relating to Chris Godwin: pic.twitter.com/RoOoD37MOF— Greg Auman (@gregauman) September 8, 2021
I love Antonio Brown too, and I’m not all that scared about Mike Evans’ matchup with Trevon Diggs. The Cowboys surrendered a league-high 1.7 TDs per game to WRs last year, and Evans is a touchdown machine. Brown sat out of practice on Tuesday, but Auman called it “procedural.” Brown is a full go.
In the backfield, I’m considering both Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette low-end FLEX options until further notice. The presence of Giovani Bernard — who battled an ankle sprain in August — further complicates things here, as he could play the juicy James White role for Brady. I think Fournette is the best back here, but the Bucs are fully expected to ride the hot hand.
The only TE in this whole game I’d consider for a season-long lineup is Rob Gronkowski, but the Cowboys were stingy against TEs last year and the Bucs have a three-man rotation going there. It’s only the deepest of leagues where I think Gronk has any Week 1 appeal.