Cowboys fans will tell you that America’s Team won last week in the season opener against the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers; they describe it as a “moral victory.” However you want to label it, Dallas gave Tampa Bay a fight. Dak Prescott led the offense to 30 first downs and nine third-down conversions on 42-58 passing for 403 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
Kellen Moore essentially abandoned the run very early on and created an extension of it using quick passes behind or at the line of scrimmage. It worked. Todd Bowles likes to bring pressure and exotic looks that force offenses to dedicate many bodies to protect the quarterback. A big part of the Falcons success will hinge on this exactly, being able to protect Matt Ryan.
Dallas certainly has a better group than Atlanta, but they don’t have that formidable offensive line they had years ago. Tyler Biadasz, the Cowboys center, was treated like a rag doll by Vita Vea — a glimpse of what is likely to happen to Matt Hennessy. Connor Williams, Dallas’ left guard, played solid but clearly was overmatched late in the game — showing a sliver of what could happen to Jalen Mayfield.
The Cowboys game plan initially tested the Bucs run defense, but Tampa’s front seven is far too stout — Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard combined rushing for 47 yards. Still, Zeke played a major role in helping protect Dak as he stonewalled blitzers all night. Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson will both have to be able to hold up against the likes of Devin White, Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaq Barrett, Vita Vea, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and the rest of Bucs ferocious front seven.
This group has been the top run defense over the past two years. Attempting to establish the run could prove difficult, to say the least. This is a prominently run-first offense led by Arthur Smith. He wants to create chaos for defenders using play action and motion while attacking the defense vertically and horizontally through short and intermediate passes with deep shots trickled in. When it is working, it is a thing of beauty.
The problem with this type of system was put on full display in Smith’s first game as a head coach. If this offense can’t establish the run, the wheels fall off. Matt LaFleur, Arthur Smith, and Todd Downing’s offenses all struggled in Week 1. It isn’t a coincidence their rushing attacks were nonexistent.
— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) September 14, 2021
Matt Ryan and this offensive line can’t hold up dropping back 50 times against this defense, so that nixes the Cowboys approach. The Falcons are in a difficult position because what their offense does well, the Bucs defend better than anyone in the league.
Tampa Bay is weakest at cornerback, which isn’t an indictment on them. With All-Pros and Pro Bowlers littered on the defense, Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean are the most vulnerable pieces to target. Davis is a very good corner, but Dean is susceptible to bad tackling and coverage. The Falcons would be wise to challenge this duo directly.
Using Kyle Pitts will be the key. Instead of lining him up inline for a portion of his snaps, I would align him in the slot and the boundary the entire game. Then build an extension of the run game off of Pitts, Ridley, Gage, and Hurst using bubble screens and short, quick passes. This will neutralize the aggressive nature of the Tampa defense.
In reality, there is much more to it than just that. Arthur Smith and the Falcons have quite the task ahead to move the ball on this Tampa defense.