The Dallas Cowboys lost a heartbreaker on opening night in the NFL, 31-29, to the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Cowboys entered the contest as huge underdogs, with most betting lines favoring the Buccaneers by a healthy two-score margin. The teams traded results through the first part of the game. Dallas forced a punt, Tampa forced a punt. Tampa scored a touchdown, Dallas scored a touchdown. In a game where the Cowboys held the lead for less than one minute, Dallas was not overwhelmed nor overmatched.
It’s frustrating to know a missed offensive pass interference call might have kept the Cowboys from being 1-0 and took away some of the luster from Dak Prescott’s triumphant return, but there are several reasons to feel good about the 2021 Cowboys. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly from a nail biter in Tampa.
The Good: Dak Prescott and the passing game
This should go under ‘great’ instead of ‘good’ because Prescott was sensational in his first game action coming off his major ankle injury. Prescott threw for 403 yards and three scores on 58 attempts. If there were any concerns about his shoulder, they were answered by the quarterback and the offensive game plan to chuck the ball around. The only blemish was an interception off the hands of WR CeeDee Lamb, but Prescott was on the money for most of the night. The star QB also led the offense down the field in crunch time to give the team the lead late. Prescott is back, and he proved that he is really good. Wide receivers Amari Cooper and Lamb both topped 100 yards on the night and accounted for three scores. The duo caught 20 balls and combined for 243 receiving yards while toying with the Buccaneers’ secondary.
The Bad: The pass defense
For those who worried the Cowboys didn’t have enough good corners, they were proven right in this game. Starting CB Anthony Brown was roasted on most of the night and gave up a long touchdown to Antonio Brown, while Jourdan Lewis was picked on for much of the first half as well. Tom Brady threw for 379 yards and four scores against a pass defense that didn’t have an answer. The Cowboys did have two interceptions, but one was on a dropped ball, and another on a hail mary. It was a putrid performance from the pass defense of the Cowboys.
The Ugly: Special Teams
There’s no way to sugarcoat it, the special teams units for Dallas were a big factor in the narrow loss. Kicker Greg Zuerlein missed an extra point and a short field goal attempt that cost the team four huge points. If those points are on the board, the Buccaneers need a touchdown on their final drive instead of a field goal, giving the Cowboys a better chance at winning the game. Zuerlein also allowed Tampa Bay return man Jaydon Mickens to return a kickoff near the end of the first half instead of blasting it through the end zone and giving the Buccaneers’ offense a longer field to work with. Instead, the short kick gave Mickens a shot at a return, and he ran it back 43 yards. Two plays later, Brady hit Brown for the score before halftime. Games are won and lost on special teams all the time and the Cowboys were burned by their units.
The Ugly: Red-zone efficiency
The Cowboys had no trouble moving the ball inside the 20’s, but failed to capitalize, going just 1-4 on their red zone trips. That wasn’t good enough to pull off the upset and it won’t be good enough this season if the team can’t fix their efficiency in the red zone. One particular sequence stands out. On the opening drive of the third quarter, Dallas marched down the field. Inside the five, Prescott was a little bit late delivering the ball to Ezekiel Elliott in the flat. An earlier pass and he likely walks into the end zone untouched. On the very next play, Prescott pitched it left to Elliott on an RPO, but TE Blake Jarwin whiffed his block and Elliott failed to evade the only defender between him and the score. Dallas kicked a field goal to cut the lead to 21-19, but a touchdown there changes the game. Dallas can’t leave points on the field and it was a major factor in the loss to the Buccaneers. You can chat with or follow Ben on twitter @BenGrimaldi.