TAMPA — Even if they lost the season opener, the Cowboys provided a blueprint on how to beat the Bucs.
It’s a game plan that should look familiar and one Tampa Bay is guaranteed to see again in a couple weeks.
The strength of the Bucs defense is its front seven. More specifically, Tampa Bay has been the league’s best against the run for the past two seasons.
Linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David thrive playing behind massive defensive tackles Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, and are effective blitzers from inside the guards and center.
It was shocking to see the Cowboys make quarterback Dak Prescott, who hadn’t played in a game in 333 days after sustaining a horrific ankle injury, attempt 58 passes Thursday in the Bucs’ 31-29 last-second win.
But they were mostly quick, short throws aimed at negating an effective pass rush and the array of blitzes from defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
The Cowboys attacked the Bucs perimeter. Tampa Bay’s cornerbacks generally play off the ball, allowing plenty of cushion to execute a series of receiver screens out of stacked formations.
This made the Bucs defensive backs do something that’s not their strong suit: tackle.
Moreover, the rhythmic passing game slows the pass rush of outside linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett while tiring Vea and Suh, who spent the night chasing ball carriers laterally.
Prescott was only sacked once and hit on seven other occasions. He passed for 403 yards and three touchdowns. His only interception came when CeeDee Lamb gator-armed a pass that was deflected into the arms of Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis.
It was an effective approach and one Rams coach Sean McVay deployed a year ago in a 27-24 win over the Bucs.
In that game, quarterback Jared Goff went 39 of 51 for 376 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions.
The Bucs play the Rams in Los Angeles on Sept. 26.
The NFL is a copycat league and coach Bruce Arians knows the Bucs will see a similar approach from teams until they stop it.
“There’s no doubt, brother,” Arians said. “You’ve got to put the fires out each week. I thought (Dallas) had a nice plan, but the game comes down to situational football and we won situational football. But yeah, we’ll see the same things.
“They had a nice plan defensively, too. But I think we’re a bit further along maybe offensively now. But we’re going to see screens, screens, screens. Throw it out there and see if you can make the tackle.”
Also hurting the Bucs were injuries in the secondary. Safety Jordan Whitehead (hamstring) was out and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting dislocated his right elbow after yielding a touchdown pass.
Of course, piling up yards is one thing. To win in the NFL, you have to score touchdowns.
To that point, the Bucs prevailed in the red zone on both sides of the ball.
“We still play great red-zone defense,” Arians said. “When you’re playing that first one, people have a long time to prepare for you. We adjust extremely well. I think the depth helped with those injuries that happened during the game. We’ll see all those short little passes, and again, we’ve got to do a better job tackling.”
The Bucs made a concerted effort to improve their special teams and did so in the draft, adding athletes such as Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Grant Stuard and K.J. Britt.
That’s been a boost to their kick coverage team. In addition, the Bucs specialists have been extraordinary.
It’s easy to notice Ryan Succop, who nailed the 36-yard game-winning field goal with two seconds remaining Thursday.
But the unsung hero of the game was punter Bradley Pinion, who averaged 49.3 yards per punt, including a 65-yarder that forced the Cowboys to start the game at their own 2-yard line.
Kick returner Jaydon Mickens was signed from the practice squad and averaged 30.7 yards on three kickoff returns and 10.5 yards on two punt returns.
“Our special teams won the ballgame, there’s no doubt,” Arians said. “Between Bradley pinning them inside the 10 three times and (Mickens) covering. Mick had a hell of a night (in the) return game ... but yeah, all those young guys — (Stuard) had a tackle, they protected well. They showed up exactly in the ways we want them to.”
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