Tampa Bay Sports Day

NFL: In the Hunt, Bucs Look to Hand Cowboys Second Straight Loss

The Sports Xchange previews Sunday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) and Dallas Cowboys (11-2) in Dallas.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, AT&T Stadium, TV: NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya.

SERIES HISTORY: 16th regular-season meeting. Cowboys lead the series 11-4. The Bucs snapped a five game losing streak to Dallas last year with a win at Raymond James Stadium. Nine of the meetings have been held in Dallas with the Cowboys owning an 8-1 lead.

KEYS TO THE GAME: A second loss to the New York Giants created some consternation over the quarterback pecking order in Dallas. But Dak Prescott, still firmly ahead of Tony Romo at quarterback for the Cowboys according to coach Jason Garrett, can again thrive against the Tampa defense with better third-down situations. Prescott had a 45.4 passer rating at New York, but the Cowboys broke from character in the Week 14 setback, asking Prescott to carry the offense and solve confounding third-down situations. Dallas is just 2 of 24 on third down in the past two games.

The Buccaneers have athletic back seven defenders, headlined by speedy linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, to hem in rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott, who has 1,392 rushing yards in 13 games.

That defense is a stronghold for the Buccaneers � during the current five-game winning streak, the Buccaneers are first in the NFL yielding 12.8 points per game, total takeaways (14, including a league-best 10 interceptions), touchdowns allowed (six) and opposing passer rating (62.5). The offense is not in a funk, but big plays have been few and far between.

Defenses are dedicating extra attention to WR Mike Evans. After recording 29 receptions in November, Evans caught seven total passes in two December games, his lowest output of the season.

He’s still among league leaders with 80 receptions and 10 touchdowns in 2016.

“There’s only so much we can do about it,” head coach Dirk Koetter said. “If a defense is going to commit itself to take a guy out, they’re probably going to be able to do it. There are only so many things you can do to a wide receiver. If it’s a running back, you can turn around and hand it to him.”

If the Cowboys pair defensive backs up on Evans, this could be the week RB Doug Martin returns to his 2015 form. Martin appears to back at full strength and the Buccaneers, who average 33 rushing attempts per game, will give him every chance unless game situations dictate putting the game on the throwing arm of QB Jameis Winston.

–Cowboys WR Dez Bryant vs. Buccaneers CB Brent Grimes. The matchup pits Bryant, a walking Adonis who plays with a me-against-world mentality and Grimes, the ultimate underdog and a feisty man corner who has survived playing at a four- or five-inch height deficit. Bryant can wreck the game with big plays down the field and needs only peer back to last week’s weak effort for motivation. He was targeted nine times by Prescott, and three of the passes resulted in turnovers (one Bryant fumble, two interceptions). Grimes recorded his third interception last week vs. the Saints.
–Buccaneers LT Donovan Smith vs. Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence. Smith does more than cast a shadow at 6-6, 338, and while he has 12 penalties this season Smith has not allowed a sack in 13 games. He gave up 5.0 sacks in 16 starts as a rookie but helped lift the play of the front five with his stellar performance during the recent winning streak. Lawrence (back) is not fully healthy. He’s the Cowboys’ best pure pass rusher although the chronic core issues are limiting his production (one sack, six quarterback hits this season).


–Out: T Demar Dotson (concussion)
–Questionable: S Chris Conte (chest), LB Lavonte David (hamstring), DT Gerald McCoy (foot), DT Sealver Siliga (calf), TE Luke Stocker (ankle)
–Out: CB Morris Claiborne (groin), T Chaz Green (back), DE Demarcus Lawrence (back)
–Questionable: WR Dez Bryant (back), S Barry Church (forearm), DE Jack Crawford (foot), LS L.P. Ladouceur (knee), G Ronald Leary (back), LB Sean Lee (knee), CB Orlando Scandrick (foot, not injury related), T Tyron Smith (back, knee), DT Cedric Thornton (ankle), S J.J. Wilcox (thigh)

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy: One of the premier interior pass rushers in the league, McCoy is putting up a Pro Bowl season while leading interior linemen with 7.0 sacks in 2016. His matchup with bulldog RG Zack Martin, a critical cog in Dallas’ stronghold offensive line that helps the Cowboys average 4.8 yards on 416 rushing attempts this season.

FAST FACTS: Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott is second in the NFL with 91 first downs. � Cowboys CB Morris Claiborne (avulsion fracture, pelvis) will miss his seventh consecutive game. � The Buccaneers have nine offensive touchdowns in the past five games. � A win would make the Cowboys 12-2 for the fifth time in franchise history.

PREDICTION: The Buccaneers last reached a primetime stage in a game of this magnitude during the Jon Gruden era. Dallas shakes off its second loss this season � both to the Giants � by reestablishing dominance at the line of scrimmage. Any deceleration from the Dallas offense opens the door for the Bucs to steal it late.

THEIR PICK: Cowboys 26-24.