News flash: This is the NFL. All 22 players on the field matter at all times throughout the game. But at the same time, there are always some players that matter more than others.
So which Buccaneers should you watch out for on Thursday night when they open the season against the Cowboys?
Let's dive in and find out.
5. C Ryan Jensen
Hey, I get it. Starting a list such as this with a center may not be the best way to automatically grab attention, but here we are.
Don't underestimate Jensen's role in this game. It's going to be big. That's because the Cowboys will have a whole new defensive identity when these teams kick off on Thursday night. And Jensen will be mostly responsible for prepping the offense and making sure everything is good-to-go before the ball is snapped (and afterward, as well).
The belief is that new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will bring pressure from a variety of locations, mainly due to the presence of rookie Micah Parsons. If this turns out to be true, Jensen will be responsible for pointing out pressure points, shifting the protection, etc.. He'll also be the usual tone-setter on the offensive line, which can really get under the opposition's skin at times.
4. CB Sean Murphy-Bunting
Murphy-Bunting plays outside when the Bucs are in base defense and then plays nickel when the team is in its subpackage(s). Therefore, he will certainly see Lamb -who is arguably the best receiver of the three - a lot. He may even go up against Cooper in the slot. Per Pro Football Focus, Cooper registered 270 snaps in the slot as a receiver last year. SMB will then face any of the three when playing outside in the Bucs' base defense.
So, it's easy to see why Murphy-Bunting's play will be integral to Thursday night's outcome. It will also be intriguing to see if he picks up where he left off in the postseason or if he is inconsistent a la the regular season.
3. DT Vita Vea
Vea's presence allows the Bucs defense to do so much in terms of pressure packages, secondary groupings, etc.. He's literally the line between the Bucs being a very good defense and an elite defense.
If Zack Martin does in fact miss this game (Jerry Jones says there's a chance he can still play), then that's likely going to be a major problem for the Cowboys. Vea devours interior offensive linemen like my 17-month-old devours Fruity Cheerios. It's not pretty and there's always a mess to clean up afterward.
And the last thing you want to do is see Dak Prescott swarmed and beaten up in his first live action in 333 days. Dallas has to have a game plan for Vea or else he's going to have a big game Thursday night.
2. WR Mike Evans
Evans' size, speed, and catch radius make him a weekly must-watch, but his matchup with cornerback Anthony Brown adds extra emphasis this week. Brown is the opposite outside corner of Trevon Diggs and Quinn's defenses aren't really know for shadowing receivers, so Brown should definitely see Evans often.
The Bucs' all-time leading receiver has looked very, very good throughout training camp and the preseason and is in the self-proclaimed best shape of his career. It's a vastly different context then where he was health-wise at this point last year.
All of this adds up to what should be a strong showing from the eighth-year receiver.
1. RB Ronald Jones II
No matter where you look, Dallas was abysmal when it came to stopping the run in 2020.
Just take a look at the laundry list of evidence. Dallas finished as/ranked per the following:
- 31st in total run defense; allowed 158.8 yards per game, per Pro Football Reference.
- Third-highest yards per carry allowed (5.0), per PFR.
- Second-most first downs on the ground (142), per PFR.
- 23rd in run defense DVOA and third-highest adjusted line yards per carry allowed, per Football Outsiders.
- Fifth-highest EPA/att allowed (0.03) and third-highest positive play rate allowed (47.6%), per SIS.
- Fifth-lowest stuff rate, per SIS.
- Graded out as the seventh-worst run defense, per PFF.
Jones II is one of the more underrated runners in the league and averaged 5.1 yards per carry while his counterparts combined for a 3.8 yards per carry average. He is well-suited for what the Bucs want to on the ground and has shown he can carry the load when needed.
The Bucs want to run the ball and they should have success against this Dallas defense. Jones should start his 2021 season off with a bang, as a result.
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Cover photo credit: John A. Babiak/@Photog_JohnB