As with any football game, there are certain aspects that will determine who wins and loses. Matchups, scheme, execution - it all goes hand-in-hand when it comes to winning a ball game.
So what do the Bucs need to on Thursday night in order beat the Cowboys? There's a multitude of scenarios, but lucky for you, I've picked the three that are the most important when it comes to Thursday night's matchup.
3. Stop Ezekiel Elliott
I know this is basic, but the Cowboys offense is so much more efficient when the running game is working. Sure, Dak Prescott put up a ton of numbers and yards -even points- during the first five games last year, but even he recently admitted that was more fluff, than anything.
"I’ve said before, I don’t necessarily want the numbers that I had that early because we weren’t winning games and we weren’t being competitive early, and that’s why some of those numbers came about," Prescott told reporters. "I plan to come out better than I was last year, to be honest."
Zeke and the running game is still the backbone of Dallas' offense. There have been glowing reviews surrounding Zeke throughout training camp and the preseason, so it sounds like the Bucs are not only going up against one of the best backs in the league, but it sounds like Zeke is a revitalized back, as well. That typically spells trouble for the opposition.
However, the Bucs have had the league's best run defense for two years in a row and four-time first-team All-Pro guard Zack Martin is likely out for this game. Martin's absence would make things a lot harder for the Cowboys. But that doesn't mean Bruce Arians and co. are overlooking Zeke and the rushing attack.
"It's Ezekiel [Elliott], because [the offense] all starts with him and that big offensive line," said Arians. "They're going to try to run the football, so we've got to get them in a one-dimensional game there."
Dallas lost every game (0-8) in which Elliott ran for less than 65 yards in 2020. It's clear that they need him to perform well if they want to have a shot on Thursday night.
2. Pressure Dak Prescott
Potentially losing Martin not only affects Dallas' rushing attack, but it also affects the pass protection. If he doesn't go, then it will leave the interior offensive vulnerable to the likes of Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, and Will Gholston.
That in turn will have a trickle-down effect along the offensive line. The Bucs pass rush is so much more effective with Vea in the lineup because it means at least one of Tampa Bay's pass rushers is getting a 1-on-1 matchup at some point. You simply can't consistently leave one guy on Vea, because he will collapse the pocket in a heartbeat. Jason Pierre-Paul's and Shaquil Barrett's ability to crash the edges is ramped up exponentially in this scenario.
Which leaves Prescott to deal with the plethora of Bucs pass rushers that will be deployed on Thursday night. This is a major disadvantage for a player who hasn't played a live-action game in 332 days. How will Prescott be able to handle the speed and diverse looks the Bucs throw at him?
The good news is that Tyron Smith and La'el Collins are back after they missed a combined 30 games last year. This will certainly help against JPP and Shaq, but the interior of the offensive line will still be at risk. Especially when Todd Bowles sends Lavonte David and Devin White on some inside stunts.
Per Sports Info Solutions, Prescott completed just 47% of his passes for 407 yards, zero touchdowns, and two interceptions when pressured through five games in 2020. He registered a mark of 3.6 ANY/A and an abysmal -0.60 EPA/att. On the other hand, he completed 76% of his passes for 1,450 yards, nine touchdowns, and two interceptions and fielded a mark of 9.5 ANY/A and 0.36 EPA/att when he wasn't pressured.
It's pretty clear that the Bucs are going to have to get after Prescott if they want to win on Thursday night.
1. The Bucs need to field an effective rushing attack
No, this isn't semantics for establishing the run. It's simply stating that the Bucs need to run the ball effectively on Thursday night against a weak Dallas run defense.
For starters, that's something you simply want to see. The Bucs offensive line is one of the top units in the league when it comes to running the ball. Per Football Outsiders, the front five registered the ninth-highest adjusted line yards per carry mark for running backs and were top-5 in both power rank and stuffed rank. Dallas' run defense was 23rd in overall run defense DVOA. It's clear the Bucs have a leg up here, so one would expect them to take advantage of the situation.
And then there's the obvious side of things where an effective ground game takes pressure off Tom Brady both literally and figuratively. Don't be surprised if Dan Quinn tries to come after Brady in this game. The last thing the Bucs want is the Cowboys defense teeing off on every snap.
Historically, Quinn's run defenses haven't been very good, either. The Falcons never finished in the top-10 of DVOA and averaged a 19th-place finish when Quinn coached there from 2015-2019. I didn't include 2020 since he didn't finish the season as head coach.
The table is set up for the Bucs to have a big night on the ground, but will they be able to take advantage? It will certainly make things a lot easier, if so.
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