*Article written by special contributor LP Cruz
It’s almost finally here. The Dallas Cowboys on the NFL’s opening night. There’s no bigger stage. America’s Team versus the defending champions. After months of waiting and what feels like the longest offseason ever, the Dallas Cowboys are back.
When I say the Cowboys are back, that has a double meaning. Consider everything that happened last year. Yes, they were a terrible defense but offensively, the Cowboys as many know them were far from what anyone expected. For as much as we make of the “Next Man Up” mantra, that has a limit and the success of an NFL team is factored by the sum of its parts.
Last year the Cowboys were missing an injured Dak Prescott early in the season, and a well-touted line missing its key starters, Tyron Smith and La’el Collins. Those vital pieces return Thursday and I expect to see a very different rendition of the Dallas Cowboys.
However, not only is the NFL about talents but how you deploy those talents in ways to exploit the opposition. So with the Cowboys at near full strength once again, and against a tough test, here are 3 key matchups I’m looking forward to seeing Thursday night.
Nashon Wright vs. Mike Evans
Shameless I know but quickly, I and many fans have turned Nashon Wright into a bit of a fan favorite and it’s easy to see why. When it comes to their defense, Dallas is in the midst of a rebuild and a tall, long corner with ball skills like Wright feels like a breath of fresh air to a team gasping for turnovers. To his credit, Wright has stepped in and performed well where he has been asked to step in, which includes on special teams. Nonetheless, where I’m most excited to see him is in the red zone, most notably against Mike Evans.
Tom Brady and Mike Evans seem to already have made a great connection in that area as evidenced by Mike Evans having tied for the 3rd most receiving touchdowns in the red zone last year. With Wright having less ground to cover and enough length and size to match up with Mike Evans, look for Nashon Wright to be called on near the goal line.
Randy Gregory vs. Donovan Smith
It’s no secret with the way the Buccaneers are built they intend to pass the ball early and often. Many will preach balance on offense but not these Buccaneers with a run-pass ratio of over 60% pass plays. For aggressive as Bruce Arians wants to be, that may play into the hands of the Dallas pass rush, specifically, Randy Gregory. Gregory far and away is the most physically gifted pass rusher the Cowboys have but somehow wasn’t given enough chances to prove himself last year.
That all should change with new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and the Buccaneers pass attack will make sure Gregory gets his chances lined up against Donovan Smith who is no pushover himself. If the Cowboys have any hopes of winning this game, Randy Gregory is going to have to win some critical snaps against Donovan Smith and get pressure on Tom Brady.
Dak Prescott vs. Todd Bowles
There’s no way I could talk matchups in this game without talking about the return of Dak Prescott. Fresh of a newly signed contract and something to prove, Dak Prescott has a lot to handle come Thursday. Todd Bowles is a perfect mirror image of the Tampa Bay offense: Persistent and willing to take chances. In 2020, the Tampa Bay defense sent a blitz on 39% of their snaps, the 5th highest rate in the NFL.
Also, the Cowboys may be without Zack Martin, so Dak’s internal clock might have to be a second or two faster than usual. Luckily for the Cowboys, Dak Prescott is one of the league’s best at identifying coverages before the snap. After a long layoff, it’ll be curious to see how adjusted Prescott is and who gets the better of this matchup.