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10 under-the-radar things to watch for in Cowboys’ wild card matchup vs. Buccaneers

Dallas Morning News logo Dallas Morning News 1/16/2023 Calvin Watkins, The Dallas Morning News
Dallas Cowboys punter Bryan Anger (5) and place kicker Brett Maher (19) warm up wearing the new Color Rush uniform before an NFL game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022. © Elías Valverde II/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Dallas Cowboys punter Bryan Anger (5) and place kicker Brett Maher (19) warm up wearing the new Color Rush uniform before an NFL game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022.

It’s time for the playoffs and with everything at a heighted pitch, we look at 10 things that matter between Dallas and Tampa Bay.

Kicking with live feeds on video boards

Brett Maher has never missed a field goal against Tampa Bay, going six-for-six and three-for-three on extra points in his career. One thing Maher has noticed about kicking in Raymond James Stadium isn’t the grass surface, but the video boards. Maher said when opposing kickers attempt field goals or extra points, the video boards show a live feed of the play. When the home team attempts field goals, the video board will have just logos of the teams or show static. Maher said he’s used to opposing stadiums trying to get kicker off their games, it’s part of the deal. By the way, Maher is just one-for-two on field goal attempts in the wild card round of the postseason.

Elliott is fresh and wants to continue legacy

Ezekiel Elliott comes into the postseason fresh. The two regular season games he missed with a knee injury, in comparison to playing through one last season, are a benefit. Now the running game has struggled into the postseason, averaging just 2.5 yards per carry. Elliott himself has endured some problems getting going of late but he doesn’t attribute that to his health.

“I feel really good,” Elliott said. “I would say, I definitely feel better than last year. Taking the two weeks off after I got hurt this year gave me a good amount of time to get back right. I’m ready to go.”

In four postseason games, Elliott is averaging 4.2 yards per carry, a number that if achieved Monday night is a welcomed part of the legacy of great Cowboys’ running backs. The standard was set by Tony Dorsett, who in 17 playoff games averaged 4.6 yards per carry with nine touchdowns. Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, in the same amount of games, averaged 4.5 yards and picked up 19 touchdowns.

“You just got to show up,” Elliott. “You’ve got to show up and be yourself. I mean, there’s a reason there’s even a comparison. You’ve got to continue to do the right things, like putting in the work, taking care of your body, everything you can to make sure you’re ready to go out there and have a great performance on Monday night. I mean, this is obviously the biggest game of the year.”

The truth about the grass

The Cowboys are 1-4 on grass this season. Former Cowboys coach Wade Phillips used to call these numbers: “baseball stats.” The truth about the poor record on the grass is the Cowboys led 28-14 in Green Bay before giving up 14 fourth quarter points in an overtime loss. At Jacksonville, a 27-10 lead late in the third quarter was given up before Dak Prescott threw a walk-off Pick Six in overtime. In the two other losses, Week 6 at the Eagles and the regular season finale against Washington were blowouts from the start. In the Eagles game, tight end Dalton Schultz and Prescott missed the game with injuries. Last week against the Commanders was just a bad game from the start. The lone win came on a Thursday night over Tennessee, the ending of a three-game in 12-day stretch. If there is any theme, it’s the Cowboys’ inability to finish games at Green Bay and Jacksonville. Imagine how this team might be viewed if those leads were held.

“Yeah, it’s important,” Prescott said of finishing games with the lead. “Just to make sure we go and win this game, whether it be us and having to close it out or whether it be in the last two minutes. Whatever it is, if we got an opportunity to go win this game we’ve got to go get it done in whatever way that we have to.”

During the course of the season, there were 52 games where a team overcame a deficit of 10 or more points to win or tie a game.

Addressing the last road playoff victory

Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, expressed surprise when told the Cowboys haven’t won a road playoff game since Jan. 17, 1993.

“Wow,” Smith said. “You mean the San Francisco game?” Yep, the Cowboys defeated the 49ers, 30-20, in the NFC Championship game.

The length of time from road victories was addressed by defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in a defensive meeting, and coach Mike McCarthy displayed baby pictures of 10 players who were born before that 1993 game. Can you guess who? We’ll tell you: Bryan Anger, Anthony Barr, C.J. Goodwin, T.Y. Hilton, DeMarcus Lawrence, Brett Maher, Zack Martin, Matt Overton, Jason Peters and Tyron Smith.

McCarthy would have added defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins’ baby picture, but the team didn’t get a photo of him in time for the presentation.

“They’re all really young,” McCarthy said of his team with over 40 players who weren’t born when the Cowboys last won a road playoff game. “No, the point is there’s only been 10 guys in the room that were born, that were (alive) and they were very young.”

Offensive line changes

At this stage of the season, you want the best personnel on the field when it comes to the offensive line. Expect a rotation for this unit. When the game starts, Jason Peters (tackle) and Tyler Smith (guard) might be on the left side. However, Connor McGovern could see time at left guard, moving Smith to tackle. The Cowboys believe Peters, 40, who was signed Sept. 5, is ready for a full complement of snaps. He played every snap (67) in the regular season finale against Washington. So that was a good barometer for how he can handle a full game. If Peters doesn’t play the entire game, expect to see him late especially if the contest is close.

A rookie will start at cornerback

The Cowboys’ secondary continues to have questions opposite starter Trevon Diggs. When the Cowboys enter the postseason, the other starter is uncertain. Nahshon Wright, Trayvon Mullen and Xavier Rhodes are the prospects. One thing confirmed is rookie DaRon Bland will start in the slot with the ability to also play outside. The rookie finished the season with the team lead in interceptions (five) which tied him for second among rookies in the NFL with Jalen Pitre of Houston. Despite being a rookie, the moment doesn’t seem too big for Bland.

“Bland is a young guy, but mentally he’s there,” safety Jayron Kearse said. “He knows what it’s going to take. He knows what he has to do. He knows the stakes are high. I have all the confidence in the world he’s going to go out there and play the same way he’s been playing all year. Some good football for a young guy. He understands what’s at stake. He’s going to be ready.”

Of the 617 defensive snaps, Bland has lineup in the slot (434) more than outside (78) based on stats from Pro Football Focus. Bland also has five snaps at safety.

Several coaches believed Bland carried himself like a veteran in offseason workouts and Kearse also picked up on the fifth-round pick’s vibe.

“Yeah, the way he moves,” Kearse said. “The way we gave him opportunities to go out there with the (first-team) and the moment wasn’t too big. He wasn’t scared. He went out there and jumped in guys’ faces and just did the things that he had to do. We saw it early on that he was going to make some plays.”

Michael Gallup’s moment

Receiver Michael Gallup missed the start of the season recovering from a torn ACL and when he returned in Week 4, his season has been one inconsistent time. Some of the inconsistency with Gallup resides with the play caller, Kellen Moore, who admitted Gallup ran too many deep routes. With the Cowboys not throwing it deep, it just made Gallup a decoy. Gallup has proven he can make contested catches, yet, like his season it’s been inconsistent. In the last three games, Gallup has eight catches for 85 yards on 17 targets. His catch percentage (47.1) is below his career average of 55%.

Monday night is a game where Gallup probably needs a reboot, which is a word Mike McCarthy used about the team overall after the loss to Washington.

Tom Brady is undefeated and undisputed

The numbers say Tom Brady has never lost to the Cowboys. He’s 7-0 against them whether playing for New England or Tampa Bay.

Does it matter?

“It’s 2023,” Jayron Kearse said while shaking his head. “It’s 2023. He ain’t beat us this year. That’s all I’m going to worry about.”

Said DeMarcus Lawrence on beating Brady: “Yeah man I ain’t getting no younger. You know this is the time, especially with the group that we have. Feel like the young guys done grown so much and yeah man we just ready for our opportunity and challenge.”

So what about the ref?

In the NFL playoffs, officiating crews get mixed with four officials from the eight-man crews remaining together once the second season starts. Craig Wrolstad is the ref on Monday night and he’ll work his first Cowboys’ game this season. He was the ref in a Week 7 contest between Tampa Bay and Carolina, where he called just seven penalties. On the season, Wrolstad’s crews called for 230 penalties with 38 being declined.

The interior of the defensive line

Mike McCarthy said coming up with the final 48 players on Monday night is going to become a difficult task. The biggest issues will come along the interior of defensive line that’s had its share of problems against the run. Chauncey Golston, Carlos Watkins and Osa Odighizuwa had strong performances against Washington and that trio might rotate against Tampa Bay. That would mean Neville Gallimore and Quinton Bohanna could be inactive for the playoff game. The Cowboys have kept four interior linemen active on game days and with the possible elevation of Johnathan Hankins from injured reserve for a pectoral muscle injury, it leaves Gallimore and Bohanna watching. Gallimore has been inactive just once, Oct. 23 against Detroit. Bohanna, after playing in the last four games, was a healthy scratch for the regular season finale.

Twitter: @calvinwatkins

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