We made it. After seven long months, NFL football is BACK.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will open their season at home against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night, marking the beginning of the 2021 regular season and the start of their campaign to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Buccaneers’ offensive prowess, especially in the air, and rightfully so. Tom Brady and all of his top targets in 2020—Rob Gronkowski, Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, etc.—are returning for the 2021 season. What hasn’t gotten as much attention is Tampa Bay’s defense, who also will see all of its Super Bowl LV starters return in 2021. This is an especially important detail for the secondary, especially against a Cowboys team that is very talented in the passing game.
Before Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott’s season was cut short by an ankle injury, he was on pace to have a brilliant 2020. Over his only five games of the season, Prescott had a completion percentage just over 68% with almost 2,000 passing yards and nine touchdowns. On the ground, he had another 93 yards with three more touchdowns. Oh yeah, and he also caught this touchdown pass from receiver Cedrick Wilson against the Giants. If we assume that pace would have continued and extend those numbers over a full season, Prescott would have finished with almost 6,000 passing yards (5,939, to be exact), which would have shattered Peyton Manning’s record of 5,477 yards in a single season. As far as scoring, his pace suggests he’d have finished 2020 with 29 touchdowns in the air and 10 more with his legs.
While Prescott obviously deserves a lot of the credit for that level of performance, so does the receiving corps around him. The trio of Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, and Amari Cooper has proven to be one of the best receiving corps in the country.
Cooper finished 2020 with his fifth 1,000-plus-yard season out of six since entering the league, finishing with the best catch percentage of his career (70.8%) despite having to work with four different starting quarterbacks last year. Gallup’s numbers suffered a bit in 2020 without being able to build off his chemistry with Prescott, but he continued to show off his ability to separate and create opportunities deep downfield and will benefit from Prescott’s return. Finally, Lamb saw most of his work from the slot, also showing off his separation skills against man coverage in the seams. He finished his rookie year just short of the 1,000-yard mark, with his biggest issue in 2020 being drops—which he’ll likely improve on in his sophomore campaign.
On the other side of the ball will be the Buccaneers’ secondary, featuring safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Mike Edwards to replace the injured Jordan Whitehead, along with cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting.
The Bucs’ pass defense wasn’t one that was highly lauded during the 2020 regular season, unlike its stalwart run defense that gave up an NFL-low 1,289 yards—almost 200 yards fewer than the next best team—along with another NFL-low 10 rushing touchdowns scored. In fact, Tampa’s regular season passing defense was one of the weakest in the league. Their opposing teams’ cumulative completion percentage of 69% was the fourth highest in the league, only better than that of the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Houston Texans. Though they finished the season in the middle of the pack in passing yards and touchdowns allowed, it appeared that the secondary might be the Buccaneers’ downfall in the playoffs.
Instead, they did a complete 180. Their opponents’ completion percentage of 59.7 percent in the 2020 postseason would have been the second-lowest in the regular season, beating out the New Orleans Saints and just behind the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cornerbacks Davis and Murphy-Bunting each had their moments of greatness in the playoffs. Davis held Saints receiver Michael Thomas to no catches on four targets, while Murphy-Bunting became the fourth player in the Super Bowl era to record an interception in each of his first three postseason games. During the Super Bowl, the secondary held young star Patrick Mahomes to a 53.1% completion rate with two interceptions.
The Buccaneers’ young secondary—neither of its safeties nor cornerbacks are even 25 years old yet—will face one of its biggest challenges early in the regular season against the Cowboys’ formidable receiver trio. Will they continue building off of the progress they made in last year’s postseason or regress to their 2020 regular season performances? How much will Prescott’s ankle and shoulder injuries and/or the depleted Cowboys offensive line come into play with those matchups? We’ll all find out on Thursday Night Football when the 2021 NFL regular season finally begins.