RB Cadillac Williams rushed for 97 yards as the Bucs' running game looked strong on opening day
For 62 seconds in the fourth quarter on Sunday, the young Tampa Bay Buccaneers were thinking comeback. One devastatingly effective pump-fake later, and the game was out of reach.
The executor of that pump-fake, Dallas QB Tony Romo, led the visiting Cowboys to a 34-21 victory at Raymond James Stadium on opening day, throwing three touchdown passes including an 80-yarder to WR Patrick Crayton after he drew coverage away by looking underneath. That came two plays after the Buccaneers had pulled to within 20-14 on their second touchdown run of the day.
Though the Bucs had trouble keeping up on the scoreboard, the game was something of a shootout, with the two teams combining for 912 yards of offense. In his first start as a Buccaneer, QB Byron Leftwich directed an attack succeeded on the ground and in the air, racking up 450 yards. Unfortunately, the Bucs' new-look defense gave up 462, much of it on big plays in the passing game like Crayton's long score.
"Obviously, we're disappointed in the loss," said Raheem Morris, who directed his first game as an NFL head coach. "There were a lot of good things on offense and too many big plays on defense. We did a good job of playing the run tough. Romo did exactly what we thought he would do and created big plays down the field. That just kills you. We've got to get more pressure on the quarterback."
Though it wasn't enough on this day, the Buccaneers' running game was nothing short of dominant, with Williams and Ward taking turns gashing the Cowboys' defensive front. Williams ran like it was 2005 all over again, gaining 97 yards on 13 carries, 77 of it by halftime. After a 35-yard run put the ball at Dallas' five, Williams punched it in on third-and-goal from the one to give the Bucs their first lead of the season, 7-6. That lead lasted until the final minute of the first half, when a defensive breakdown helped Miles Austin score on a 42-yard pass from Romo. WR Michael Clayton followed with an amazing diving catch just before halftime but K Mike Nugent missed a 46-yard field goal.
Overall, the Bucs' rushing attack gained 174 and averaged 5.6 yards per carry. Ward added 62 yards on 12 carries and was the lead man in the backfield in the second half. With Williams and then Ward so hot, Graham was something of the odd man out on this particular day, but he still found ways to contribute. In fact, Graham provided the lead block on the touchdown runs by both Ward and Williams.
Williams' return to dominance was heartwarming but no more encouraging than the play of cornerback Ronde Barber. The Bucs' veteran leader on defense had his skeptics during the 2009 offseason, given the team's switch out of the defensive system in which he'd played his whole career. The Buccaneers' coaching staff remained confident in Barber's abilities, however, and he turned in a very strong opening performance. Barber had a tackle for loss on Marion Barber on the game's first play and a sack of Romo moments later. He also turned in another tackle for loss and a diving pass-breakup that ended a second-quarter Dallas drive. Tampa Bay's secondary was stung frequently, however, with apparent breakdowns in coverage leading to wide-open receivers and an eventual total of 353 gross passing yards.
Nugent's second-quarter miss was only one of the problems the Buccaneers encountered in their kicking game, which was clearly a deciding factor in the game, as Morris had predicted. Nugent's first field goal attempt was blocked and he finished 0-2 on the day when the Bucs. New Bucs punter Dirk Johnson averaged 41.0 yards per boot (with a strong 40.2 net, however) while Dallas' Mat McBriar averaged 54.8. Moreover, Cowboys kicker Nick Folk routinely neutralized Clifton Smith with kickoffs to the back of the end zone, and the sure-handed Smith even fumbled one punt, though he recovered it himself.
The Cowboys posted the game's only two scores of the first quarter, though on both occasions the Buccaneers' defense held at the end to force a field goal. Just as they did a year ago in Dallas, the Bucs went into halftime with a statistical edge but trailing on the scoreboard thanks to a late score. That 2008 contest ended in a 13-9 Tampa Bay loss when the Bucs couldn't punch it into the end zone on a last-minute drive. This time, however, Dallas came up with some quick insurance points in the first half, with Romo hooking up with Williams on a 66-yard touchdown pass.
The Bucs closed the gap back to six points early in the fourth quarter on an impressive, 11-play, 84-yard drive capped by Ward's TD dive. Rookie WR Sammie Stroughter made a fine catch in traffic out of the slot — the role the Bucs have envisioned for him since he was drafted in the seventh round in April. However, Romo hit a wide-open Crayton two plays later after drawing the coverage away on a pump fake to an underneath receiver.
After Barber's first-quarter sack, the Cowboys' massive offensive line gave Romo good protection the rest of the way. He was sacked just once and had time to complete 16 of 27 passes for 353 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 140.6.
Leftwich had a strong debut for the Bucs, as well, and though he spread the ball around to 10 players, WR Michael Clayton was his favorite target on the day. Like Williams, Clayton appears poised to regain his rookie form in 2009, and he began the season with five catches for 93 yards. The Bucs even let Clayton try a pass on an end-around trick play, though it was well-defended and incomplete. Winslow also caught five passes but 2008 star Antonio Bryant had just two for 29 yards and left the game in the fourth quarter with a knee injury. Leftwich enjoyed good protection for much of the day, as the best sack team of 2008 failed to drop him once in 41 drop-backs.
"I'm really pleased with the way Byron Leftwich played today," said Morris. "He played like an absolute stud. He went out there like a warrior, stood in there and took the hit and delivered the ball down the field. He got hit a lot, and that's what Byron is. He's so tough and so physical and he's going to stand in there and deliver the football. That's his game. That's the Doug Williams-type of game. He was just a man trying to win a football game."
The Bucs lost the toss to open the game and thus started on defense, with Jones giving the Cowboys a boost with a kickoff return out to the Dallas 36. R. Barber made the game's first outstanding play, catching M. Barber in the backfield for a loss of one. Two plays later, RB Tashard Choice bounced a third-and-four carry around left end and got seven yards, though Jermaine Phillips stopped it from being more with a fine open-field tackle at the Dallas 49. M. Barber broke off a 12-yard run two plays later to the Bucs' 26. R. Barber got his sack of Romo a moment later and a broken play on the next snap made it third-and-17 from the 33. Massive confusion on the Cowboys offense forced the visitors to use their first timeout, and a toss-sweep to M. Barber after the break was engulfed for no gain near the sideline. The Cowboys settled for Folk's 51-yard shot and a 3-0 lead.
Folk blasted his first kickoff out of the end zone so the Bucs' first drive started at their own 20. Two plays in, Williams darted around left tackle for a gain of 11 yards. Leftwich's first regular-season pass as a Buccaneer was a 19-yard strike over the middle to Winslow, with DeMarcus Ware slow to get up after his tackle of the Buc tight end. Leftwich went to his other tight end on the next snap and got a 14-yard gain out of a strike to TE Jerramy Stevens. Williams broke off a 14-yard run on the next snap, running over S Ken Hamlin in the process. Another potential first down on a pass to Bryant was erased by penalty, and a third-down fade attempt to Bryant was incomplete, bringing on Nugent for his first Buccaneer field goal attempt. Unfortunately, it was blocked by S Gerald Sensabaugh, with Mike Jenkins returning it to the Bucs' 48.
The Cowboys took advantage of that field position quickly, with Romo hitting TE Jason Witten at the Bucs' eight-yard line. The Bucs' defense held at that spot, however, with R. Barber keeping a third-down fade pass away from TE Martellus Bennett. Folk hit his second FG of the game, a 22-yarder, to make it 6-0.
Williams stayed hot to start the second drive, ripping off a seven-yarder and a six-yarder to get it moving. After the two teams switched sides to start the second quarter, Leftwich heaved a nice improvisational shotput to Ward for a gain of 14. Ward got his first carry on the next snap and blasted over left guard for a gain of nine. After his next carry was stymied, the Bucs faced a third-and-one at the Dallas 42 and Leftwich got it himself on a keeper. After a missed deep ball attempt to Winslow, Williams got most of the way to the end zone anyway on a 35-yard run. With a first down at the five, Ward had two nice runs to get it to the one and Williams came back in for third-and-goal. Following a lead block by Graham , Ward punched it in to give the Bucs a 7-6 lead.
Not to be outdone, M. Barber immediately recorded a 23-yard run around left end. The Bucs' defense held after that, however, with R. Barber diving to break up what looked like a sure completion to Crayton on third-and-seven. The resulting punt went into the end zone for a touchback with 8:42 left in the half.
The Bucs got it to midfield on the first play, with Leftwich hitting Bryant in stride on a deep slant and Bryant running free for a 30-yard gain. Unfortunately, the drive went no further, as Leftwich's first truly errant throw of the game sailed over the head of a wide-open Ward. Johnson punted the ball down to the Cowboys' 10.
The Bucs' defense got another quick stop but a running-into-the-kicker penalty gave them a new first down at their own 23. A third-down slant to Witten converted the next third down and picked up 20 yards to the Dallas 45. A successful end-around by Crayton, with Romo throwing the key block was brought back by a personal foul on Flozell Adams. On third-and-20 from the 35, LB Geno Hayes thwarted an attempted screen and the Cowboys had to punt.
Unfortunately, the Buccaneers failed to get a first down or even take much time off the clock, so Dallas got another shot starting from their own 44 with a minute left in the half. Two plays later, Austin caught a fade-stop on the right sideline, pulled away from Elbert Mack and eluded a Phillips tackle attempt to score from 42 yards out.
The Bucs tried to make the most of the remaining 46 seconds, thanks to an incredible catch by Clayton. Leftwich heaved it up down the right sideline and Clayton sped past Newman before making a diving catch and landing just inbounds at the Dallas 28. The play was reviewed and upheld and, with two seconds left, the Bucs brought on Nugent to try a 46-yard field goal. Nugent's kick sailed wide right to keep the score 13-7 in Dallas' favor.
The Bucs got the ball first to start the second half and Leftwich quickly found Clayton again for a gain of 14. However, on third-and-five from the 41, Leftwich's hard pass to WR Maurice Stovall was just out of the receiver's reach. The ensuing punt went down to the Dallas 21.
Three plays later, Romo hit Williams on the run down the right numbers and three converging defenders failed to get there in time, allowing Williams to run free the length of the field and lengthen the Cowboys' lead to 20-7. The Bucs' second drive of the second half went three-and-out, bringing on Johnson to punt again. Terence Newman muffed Johnson's 49-yard kick and Crayton drew a 10-yard penalty by kicking the loose ball out of bounds.
This time the Bucs' defense got off the field in three plays, and McBriar's ensuing punt and Smith's 14-yard return put the ball at Tampa Bay's 42 with half of the third quarter remaining. The Bucs were unable to do much with that field position, however, and punted the ball back four snaps later. The Cowboys then converted a third-and-two from their own 20 with an 18-yard pass to Witten. Defensive Coordinator Jim Bates then dialed up consecutive blitzes to force Romo into a pair of incompletions, the second of which was nearly intercepted by Aqib Talib.
Smith muffed and recovered the ensuing punt at the Bucs' 16, and Ward dashed for 22 yards to midfield. A Cowboy penalty erased an apparent interception by Jenkins on a deep pass to Bryant, and a pass to Ward picked up seven yards and a first down at the Dallas 38. Two plays later, Leftwich hit Clayton for 20 yards just as Sensabaugh arrived at full speed. The resulting collision actually injured Sensabaugh, with Clayton stunningly remaining on his feet and holding onto the ball.
After the two teams switched sides for the fourth quarter, Leftwich zipped a 13-yard pass to rookie WR Stroughter on third-and-six that was originally ruled a touchdown. A Dallas challenge brought the ball back out to the one but Ward dived over on the next play to make it 20-14.
The pump-fake touchdown to Crayton restored Dallas' 13-point lead, but the Bucs took their next possession quickly back into Dallas territory. Leftwich delivered a 10-yard pass to Stroughter at the Dallas 29 as he was buried by the Cowboy pass rush. However, the Bucs faced a fourth-and-seven at the 26 and failed to convert when Winslow dropped what would have been a first-down catch.
Crayton broke free over the middle four plays later for a 44-yard catch down to the Bucs' 20. M. Barber ran it in from six yards out three plays later to complete the 74-yard drive and put the game well out of reach.
The Bucs did use the last four minutes to drive back into Dallas territory, thanks to 17-yard catches by Stevens and Brian Clark. They faced a fourth-and-goal at the two but were able to convert with Winslow's two-yard TD catch, making it 34-21 with a minute-and-a-half to play.
Game Notes: LB Geno Hayes was not in the starting lineup as expected because he arrived late to the stadium on Sunday. LB Matt McCoy opened on the weak side in his place…Gerald Sensabaugh's first-quarter block of Mike Nugent's field goal attempt was the first blocked FG against Tampa Bay since Dec. 4, 2005, when New Orleans' Tony Bryant pulled it off. … WR Michael Clayton's 47-yard catch in the second quarter moved him into 10th place on the Bucs' all-time receiving yardage list. Clayton recorded 93 receiving yards on the day, giving him 2,799 in his six seasons to move past Courtney Hawkins (2,744) for the 10th spot. … Dallas leads the all-time regular-season series with the Buccaneers, 9-3, and also has won both postseason matchups … WR Patrick Crayton's 80-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter was the longest completion of QB Tony Romo's career. The Cowboys have the best all-time opening-day record in the NFL. In their 50 opening games they are 34-15-1. The Bucs are 13-21 in openers but have lost five of their last six.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: CB E.J. Biggers, LB Adam Hayward, OL Marc Dile, T Demar Dotson, TE John Gilmore, DE Kyle Moore, DE Maurice Evans and designated third quarterback Josh Freeman. Biggers, Hayward, Gilmore and Moore are out due to injury.
The Cowboys deactivated these eight men: S Mike Hamlin, LB Jason Williams, G Montrae Holland, C Duke Preston, T Pat McQuistan, WR Kevin Ogletree, LB Curtis Johnson and designated third quarterback Stephen McGee. Hamlin, Williams, Johnson and McGee were all on Dallas' Friday injury report.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, WR Antonio Bryant sustained a knee injury in the fourth quarter and did not return. C Jeff Faine suffered an elbow injury in the fourth quarter and did not return. G Jeremy Zuttah sustained an ankle injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.
For the Cowboys, LB DeMarcus Ware suffered a blow to the head early in the first quarter but was able to return in the second half. S Gerald Sensabaugh was taken in for X-rays on his ribs after a third-quarter collision with WR Michael Clayton and did not return to the game.