The Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored on their first possession Sunday at Cowboys Stadium, proving once again that Greg Schiano's team has figured out how to start fast. Unfortunately the Buccaneers had difficulty finishing for the second straight week, and the result was a 16-10 road loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
The Buccaneers fell to 1-2 on the season with the loss, while Dallas improved to 2-1. Tampa Bay returns home to Raymond James Stadium next Sunday to play the Washington Redskins.
Tampa Bay's game-opening points were set up by Aqib Talib's interception on Tony Romo's third pass of the game. Four plays later, QB Josh Freeman hit TE Luke Stocker in the back left corner of the end zone for a quick seven points. Those would be Tampa Bay's last points until the closing minutes of the game, however, as the Buccaneer offense failed to find a rhythm the rest of the afternoon, producing just 166 total yards.
Dallas tied the game at 7-7 on DeMarco Murray's 11-yard run later in the first quarter, then added three
Dan Bailey field goals, two of them in the fourth quarter. Bailey gave the Cowboys an insurmountable two-score lead with 2:43 left in the game with a 22-yard field goal following a 44-yard punt return by Dez Bryant to the Buccaneers' six.
The Bucs simply couldn't sustain a drive in the second half. Tampa Bay actually run the ball reasonably well, picking up 75 yards on 25 carries, but found no success through the air. With his receivers routinely blanketed and the Cowboys' fierce pass rush cutting down his time in the pocket, Freeman completed just 10 of 28 passes for 110 yards, with 71 of them coming on the Bucs' final drive. His only interception came on an accurate pass that bounced off RB D.J. Ware's chest, but he was able to complete only two passes to wide receivers before that last drive. Top target Vincent Jackson's only catch, a 29-yarder, came on that last possession, and no Buc had more than two receptions on the day.
Rookie back Doug Martin led the team with 53 yards on 19 carries while LeGarrette Blount saw his first action in two weeks and picked up 19 yards on 11 carries. The Bucs averaged only three yards per carry, however, as the Cowboy defense attacked the line of scrimmage aggressively.
Those struggles rendered a rather impressive performance by the Bucs' defense moot. Tampa Bay forced three turnovers and sacked Dallas QB Tony Romo four times, two each by DE Michael Bennett and DT Gerald McCoy. Romo still completed 25 of 39 attempts for 283 yards but he did not find the end zone, was picked off once and finished with a passer rating of 75.1.
Both Bennett and McCoy forced Romo fumbles with one of their sacks, although it took successful replay challenges in both cases for the play to be ruled a turnover. On the second one, late in the third quarter, CB Eric Wright scooped up the loose ball and ran for a potential touchdown, but the initial ruling of no fumble meant a replay reversal could only give the Bucs possession, not the score. Tampa Bay got the ball at the Dallas 31 on the recovery but an intentional-grounding penalty pushed the Bucs out of field goal range and they didn't score off the takeaway.
Penalties were a significant problem for both teams. Dallas was flagged 13 times for 105 yards while the Bucs took 10 penalties for 69 yards.
Tampa Bay's run defense was even better, holding the Cowboys to 40 yards on 22 carries. Murray's 11-yard scoring run represented the biggest chunk of his 38 yards on 18 carries as Dallas backs were routinely bottled up at the line of scrimmage, gaining only 1.7 yards per tote. LB Mason Foster led the charge with seven tackles, including two for losses, and rookie LB Lavonte David added five stops, one for a loss.
The Buccaneers once again got off to a fast start on both sides of the ball, which has been a welcome trend this year. The defense came up big on the opening possession, as Talib leapt in front of Miles Austin on a third-and-15 play to intercept Romo's third pass of the game. The play was reviewed but upheld, putting the ball at the Dallas 29. From there, the Bucs needed six plays to get it into the end zone, though they had to convert a fourth-and-inches at the Dallas three. Doug Martin took care of that behind a good block from Erik Lorig, and Freeman threw a play-action pass to Stocker in the back left corner of the end zone on first-and-goal.
Dallas tied the game before the first quarter was over as they too took advantage of a turnover. Freeman tried to hit Ware on a third-down dump-off pass over the middle deep in Bucs territory but the ball bounced off Ware's chest and right to Lee at the Bucs' 23. Four plays later, the Cowboys blocked a sweep to the left perfectly and Murray was able to dive to the pylon for the score.
The Bucs avoided disaster early in the second quarter when LB DeMarcus Ware hit an unsuspecting Freeman from the blind side, forcing a fumble that proceeded to squirt around amid a pile of diving bodies. Ted Larsen managed to scoop it in, allowing the Bucs to eventually punt it deep into Dallas territory. The Bucs maintained the upper hand in a low-octane battle of field position for much of the rest of the first half until they were unable to hold on to the next fumble.
Tampa Bay's defense forced another three-and-out deep in Dallas territory but LB Dekoda Watson just missed on a diving attempt to block Chris Jones' kick. Watson ended up with a personal foul for hitting Jones' leg, and as it turned out that was tacked on to the end of the play after Shipley muffed the punt and Dallas recovered. All in all, it was a field-position swing of 53 yards, putting the Cowboys at the Bucs' 24.
Tampa Bay's defense managed to hold again, however, and Dallas had to settle for Dan Bailey's 32-yard field goal, which made it 10-7 in the home team's favor with three minutes left in the half. That was the final score of the first half, though Dallas did get back to the Bucs' 40 in the final seconds of the second quarter. A sack by Bennett kept the Cowboys from getting into field goal range and S Mark Barron knocked down a Hail Mary pass attempt on the last play.
The Bucs did nothing with their first possession of the second half but Romo worked the middle of the field on the ensuing drive to push Dallas all the way into Tampa Bay's red zone. However, the Bucs' defense denied the potential score by forcing its second turnover. McCoy sacked Romo on second down from the Bucs' 17, forcing a fumble that DT Gary Gibson recovered. The play was initially ruled an incomplete pass, as it appeared as if Romo tried to shovel it to Murray, but Schiano challenged and it was overturned. Replay showed that Romo lost his grip on the ball before he could push it forward, making it a fumble.
That was followed by the Bucs' first sustained drive, as Ware converted two big third downs and a pass interference call on S Mana Silva put the ball across midfield. However, it stalled just into Dallas territory and the Bucs had to punt for the fifth time.
On the next drive, Tampa Bay's defense forced another Romo fumble, though it once again took a replay challenge to get the call right. Bennett beat his man off the line instantly and hit Romo square in the chest, driving the Dallas quarterback backward into Adrian Clayborn. The ball came loose and was recovered by Wright, who picked it up and ran it into the end zone untouched. Unfortunately, the play was initially ruled dead, so the successful challenge only gave the Bucs possession, erasing the score.
Moreover, an intentional grounding call on the next snap pushed the Bucs out of field goal range and eventually led to a punt. The Cowboys followed with the game's biggest play on offense to that point, a 49-yard catch by Austin at the Bucs' 30. Once again, Tampa Bay's shut the door on the end zone, with a crushing sack by McCoy forcing Dallas into a third-and-19 from the 21, and they had to settle for Bailey's second field goal. His 26-yarder increased Dallas' lead to 13-7 with 11 minutes to play.
The Bucs had several more chances to move the ball but remained stuck in their end of the field throughout the fourth quarter. At the six-minute mark, Freeman had the ball stripped by Ware inside the five and Michael Koenen had to punt from the one-yard line. That situation turned even worse when Bryant broke free up the right sideline and returned the kick all the way to the Bucs' six.
That led to a Dallas field goal to make it a two-score game with just under three minutes remaining. The Bucs followed with their longest drive of the game, keyed by a 29-yard catch by Jackson on fourth-and-11 and Mike Williams' toe-tapping 23-yarder on the right sideline at the Dallas 17. Down by nine, the Bucs chose to kick a field goal with 44 seconds left, knowing they had to score twice.
All that was left was an onside kick attempt, which Dallas recovered easily to seal the win.
- The Bucs had only one player out due to injury in CB Anthony Gaitor. He was one of the team's seven inactives, along with CB E.J. Biggers, RB Michael Smith, S Keith Tandy, T Jamon Meredith, WR Chris Owusu and DE George Johnson.
- The Bucs had some unexpected starters on both sides of the ball. With some just-before-the-snap substituting on defense, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim replaced Roy Miller at defensive tackle and CB Brandon McDonald came in as a third corner in place of LB Quincy Black. On offense, the Bucs started in an unusual three-receiver, two-tailback formation that replaced the tight end with WR Arrelious Benn and the fullback with RB D.J. Ware. QB Josh Freeman lined up in a shotgun with Ware and RB Doug Martin on each side of him.
- Both DE Michael Bennett and DT Gerald McCoy recorded the second two-sack games of their respective careers on Sunday against Dallas. Bennett's first came last year on Monday Night Football against Indianapolis on Oct. 3. McCoy's first occurred in his 2010 rookie season, at Baltimore on Nov. 28. Their combined efforts marked the first time that two different Bucs had a pair of sacks in the same game since Nov. 18, 2007 at Atlanta. The duo that day was Gaines Adams and Stylez G. White.
- Sunday's game marked the third straight week that the Bucs have scored on their opening possession. They have 17 first-possession points already this year, after racking up just 10 in all of last season. It was also their second first-quarter touchdown of the year, as many as they had in all of 2011.
- K Connor Barth came on to kick a 28-yard field goal in the game's final minute. That extended his Buccaneer-record and current NFL-long streak to 22 consecutive field goals made.
- CB Aqib Talib's first-quarter interception was his first of the season and the 18th of his five-year career. That moved him into sole possession of eighth place on Tampa Bay's all-time pick list, breaking a tie with Mark Cotney, Ricky Reynolds and Harry Hamilton.
- Bucs DE Adrian Clayborn left the game in the fourth quarter with a knee injury and did not return.