The Bucs' defense was swarming all over the field Sunday in Dallas but never provided the game-changing turnover
The last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 6-2 at the season's midway point, Brad Johnson was at quarterback and the team's first Super Bowl title was just three months in the future.
This time, Johnson was at the helm of the opposing offense, and his efforts helped prevent the Buccaneers from matching that team-record 6-2 midway mark. Making his second start in place of the injured Tony Romo, Johnson led Dallas to a 13-9 victory, highlighted by a two-yard touchdown pass to WR Roy Williams just before halftime. The Cowboys took a 10-6 lead on that play and never trailed again.
The Bucs instead fell to 5-3 and out of a first-place tie with the Carolina Panthers, who won a close game at home against Arizona to move to 6-2.
Johnson didn't throw deep often, averaging 2.83 per pass attempt, and he helped the passing attack produce only 102 net yards on the day. But he wasn't intercepted a week after throwing three picks in St. Louis; in fact, Tampa Bay's defense failed to secure a single turnover, which appeared to be the game's deciding factor.
Dallas came into the game with an average of 393.1 yards of offense per game, good for third in the league, but was held to just 172 yards by the visiting Buccaneers. Tampa Bay's defense prevented the big play and gave Johnson few downfield options, but never quite summoned up the game-changing play that was needed. In addition, that crew ran into severe penalty problems during the game's turning moments.
A week after giving up just 44 yards to Seattle in the first half, the Bucs held Dallas to 101 before intermission but were actually losing at the break. Two drives into the Dallas red zone and a third that reached the 25 resulted in just two field goals and a missed third try for the Buccaneers' offense.
Dallas didn't run a single play in Buccaneer territory in the first quarter but scored 10 points on two drives that just wouldn't end in the second quarter. The second one was helped by four penalties against Tampa Bay's defense, including a horse-collar call on CB Ronde Barber that negated a midfield stop on third down. A pass-interference call on CB Phillip Buchanon gave Dallas a first down in the red zone and a personal foul call on LB Cato June made it first-and-goal at the two. Dallas had just six seconds and no timeouts to play but chose to run one more play and made it count, with Johnson hitting Roy Williams on a fade for the go-ahead score.
The Bucs did have one more drive reach deep into Dallas territory at the end of the game. The Bucs drove to within 18 yards of the end zone but stalled when Garcia was pressured into an incompletion on fourth-and-three. Garcia was sharp for much of the day, completing 28 of 4 passes for 228 yards and no interceptions, but he also didn't throw a touchdown pass as the Bucs' offense was held out of the end zone for the first time this season.
Garcia's favorite target was former Cowboy Antonio Bryant, who caught seven passes for 46 yards. Garcia also found another ex-Cowboy, WR Joey Galloway, three times for 38 yards as he spread the ball around to nine different receivers. Tampa Bay's running game provided very little support, unfortunately, gaining just 48 yards on 19 carries, one yard better than their season low.
The losing margin of four points threw the game's only touchdown drive into sharp relief. It proved to be a painful coincidence that the Bucs would lose in large part due to a horse-collar penalty, given that Texas Stadium is virtually the birth place of that infraction. The rule is informally known as the Roy Williams rule after the injured Dallas safety, who was involved in several highly-publicized plays of that variety before the move was outlawed.
That drive covered 59 yards, the longest of the day for the Cowboys. RB Marion Barber was essentially the only Dallas weapon that got untracked, as he ran for 71 yards on 25 tough carries and caught a team-high six passes for 29 yards. WR Terrell Owens caught five passes but was held to just 33 yards. The Cowboys went deep to Owens just once and rookie CB Aqib Talib was able to break it up at the last instant.
The Buccaneers committed the game's only turnover, and it came on special teams as rookie RB Clifton Smith fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half. Dallas didn't score off that turnover but it did prevent the Bucs' offense from establishing some much-needed second-half momentum.
Despite that gaffe, Smith did have a positive impact on the Bucs' return game. Signed off the Bucs' practice squad on Saturday, Smith got 20 yards on his first NFL punt return – the longest of the season for the Buccaneers – and 14 on each of his next two punt returns. He finished the game with a 16.4-yard average on five punt returns.
Tampa Bay's defense got the game off to a good start with a one-yard, three-and-out on Dallas' first drive. Johnson was forced to check down incomplete on first down and he never got set for a third-and-nine pass thanks to a well-organized zone blitz.
Smith made an instant impact on his first return, darting directly upfield on a 43-yard punt to get 20 yards to the Dallas 47. Punter Sam Paulescu made an instant impression on Smith, too, driving him backward with a surprisingly hard hit to the chest, but the diminutive Smith popped right up and pumped his fast.
That good field position led to a quick score for the Buccaneers. Garcia completed all three of his passes on the drive, all three to Bryant, the last of which was an acrobatic five-yard grab that set up third-and-one at the Dallas 18. Unfortunately, DT Tank Johnson dropped Earnest Graham on his third-down rush and the Bucs had to settle for Matt Bryant's 36-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead at the 10:57 mark.
Dallas got seven yards on its next possession but no first down, and Smith's 14-yard return of the next punt put the ball at the Bucs' 38. Smith was also on the receiving end of a 13-yard pass on his first regular-season play on offense, getting the Bucs just over midfield. Gruden then dialed up a deep shot, with Galloway running a post, but Garcia's pass was a few yards too long.
The drive fizzled out two plays later but Josh Bidwell's punt was fair caught at the Dallas seven-yard line. Two Barber runs that got three yards and a false start made it third-and-12 from the five, and a safe draw play to Barber came up four yards short. A 53-yard punt and another 14-yard return by Smith got the ball back to the Bucs' 48.
A third-down offsides call on DE DeMarcus Ware preserved the drive early, and Michael Clayton's 17-yard catch-and-run on a ball thrown a little behind him on a slant put the ball at the Dallas 14. An illegal forward pass by Garcia, who had scrambled a bit too far, made it third-and-15 and the Bucs couldn't convert, again settling for a field goal try. Bryant hit another 36-yarder to make it 6-0 near the end of the first quarter.
Dallas finally got moving on offense on the ensuing drive, with Barber's three-yard run to the Dallas 40 accounting for the Cowboys' initial first down. That play also brought the first quarter to an end. A 10-yard catch by TE Martellus Bennett converted a third-and-nine and got the ball down to the Bucs' 35. LB Derrick Brooks made a leaping breakup of a sure touchdown pass to TE Tony Curtis on first down from the Bucs' 24, and CB Phillip Buchanon nearly intercepted a third-down pass from the 20. Dallas brought on Nick Folk, who cut the lead in half with a 38-yard field goal.
The Bucs' next drive quickly fell into a third-and-12 hole, but Galloway's first catch of the game, a 20-yarder down the left seam, moved the chains. A bubble-screen to Galloway worked, too, this one a 13-yarder down to the Dallas 44. Garcia converted the next third down on his own with a six-yard scramble and Graham ran seven yards down to the 25. However, a holding call pushed it back to the 35 and, on third-and-eight from the 30, Ware jumped offside again to make it third-and-three. Garcia slipped while scrambling on third down, giving Jay Ratliff a 10-yard sack and setting up a 51-yard field goal attempt that Bryant pushed wide to the right.
Dallas thus got the ball back at their own 41 with a little over two minutes left in the half. Barber's nine-yard run got the ball to midfield as the two-minute warning arrived. A crushing, six-yard sack by Adams pushed Dallas into a third-and-12, but the horse-collar penalty on Barber against Marion Barber led to a new first down at the Bucs' 33. Another penalty, a pass-interference call on Buchanon, converted the next third down, giving Dallas another first down at the 22 with 24 seconds to play.
A completion to WR Patrick Crayton added 13 yards and June's personal foul brought it down to the two, setting up the TD pass to Williams and a 10-6 Dallas lead.
The second half started horribly for the Buccaneers as Smith fumbled, giving Dallas the ball at the Bucs' 48 after a personal foul was stepped off on the Cowboys. Dallas went for it on fourth-and-inches from the Bucs 39 and got it on Barber's two-yard run. June's perfectly-timed run blitz led to a loss of six on Barber's next run and an incompletion by Johnson under pressure made it third-and-16 at the 42. Good coverage downfield forced a check-down throw on third and the Cowboys had to punt with WR Ike Hilliard fair catching it at the nine.
That proved to be a good stop for the Bucs' defense, considering the drive's setup, but the offense couldn't make a big dent in the field position before punting away. Graham converted a third-and-one at the 18 with a two-yard run but LB Bradie James sacked Garcia two plays later and Josh Bidwell's ensuing punt went only 35 yards to the Dallas 48.
Owens made a 12-yard catch on first down to get into Buccaneers territory as S Sabby Piscitelli went for the interception. Barber then broke off a 11-yarder of his own and the Cowboys were right back at the Bucs' 29. The drive stalled there, however, and Dallas had to settle for Folk's 45-yard field goal try, which he nailed to increase the Cowboys' lead to a touchdown 10 minutes into the third quarter.
The Bucs' next drive started at their own 21, and Graham gave them a first down by breaking a tackle by CB Mike Jenkins and gaining 11 yards on a pass on third-and-five. Three plays later, on a third-and-two, Garcia found TE Alex Smith wide open over the middle and gave him room to rumble for 34 yards to the Dallas 21. The drive went no further but the Bucs tacked on Bryant's third field goal to shrink Dallas' lead to 13-9.
Adams' second sack of the game, a nine-yarder, killed Dallas' next drive, and Smith tacked a 17-yard return onto Paulescu's 43-yard punt to put the ball at the Tampa Bay 43. James nearly intercepted a first-down pass to Graham and two incompletions later the Bucs had to punt again, with the ball bouncing down to the 14.
Talib prevented Owens from catch a deep pass down the left sideline and Dallas had to punt after moving only to the 15 and the Bucs got the ball back at their own 42. They did nothing with it, however, and had to punt it back once again, coincidentally down to the 14. At this point, there were 10 minutes left on the clock.
Barber picked up six yards on a first-down run around left end but was planted for a loss of two on second down. The Bucs blitzed on third-and-six but Johnson still had time to find Owens for a gain of 11. The Cowboys gambled on a fourth-and-inches moments later and got it, barely, when Barber powered over for one yard. However, a sack by Ryan Sims two plays later made it third-and-19 back at the Dallas 30 and the Cowboys had to punt after a short pass to Barber.
There was 4:22 left on the clock when the Bucs started again at their own 26. They faced a tough decision early when Graham's run on a third-and-one was stopped a foot short. The Bucs went for it on fourth-and-one, and Graham easily powered over left guard for a gain of four. A 13-yard catch by Hilliard put the ball two yards into Dallas territory as the two-minute warning arrived.
A six-yard pass to TE Jerramy Stevens on third-and-three mad it first down at the 35. They faced another third down at the 29 and called a timeout with 51 seconds remaining. Stevens dropped a pass that would have moved the sticks, forcing the Bucs into a fourth-and-four. Garcia kept the drive alive with a six-yard pass over the middle to Hilliard, who held on despite being hit from three sides. With a Dallas defender hurt, the clock was stopped at 34 seconds with the ball on the 23.
On third-and-nine from the 21, a short pass to Hilliard got it down to the 18. On fourth-and-three, after using their second timeout, the Bucs tried a short pass but it was incomplete as the pocket collapsed on Garcia.
Game Notes: [Dallas leads the all-time series with Tampa Bay, 8-3, with a 7-1 mark in Texas Stadium. Eight of the 11 games played in the all-time Bucs-Cowboys series have taken place in Texas, 10 of 13 if one includes the two postseason meetings between the teams after the 1981 and 1982 seasons. … LB Derrick Brooks made his 200th consecutive start for the Buccaneers today. Brooks has actually played in all 216 Tampa Bay regular season games since he joined the team in 1995, and started 213 of those, but he was out of the lineup for three contests as a rookie when the Bucs started in a nickel package. ... The Bucs trailed 10-6 at halftime, marking the first time they had gone into the break with a deficit in 2008. … TE Alex Smith's 34-yard catch in the third quarter was the longest of his career, surpassing his previous long of 33.
Inactives: The Buccaneers named the following eight players inactive before Sunday's game: WR Dexter Jackson QB Josh Johnson, RB Michael Bennett, FB B.J. Askew, T James Lee, WR Maurice Stovall, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Brian Griese. Askew and Stovall were out due to injury.
The Cowboys named the following eight players inactive: QB Tony Romo, RB Felix Jones, S Daren Stone, CB Terence Newman, G Kyle Kosier, G Joe Berger, T Doug Free and LB Anthony Spencer. Romo, Jones, Newman, Kosier and Spencer were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, S Jermaine Phillips sustained an arm injury in the second quarter and did not return. DT Jovan Haye suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter but was able to return.
For the Cowboys, TE Jason Witten sustained an injury to his ribs in the second quarter and did not return. CB Anthony Henry sustained a left quad contusion in the third quarter and did not return.