-The Bucs accomplished some of their “musts” on defense, like containing the running game and explosive plays.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott was kept from his nearly 100-yard-per-game average and mostly in check, not getting into the end zone all day on Sunday. Shutting down the Dallas ground game was a priority for the defense and when all was said and done, the Cowboys were kept to 80 net yards.
"Two of our three musts on defense in the game were to control their running game and limit their explosives and we really did both of those things,” Head Coach Dirk Koetter said. “I think they rushed for 80 yards and 25 of those 80 were in the four-minute mode, which we've got to do better in four-minute.”
The defense limited ‘explosive’ plays as well. Any running play over 12 yards and any pass play over 16 yards is what qualifies as an explosive, by Coach Koetter’s count. Elliott’s longest run of the game came right before the half was 17 yards and it ended up being negated by a Vita Vea sack that ended the half before Dallas could do anything. It was one of just two explosive plays he had, the other coming on a 12-yard run. Quarterback Dak Prescott’s longest pass was 31 yards to Michael Gallup. It also happened to be the only explosive passing play of the game.
-Cowboys WR Amari Cooper was quiet.
For a player that Coach Koetter and the rest of his staff had identified as a “game-wrecker” earlier in the week, Cooper remained relatively quiet throughout the game. He had four catches on five targets for just 20 receiving yards. Cooper had been averaging over 90 yards a game since being traded to the Cowboys, nabbing six total touchdowns for Dallas in eight games. The Bucs were able to keep him out of the end zone and render him a non-threat.
-Costly penalties were the Bucs’ Achilles heel.
Penalties are not only costly on their own, but in the Bucs’ case it seemed to stall drives and cause Tampa Bay to have to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.
“We always emphasize touchdowns in the red zone,” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “We had those delay of game penalties, on me. I don’t know what happened with the clock but we just have to get it called faster and get the ball out. That hurt us on the fourth down play. It turned into 4th-and-6 instead of being 4th-and-1. We’ve got to do a better job with operations.”
The drive that stung the most came in the fourth quarter when the Bucs took over seven minutes off the clock and after getting to the Dallas two-yard-line, were backed up by a delay of game penalty and failed to convert a fourth-and-six situation that would have gave them a fresh set of downs at the one-yard-line. Instead, they turned the ball over on downs and couldn’t pull the game within a score at that point.
“We moved the ball consistently all day,” Coach Koetter said. “Penalties put us in a bind. At times, we overcame some of them. It’s frustrating to move the ball like that and not get touchdowns. Against good teams, that’s what you have to do.”
-Turnovers hurt, too.
In addition to the missed opportunities because of penalties, the Bucs lost the turnover battle on Sunday, including a strip sack that went for a touchdown. Quarterback Jameis Winston scrambled outside the pocket, where’s he’s been very successful, but was hit from behind by the Cowboys’ Randy Gregory, who got a hand on the ball and was able to return it for a touchdown. There was also a fumbled handoff between Winston and receiver Bobo Wilson on an attempted end-around play that was returned to the Dallas two-yard-line. The Cowboys were able to get into the end zone after that, as well. Both plays were definitely a momentum shift.
“Yeah, two huge plays in the game really swung it,” Coach Koetter said. “ We’re moving it, going in to possibly score, the fumble that they take all the way back, and then we fumbled on the handoff and they get the ball on the goal line. You could say that’s a 14-to-17 point swing, right there.”
-Quarterback Jameis Winston is still taking what’s being given to him.
Coach Koetter said that Winston continued to make good decisions with the football. After seeing a lot of single-high looks on tape going into the game, he noted that the Dallas defense actually ended up playing more two-deep coverage on Sunday. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson and the duel-threat he presents with wide receiver Mike Evans may have had something to do with that. As a result, Winston had to rely more on his underneath receivers and taking checkdowns because nothing was available deep.
"Well, yesterday was a good example of his [decision-making],” Koetter said of Winston. “I think we had him for 13 checkdowns yesterday, 13 times. I'm sure that's the high for his career in a game. We knew we were going to have to do it, we knew they were going to play coverage the way they did and that's how they try to get you to play. And I thought Jameis stayed pretty patient throughout the game. He strayed a couple times, a couple of times that he could have stuck with his checkdowns and he went for the big one. But I thought for the most part he made good decisions, so I think he's improved there, definitely improved his accuracy, has improved protecting the football. We had the two [fumbles] yesterday. The one, that was a really good play by 94 (Randy Gregory) running all the way around the back. When you see how far that guy ran, I mean there's probably – Jameis isn't going to be suspecting that guy to come that far to get him. Then on the second one I think that was probably more the other guy (Bobo Wilson) than it was on Jameis. I think he's improved in that area and I think Jameis has improved across the board. Our team has to improve on winning close games."
It's hard to put those two turnovers solely on Winston and the important part is neither of them were able to rattle him enough to get more turnovers to snowball. He remained composed throughout the game and spread the ball out to eight different receivers on the day.