Love him or hate him, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo puts up numbers and has won far more often than he has lost while under center in Big D.
Romo, playing in his ninth season, is on pace to set season-highs in passer rating (currently 100.6) and yards (3,646), has thrown 26 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions and is completing 64.9 percent of his attempts. After stumbling the past two weeks, the Cowboys still remain in the thick of the NFC East divisional race and are tied with the New York Giants at 7-6.
Saturday night, Romo will bring his 46-28 overall record as a starter into Raymond James Stadium to face an underperforming Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense currently ranked near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories. To the dismay of the Bucs' front office, coaching staff and fan base, one of those categories suffering a deficiency in numbers is sacks. Only the Buffalo Bills (19) have gotten to quarterbacks less than Tampa Bay pass rushers (20).
While the Cowboys still possess the NFL's sixth-rated offense (390.1 yards per game) and score an average of 24.4 points, protecting Romo hasn't been a strong point for Dallas of late. The 28 total sacks surrendered by the Cowboys' offensive line actually stacks up well against the league average of 30.4 through 14 weeks, but nearly half have come in the last four games. Romo's been sacked 13 times in that span and he told reporters during a conference call on Wednesday that the solution is a work in progress.
"There are a lot of reasons," Romo said about the rate at which he's been hitting the turf lately. "Sometimes it has to do with just blocking a guy. Sometimes you have to get the ball out. Sometimes you have to win on a route.
"There is a lot of stuff that goes into each sack. Each one is a little different sometimes. We're working on that. I think the guys are continuing to grind away and get better every week. We've got some young guys playing some key roles. I think they just keep getting better as the year progresses. I expect them to continue to grow and be real good."
Whatever the reason for the sacks, Tampa Bay will only stand to benefit from figuring out how to best take down Romo on Saturday night so he can't comfortably scan the field. Members of the Bucs' defensive front said it will be imperative to not only win the battle of front, but to get in the Dallas backfield.
"We've got to have a good four-man rush this week," said rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. "There's going to be a lot on the defensive line. The game's pretty much going to be on our shoulders again this week. We take that as a challenge, of course, and we've got to have a hard week of preparation and practice."
Head coach Raheem Morris and his staff have talked about scaling back play calling on both sides of the ball during Tampa Bay's current seven-game losing streak and defensive tackle Brian Price said the concept can relate to players' mental approaches as well.
"You've got to go play hard, you've got to be relentless," he said. "You can't really think too much. That's what [defensive line coach Keith Millard] tells us. You can't really have too much on your mind, you've just got to go. Being a defensive player, especially a D-lineman, you've just got to go. You can't be thinking about everybody else's job, you've got to do your job. Your job is to wreak havoc and go back there and cause problems."
Price is currently second on the team with three sacks this season, but the Buc that's succeeded the most at finishing off quarterbacks is defensive end Adrian Clayborn, with 6.5. Romo was asked of his thoughts on the rookie soon to be coming his way and said he's been impressed by what he's seen.
"He looks good. He's got a burst," Romo said. "You've got to account for him and we have to do some things. I think that he plays hard and has real good body control. He's kind of a guy that can be disruptive to an offense if you're not careful. I think we have to be prepared. He's done a great job and he looks good on tape."
If Tampa Bay is able to build off the positive -- albeit a small one -- of not getting completely scorched by Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew, the defensive front will be provided more opportunities to pin their ears back and go after Romo. Leading rusher DeMarco Murray, Dallas' rookie phenom that burst onto the NFL scene with a 253-yard performance in Week 7 against St. Louis, was lost for the remainder of the season after fracturing his ankle Sunday night against the Giants.
Replacing Murray will be Felix Jones and 12-year veteran Sammy Morris, the latter of whom Dallas picked up on Tuesday. Jones was supplanted by Murray ever since the rookie's breakout day against St. Louis but has still rushed for 413 yards on 90 carries. After Murray went down against the Giants, Jones stepped up with a 106-yard night on only 16 touches. Morris had spent the past three seasons in New England but was among the Patriots' final cuts before the 2011 regular season began.
"It's going to take a lot of work," Bowers said of containing the entirety of the Cowboys offense. "Romo's a great quarterback back there and they have great running backs. One's injured right now, but the other one isn't a drop off. We've just got to come to play ball and be sound on defense."
When asked what the defensive front is specifically looking to achieve Saturday night, Price preferred to look at the situation in the macro.
"A win. That's what we play the game for is to win. Every time you go out there and step on the field it's to win. That's what we get paid to do and that's what we signed up for."