By the time Tampa Bay’s offense found any type of footing Saturday night it was far too late for the visiting Dallas Cowboys to be concerned.
Quarterback Tony Romo finished with a rating of 133.9, threw for 249 yards, accounted for all four of Dallas’ touchdowns and ultimately led the Cowboys to a 31-15 victory.
While Dallas bolstered its playoff chances by improving to 8-6, Tampa Bay’s nearly two-month tailspin continued. The Bucs dropped to 4-10 and their losing streak grew to eight while playing in front of a sellout crowd for only the second time this year.
Tampa Bay and quarterback Josh Freeman were far less successful in impressing on national television. When the Bucs found themselves down 28-0 at halftime, they had then been outscored 69-0 since the middle of the second quarter last Sunday in Jacksonville.
The nemesis from last week – turnovers – quickly affected Saturday’s game on Tampa Bay’s opening drive. Freeman, who finished as the Bucs’ leading rusher with only 37 yards on four attempts, had a ball strip away from behind by linebacker Anthony Spencer near midfield. Linebacker Bradie James recovered at the Dallas 44 and the Cowboys proceeded to score touchdowns on four of its five first-half drives.
As the Cowboys were moving the ball at will in the first 30 minutes, Tampa Bay was forced to punt on its next four drives. Dallas hit on six of its seven third-down opportunities in that span and had 19 first downs compared to just one for Tampa Bay.
“I don’t know,” Freeman said when asked about the offense’s lack of production. “I have to go back and watch the film … to get a fair assessment on exactly what it was. There were times where frustrating, to say the least.”
“To go have [four] three-and-outs and that first turnover, it’s kind of one of those momentum killers,” Bucs head coach Raheem Morris said. “You can’t fumble on the first drive and expect to win football games.”
Dallas outgained Tampa Bay 399-190 for the night in total yardage, including 160-58 on the ground. Running back LeGarrette Blount only received one of his nine carries in the second half and totaled 21 rushing yards. The Cowboys’ Felix Jones became the fifth opposing running back to surpass the century mark, going for 108 on 22 touches.
Nothing about Saturday night’s game was pretty for Tampa Bay, from the scoreboard to the stat sheet to seeing starting cornerback Aqib Talib on the sideline with a re-aggravated hamstring injury. Talib did not play last week and failed to make it out of the first quarter against Dallas.
The Cowboys first three scores came on Romo passes to receiver Austin Miles, Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson, respectively. All three of the completions came on third down and Romo continually picked apart the Bucs’ zone coverages deep inside Tampa Bay territory.
The home team’s first points didn’t come until early in the second half and courtesy of the defense. Bucs defensive end Adrian Clayborn got around the edge and stripped and sacked Romo on a third-and-19 play that started at the Dallas 11. Linebacker Dakoda Watson scooped up the loose ball and ran it in from the 7.
“We needed a play and I was lucky enough to come up with the sack and thought it was going to go from there. But we kind of stalled out again [in the remainder of the game].”
Clayborn increased his team-high sack total to 7.5 and has more than any other rookie defensive end. Fellow end Michael Bennett recorded the other Bucs sack of Romo, his third of the year.
DeMarcus Ware of Dallas led a Cowboys pass rush got to Freeman for three sacks and five total quarterback hits. Ware’s sack in the second quarter gave him 16 on the year and put him just 1.5 behind Minnesota’s Jared Allen for the league lead.
Dallas capped its scoring for the night midway through the third quarter with Dan Bailey’s 30-yard field goal.
Tampa Bay managed to narrow its deficit to 31-15 after Bailey’s kick on the offense’s only productive drive of the night in terms of lighting the scoreboard. Freeman took the Bucs 75 yards in 12 plays and scored on a 13-yard catch-and-run thrown to Dezmon Briscoe. Tampa Bay had to convert four third downs on the drive.
Briscoe caught all three passes thrown in his direction for a combined 36 yards, but backup running back Kregg Lumpkin led the team in receptions and yardage. Lumpkin pulled in five passes, all screens or short dump-offs, for 50 yards.
“Obviously too little, too late,” Morris said of the Bucs second-half signs of life. “Not enough in the beginning. You can’t dig holes like that for yourself and you can’t play that way on third down. Obviously, when you play what way on third down, both offensively and defensively in the first half, you’ve got no chance of winning a football game the way these guys [the Cowboys] came out and played.
“We’ve got to play better in the red zone on defense, especially. In that first half we’ve got to figure it out a little bit faster, shake those jitters, come out and play like the way we did in the second half on defense and play that way consistently the whole game. Until we do that we won’t win football games.”
If the Buccaneers are to end there current skid of futility, it will have to come against a fellow NFC South opponent during the final two weeks of the season. Tampa Bay will be in Carolina for a Christmas Eve rematch with the Panthers next Saturday. The following week will be in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve, also a Saturday.
Sunday’s sellout crowd at Raymond James Stadium was announced at 65,162 with a game-time temperature of 66 degrees. There was a slight 3 mile-per-hour wind from the northwest and skies were clear.
Starting on defense for Tampa Bay was: LE Da’Quan Bowers, DT Brian Price, DT Albert Haynesworth, RE Adrian Clayborn, SLB Quincy Black, MLB Mason Foster, WLB Geno Hayes, LCB Aqib Talib, RCB Ronde Barber, SS Sean Jones and FS Tanard Jackson.
The Bucs lined up offensively with: WR Mike Williams, LT Donald Penn, LG Jeremy Zuttah, C Jeff Faine, RG Davin Joseph, RT Jeremy Trueblood, TE Luke Stocker, WR Dezmon Briscoe, RB LeGarrette Blount, FB Erik Lorig and QB Josh Freeman.
Seven Buccaneers were listed as inactive. They were QB Rudy Carpenter, WR Arrelious Benn, S Larry Asante, OT James Lee, WR Sammie Stroughter, DE Derek Hardman and CB Myron Lewis.