A season-long nemesis ended up bailing Tampa Bay out Sunday.
Miserable groans suddenly turned to roaring cheers at Raymond James Stadium, all thanks to one yellow flag.
Down 6-3 but in position to take a late lead, quarterback Jameis Winston bolted through the middle of the pocket. Problem was he left his feet – and the ball – at the 1-yard line. Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence recovered the game-sealing fumble and the Cowboys were on their way to ending a six-game losing streak.
Then Sunday’s officiating crew stepped in to offer a different ending. Cowboys safety Jeff Heath, who already picked off Winston twice, was called for defensive holding and Tampa Bay had new life.
One play later, the Bucs drew up a play-action naked bootleg for Winston and the rookie ran untouched into the end zone.
Tampa Bay 10 Dallas 6. Time remaining: 0:54.
The Cowboys and backup quarterback Matt Cassel took one more crack at the Tampa Bay defense after the Bucs’ second personal foul penalty of the game – a Mike Jenkins unnecessary roughness infraction – allowed Dallas to start at its own 44. Cassel took a deep shot three snaps into the drive but Bucs safety Bradley McDougald got the best of Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant to record his second interception on the year.
Sunday’s victory improves Tampa Bay to 4-5 on the season and lifts the Bucs out of the NFC South cellar after New Orleans’ 47-14 loss in Washington.
One week after Tampa Bay and the New York Giants didn’t punt until the final quarter, the Bucs and Cowboys traded kicks on their first possessions. That set in motion a defensive battle that took place between each other’s 20s.
When the Bucs’ game-winning drive of nine plays and 56-yards crossed the Dallas 20 it was the offense’s first red zone appearance of the day. Dallas moved inside the Bucs 20 just once, on its second drive of the game, and settled for a 42-yard Dan Bailey field goal and 3-0 lead.
Beginning with that Bailey field goal, three straight drives between the teams ended with three points. Tampa Bay answered the first with a 52-yard kick from Connor Barth and Dallas retook the slim edge from 53-yards out with 10:34 left in the second quarter.
That’s where the scoring ended until Dallas’ fourth-quarter penalty and Winston’s fourth touchdown run of the season. Barth and Bailey missed a field goal each following the trio of converted kicks.
Winston’s wiped-out fumble was the last of three late mistakes that the Bucs were able to absorb before taking their lone lead.
“That’s just life in the NFL,” Smith said of the wild ending. “Talk about 60 minutes, you can’t relax until [the end] and it’s a roller coaster you go through, but you just have to hang in there.”
Tampa Bay’s first aforementioned miscue came with Dallas backed up at its own 7. Defensive tackle Henry Melton pressured Cassel and tipped his pass on second down, but then proceeded to unnecessarily hit him hard enough to draw a roughing penalty.
The defense – which limited Dallas to a season-low six points – held to force a punt. Winston and the Bucs then made it from their own 8 to the Dallas 23 before Heath’s second interception on a poorly thrown ball to rookie receiver Adam Humphries.
According to Smith and Winston, the erased fumble was hard to recall after the game.
“I forgot about that already,” Winston said. “I’m cherishing this win. The touchdown was magical, man. Had a great fake, a great call, found the way into the end zone. The play before, that I have no recollection.”
And the penalty that allowed that fumble to be so forgettable? That was an egregious, obvious foul that could have been spotted from anywhere, Smith said.
“Right away we saw one of our guys was held,” he said of receiver Russell Shepard being grabbed by Heath. “I thought it was a good call. Of course I thought it was a good call.”
Tampa Bay held Dallas to 216 total yards of offense and forcing a three-and-out following Heath’s interception set up the game-winning drive.
“We believe in what we do,” Smith said of the defense’s performance. “We haven’t been Pro Bowl-ready as quick as everyone would like, but it takes time. The moves we made at the cornerback position, those have helped us a lot. We have guys down still. Guys just continue to play hard and that’s how it’s supposed to happen. You keep doing things the right way, eventually you see some results. We’re not there yet and there and [six teams] penalties we need to eliminate, but we’re making progress.”
Linebacker Lavonte David led all defenders with 12 tackles and recorded his second sack of the season. The sack was the first of three for Tampa Bay. Barely cracking the final stat sheet again was Gerald McCoy. The defensive tackle picked up just a single tackle for the third straight week.
Prior to his 1-yard touchdown run, Winston completed 22 of 39 pass attempts for 264 yards, no scores and two interceptions. The picks increased his season-long total to nine but were the first he’s been charged with since tossing four during Week 4’s home loss to Carolina.
Receiver Mike Evans went over 100 yards again for the fourth time this year, catching eight of 13 targets for 126 yards. Drops continue to mar his performances but Evans did draw another pass interference penalty that netted 45 yards in the second quarter.
“Mike Evans is not a good player, Mike Evans is a great player,” Smith said of the second-year receiver. “From time to time even a great player may not have a great day, but he came back, worked hard on correcting some things last week and he was a force today. It’s not hard to figure out we are going to throw him a lot of balls, but it’s a tough matchup even if you know we are throwing to him.”
Running back Doug Martin was held below 100 yards rushing for the third straight game, though he added four catches and 40 yards to his 18-carry, 63-yard day on the ground.
Tampa Bay goes on the road for a third straight showdown with an NFC East opponent, this time the Philadelphia Eagles. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.
WR Donteea Dye, LT Donovan Smith, LG Logan Mankins, C Joe Hawley, RG Evan Smith, RT Gosder Cherilus, TE Luke Stocker, FB Jorvorskie Lane, WR Mike Evans, QB Jameis Winston, RB Doug Martin
LDE Will Gholston, DT Gerald McCoy, DT Akeem Spence, RDE Howard Jones, NB Alterraun Verner, MLB Kwon Alexander, WLB Lavonte David, CB Sterling Moore, CB Jude Adjei-Barimah, SS Chris Conte, FS Bradley McDougald
QB Ryan Griffin, S Major Wright, S D.J. Swearinger, DE Jacquies Smith, DE Jacquies Smith, OL Ali Marpet, WR Vincent Jackson, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
DID NOT PLAY
QB Mike Glennon
Paid attendance: 64,133, Raymond James Stadium
Game time: 2:56