Tampa Bay was hoping to use a nationally televised road game against the Dallas Cowboys as a platform to catapult itself into the NFC elite. The banged up Cowboys, who were without starting quarterback Tony Romo and a host of others, were reeling from three losses in their last four games and desperately needed a win against the Bucs.

Desperation won out as Dallas beat Tampa Bay 13-9, dropping the Bucs’ record to 5-3 and knocking them out of first place in the NFC South behind 6-2 Carolina. In a game that was similar to its loss at Denver, points were at a premium for Tampa Bay’s offense. The Bucs had plenty of chances to win in Dallas as Tampa Bay’s offense reached the Dallas 25 on five different occasions, but sacks, penalties, poor execution and a missed 51-yard field goal limited the Bucs to just nine points from three field goals.

And in similar fashion to Tampa Bay’s opening day loss at New Orleans, the Bucs could have registered a come-from-behind victory as the offense was armed with three timeouts and the ball in Cowboys territory at the two-minute warning. But after converting two fourth downs on the final drive, the Bucs stalled at the Dallas 18-yard line when quarterback Jeff Garcia’s pass intended for tight end Jerramy Stevens fell incomplete on fourth-and-5.

“We had a chance to win the game today,” Bucs head coach Gruden said, crediting Dallas’ defense for a stout effort. “We had a number of chances to win the game. So did they, and they did.”

With the Bucs having to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns from the first quarter on, Gruden was asked after the game as to why his offense didn’t take many shots downfield or any shots into the end zone.

“That was our plan, but when you see that style of coverage … we’re going to continue to use our clock and use our timeouts to try to get down to the goal line where the shots become optimum,” Gruden said. “You don’t just throw it against a soft four across secondary like that, but we moved the ball into position. Unfortunately, their pass rush was pretty good at the end of the game there. I was impressed with their stamina. Yeah, we had some plays called that were shots, but just because the shot plays were called doesn’t mean the shot is open.”

Garcia, who completed 28-of-44 passes for 228 yards with no interceptions or touchdowns, concurred with Gruden’s assessment.

“They were playing a four-deep zone pretty much, and not really giving us a opportunities to throw beyond them,” Garcia said.

For the first time this season, the Bucs offense did not generate 300 yards of offense, did not give the team a lead or a tied game at halftime, and did not score a touchdown. The Bucs did not generate a turnover on defense, and the combined lack of red zone scoring and takeaways by the defense typically spells doom for Tampa Bay, as they did in Denver.

For the second time in four years, a former Buccaneers quarterback has done just enough to beat Tampa Bay. In 2005, Vinny Testaverde came off the couch and suited up for the New York Jets in a 14-12 win over the Bucs, completing 13-of-19 passes for 163 yards with one interception and no touchdowns.

On Sunday, it was Brad Johnson at the helm of the Cowboys. Johnson finished 19-of-33 for 122 yards with a key, 2-yard touchdown pass to Roy Williams with one second left before halftime to give Dallas a 10-6 lead. The Bucs defense held Dallas to only 172 yards of offense and once again did not allow a rushing touchdown or a 100-yard rusher as Marion Barber only rushed for 71 yards on 25 carries.

But the defense lost its discipline on Dallas’ touchdown drive, racking up four penalties, the biggest of which was a horse collar tackle cornerback Ronde Barber on Barber after a short gain on third-and-12 that gave the Cowboys a first down instead of having to punt the ball.

Yet despite the untimely gaffes on the defense and the lack of takeaways, the fact that the Buccaneers could not score with three official trips inside the red zone – a season-long problem for the Buccaneers – was the primary reason why the Bucs lost another winnable game. Garcia was not sharp on Sunday, Earnest Graham was held to 42 yards on 17 carries (2.5 avg.) and the offense seemed out of sync for most of the game.

Tampa Bay’s three losses this year have all come on the road by a collective 11 points.

If there was a silver lining in this defeat it was the play of rookie return man Clifton Smith, who stepped in for fellow rookie Dexter Jackson and had punt returns of 20 yards and a pair of 17-yard returns in the game that gave the offense great field position. The only negative about Smith was a fumbled kickoff to start the second half.

“Outside of the fumble, I thought he gave us a lift,” Gruden said.

Tampa Bay’s defense forced a punt after a three-and-out on Dallas’ first offensive possession, and Smith was able to move the ball across midfield at the Cowboys’ 47 with a 19-yard punt return. That keyed the Bucs’ first scoring drive, which featured Garcia going 3-of-3 for 25 yards with all of those throws going to Bryant. However, Tampa Bay’s drive stalled at the Dallas 18-yard line as Graham didn’t pick up a first down on third-and-1. That brought out Matt Bryant for a 36-yard field goal. With 10:57 left in the first quarter, the Bucs opened up a 3-0 lead over the Cowboys.

The Buccaneers increased their lead on their third possession with another 36-yard field goal from Bryant. After starting from their own 48, the Bucs drove down to the 18 behind a 9-yard catch by tight end Jerramy Stevens and a spectacular catch by wide receiver Michael Clayton that covered 17 yards. An illegal forward pass on Garcia at the Dallas 14 played a role in stopping the Bucs and forcing another field goal. With 1:09 left in the first quarter, the Bucs led 6-0.

After going three-and-out on its first three drives Dallas answered on its next possession, but lost tight end Jason Whitten to a rib injury. The Cowboys drove 51 yards in 14 plays behind the legs of Barber, who rushed for 27 yards on six carries. Weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerback Phillip Buchanon almost intercepted Johnson in the red zone, but Nick Folk’s 37-yard field goal cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 6-3 with 9:29 left in the second quarter.

Tampa Bay drove the length of the field once again, only to see its offense sputter near the red zone. Galloway came up big with catches of 20 and 13 yards, and Garcia ran for a 6-yard gain on third-and-4 down to the Dallas 32. A 7-yard run by Graham followed, but a holding penalty on center Jeff Faine pushed the Buccaneers outside of the Dallas red zone. On third-and-3 from the 25, Garcia slipped and was sacked by defensive tackle Jay Ratliff. Matt Bryant’s 51-yard field goal was wide right.

Thanks to good field position at the Dallas 41 from Bryan’t miss, Dallas took a 10-6 lead right before halftime thanks in large part to miscues and penalties by the Tampa Bay defense. After defensive end Gaines Adams sacked Johnson to force a third-and-12 at the Tampa Bay 39, cornerback Ronde Barber was flagged 15 yards for a horse collar tackle on Barber. That gave Dallas a first down at the Tampa Bay 33. Then a 6-yard pass interference call on Buchanon on third-and-5 allowed Dallas to convert another third down. On the next play, rookie cornerback Aqib Talib was flagged for illegal contact, setting up the Cowboys at the Buccaneers 17-yard line. On second down, Johnson threw a 14-yard pass to Patrick Crayton down to the 4-yard line, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on linebacker Cato June advanced the ball half the distance to the goal at the Tampa Bay 2. With four seconds left before halftime, Johnson found Roy Williams in the end zone over Buchanon for a touchdown. With one second left, Dallas led 10-6.

After taking over at the Dallas 43 after a second half punt by Tampa Bay, the Cowboys increased their lead in the third quarter. Terrell Owens had a 12-yard gain to move the ball into Buccaneers territory, followed by an 11-yard run by Barber set up the Cowboys at the Tampa Bay 29. But Dallas could only gain two plays on the next three downs and was forced to settle for a 45-yard field goal by Folk.

Tampa Bay put points on the board on its next possession, driving 56 yards in 10 plays with a 34-yard pass to tight end Alex Smith being the key play. On third-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 45, Smith hauled in a beautiful pass from Garcia and took it 34 yards down to the Dallas 21. But once again, the Bucs offense bogged down near the goal line and they had to settle for a Matt Bryant field goal. With 39 seconds left in the third quarter, Bryant’s 41-yard field goal trimmed the Cowboys’ lead to 13-9.

The Bucs’ embarked on their final drive of the game with 4:15 remaining in the fourth quarter. Graham picked up four yards to start the drive, then picked up four yards on fourth-and-1 down to the Tampa Bay 39. A 13-yard pass to Ike Hilliard set up Tampa Bay at the Dallas 48 at the two-minute warning. Bryant picked up seven yards on first down, and Stevens converted a third-and-3 with a 6-yard catch down to the Dallas 35. On second down, Bryant picked up six yards on a pass from Garcia down to the Dallas 29. With 51 seconds left, the Bucs used their first timeout. On third-and-4, Garcia’s pass to Stevens fell incomplete, but on fourth-and-4, Hilliard came up with a clutch 6-yard catch down to the Dallas 23 with 34 seconds left. Yet, three plays later after a 4-yard catch by Hilliard, Garcia’s pass intended for Stevens fell incomplete and Dallas won its desperation game.

The Bucs offense could only muster up field goals on Sunday in a pathetic 0-for-3 showing in red zone offense. Thus, it is fitting that field goal kicker Matt Bryant is the PewterReport.com Player of the Game for providing all nine of Tampa Bay’s points. Bryant hit on 3-of-4 field goals (75 percent) in Dallas and now has made 17-of-20 field goals (85 percent) this season. Bryant is a perfect 17-of-17 inside 48 yards. All three of his misses have come from 49 yards and two 51-yarders, including one on Sunday at Dallas.

In shades of the New Orleans game, the Bucs offense was driving into Dallas’ red zone armed with two timeouts and about 30 seconds left on the clock. But similar to Jeff Garcia’s fourth down pass not finding a player donned in pewter in New Orleans, Garcia’s fourth down pass fell incomplete on fourth-and-5 at the Dallas 18. Tampa Bay trailed New Orleans 24-20 in the fourth quarter and was behind Dallas by the same margin, 13-9, on Sunday. Two hard-fought, winnable games that the offense could not pull out on the road.

Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud led all tacklers with 12 stops. … Defensive end Gaines Adams had two sacks against Dallas and now has a team-leading four for the season. … The Bucs offense did not reach 300 yards of offense or score a touchdown for the first time this year. The Bucs out-gained the Cowboys 262 yards to 172 yards… Bucs head coach Jon Gruden is now 3-2 against the Cowboys. … Wide receiver Joey Galloway was active for the first time since Week 2 and had 38 yards on three catches in Dallas. … Wide receiver Antonio Bryant led the way for the Bucs with seven catches for 46 yards. … Tight end Alex Smith hauled in a career-high 34-yard catch on Sunday. … Running back Warrick Dunn was limited with a pinched nerve and had just one carry for no yards and two receptions for eight yards. … Defensive tackle Ryan Sims had his first full sack of the season and now has 1.5 sacks for the year. … Rookie Clifton Smith returned his first punt 20 yards, his first kickoff 24 yards, and hauled in his first catch, which was a 13-yarder. … Tampa Bay was penalized seven times for 58 yards, while Dallas was flagged five times for 35 yards.

The announced Tampa Bay starting lineup for Sunday’s game was as follows:

WR Antonio Bryant
LT Donald Penn
LG Arron Sears
C Jeff Faine
RG Davin Joseph
RT Jeremy Trueblood
TE Alex Smith
TE John Gilmore
WR Michael Clayton
RB Earnest Graham
QB Jeff Garcia

LE Kevin Carter
NT Chris Hovan
UT Jovan Haye
RE Gaines Adams
SLB Cato June
MLB Barrett Ruud
WLB Derrick Brooks
LCB Phillip Buchanon
RCB Ronde Barber
FS Tanard Jackson
SS Jermaine Phillips

Here is a list of Tampa Bay’s inactives for the Bucs game:

WR Dexter Jackson
FB B.J. Askew
DT Greg Peterson
OT James Lee
RB Michael Bennett
WR Maurice Stovall
QB Brian Griese (emergency quarterback)
QB Josh Johnson

The only reported injury was to safety Jermaine Phillips may have broken his arm in the loss at Dallas. He was replaced in the lineup by Sabby Piscitelli.

The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Cowboys game at Texas Stadium was 63,254. The temperature at kickoff was 74 degrees with 59 percent humidity under sunny skies.

The Buccaneers (5-3) travel to Kansas City to face the woeful Chiefs (1-6) on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m. ET.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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