Bucs fail to produce in road loss to Cowboys
When it comes to hanging tough on the road against NFC East powerhouses, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are getting far more experience than they'd like these days.
And much to their dismay, they're also finding themselves with plenty of time to practice head coach Greg Schiano's controversial blitz-the-victory formation call.
Even with some impressive play along the way for the second straight week, the Bucs went down to defeat 16-10 Sunday to the Dallas Cowboys — and once again showed no tolerance for the winning team's kneel-down tactics to run out the clock at game's end.
The loss dropped them to 1-2, with a third straight NFC East foe on the schedule next Sunday — a home contest against the Washington Redskins. Perhaps the third time will be the charm for the Bucs, who've thrown an early scare into their East opponents in consecutive outings before fizzling.
A week ago, it was Tampa Bay's offense that put on a show, building a 14-point lead against the host New York Giants — until Eli Manning picked the defense apart in the fourth quarter for a 41-34 victory.
This time around, the Buc defense rose to the occasion — pressuring Dallas quarterback Tony Romo with an interception and four sacks — but the offense turned in a lackluster performance that let another potential unexpected win get away.
The glow from that season-opening 16-10 upset over NFC South rival Carolina has long since faded.
"As a football team, we didn't get the job done," a glum Schiano told reporters in his post-game briefing. "As a head coach, I didn't get the job done. So, it was a chance to be 2-1 instead of 1-2. That's the disheartening thing."
The Bucs scored their lone touchdown of the day following an Aqib Talib pickoff of Romo on Dallas' opening drive of the afternoon. And did precious little offensively the rest of the way — until it was too late.
Trailing 16-7 with just over two minutes to play, quarterback Josh Freeman hit four passes — including 29 yards to Vincent Jackson and 23 yards to Mike Jackson — to reach the Dallas 10. But the desperation drive went no further, ending with Connor Barth's 28-yard field goal — extending his team record to 22 straight — with 40 seconds remaining.
After failing to recover the onside kick, the Bucs repeated the much-debated strategy from last week, blasting into the Cowboys line on the kneel-down to try and force a fumble.
This time they even did it twice — with Schiano calling a timeout to give it the old college try from his Rutgers days a second shot. But neither attempt achieved the desired result and the game ended with handshakes and without incident (other than a penalty flag for offsides) — a far cry from the scorching lecture delivered last week at midfield by New York head coach Tom Coughlin, and angry reactions from Giants players.
"We just didn't play well today," Schiano said. "One game we played good offense. One game we played decent offense and today we didn't play very well. It's a bad game. We had a bad game. But I'm confident that this offense will play well."
The Cowboys, on the other hand, were thrilled to raise their record to 2-1 after getting humiliated last week by Seattle 27-7, on the heels of their season-opening 24-17 victory over the Giants.
Romo has tormented the Bucs in three previous career matchups, with 11 combined touchdowns. This time, he had to work hard to overcome mistakes — including two fumbles reversed by replay — to keep his record an unblemished 4-0 and get his team back on track. He completed 25 of 39 passes for 283 yards and no touchdowns, but tailback DeMarco Murray scored from 11 yards out and Don Bailey added field goals of 32, 26 and 22 yards to give the ‘Boys all the points they'd need.
Still, it was the aggressive Dallas defense that made the biggest difference, limiting the Bucs to only 166 yards of total offense (70 of which came on that final drive). Josh Freeman completed only 10 of 28 passes for 110 yards, one touchdown pass and an interception, with his 1-yard touchdown to fullback Luke Stocker 4:09 into the game giving the Bucs a short-lived 7-0 lead. For the second straight week, the ground game was flat as well. Rookie Doug Martin netted only 53 yards on 19 carries, and LeGarrette Blount added 19 more on four carries.
"Each play, there's a reason why it doesn't work," Freeman said. "… But whatever it is, we've got to go back and figure out why we weren't hitting them early and try to go from that and build on it."
Twice the Bucs were in position to capitalize on Dallas errors but came short — both on replay reversals by the officials that followed Romo fumbles. The first occurred when Dallas had a second and 10 at the Tampa Bay 17, holding a tenuous 10-7 lead. Gerald McCoy sacked Romo, though officials initially ruled the quarterback was attempting a shovel pass. Schiano threw the red flag and the Bucs were ultimately awarded possession upon further review at their 19.
They reached the Cowboy 42 before having to punt. But on Dallas' ensuing possession, Romo was hit by defensive end Michael Bennett and the ball popped loose again. Again, Romo was ruled down prior to the fumble — as Tampa Bay cornerback Eric Wright scooped up the ball and raced into the end zone. Schiano challenged the ruling, resulting in another overturned call.
The Bucs were awarded possession at the Dallas 31 with an ideal chance to finally show some offensive muscle and take back the lead. Instead, they responded with an intentional grounding penalty, a pair of incompletions and a punt.
"The missed opportunities (hurt) for sure," Schiano said. "But I thought our defense bowed their neck, time after time. And they were put in bad spots. So that kind of goes unnoticed sometimes."
"Any loss is tough," said Freeman. "At the same time, the defense came out and played well. But our mentality is, win as a team, and lose as a team."
And losing twice in a row — no matter how good the opponent or close the final outcome — is doubly painful for Schiano and his young team.
"We need to stop being known for the kneel-down play," Schiano said. "We need to be known for winning football games."