As the saying goes, sometimes you’ve just got to win ugly.
At least that’s one word to describe the Dallas offense as they were able to scrape out a 16-10 victory over Tampa Bay in front of 81,984 fans. Behind an offensive line that struggled to create running room and keep the pocket clean, nearly getting quarterback Tony Romo injured in the process, the Cowboys managed 297 total yards, including just 38 on the ground
Still, it was enough. Why? Because the defense, on the other hand, was a thing of beauty. Coordinator Rob Ryan’s unit dominated throughout the day, despite not having two starters up front in Jay Ratliff and Kenyon Coleman and starting safety Gerald Sensabaugh out as well, all due to injury. Fellow safety Barry Church was then lost for the game, and the season, in the third quarter. He suffered a torn Achilles tendon and will have surgery this week.
No matter, the defense held Tampa Bay to a paltry 166 total yards of offense. Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman threw for just 110 yards on 10 of 28 passing, while the visitors’ running game gained only 75 yards. Of those 110 yards by Freeman, 71 came on his team’s final drive when the Cowboys were sitting in a prevent defense.
Unlike last week when the defense eventually wore down against Seattle, this time they held strong in the second half, allowing Romo and Co. an opportunity to put the game away late. The quarterback finished with 283 yards on 25 of 39 passing with one interception, while Miles Austin had a big day with 107 receiving yards on five catches. Dez Bryant added 62 yards on six grabs, also giving the crowd a jolt with a 44-yard punt return.
Long before that, though, with less than five minutes having ticked off the clock, fans had to be wondering just what was wrong with their Cowboys. An already inept opening possession, only got worse when Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib stepped in front of Austin for an interception at the Dallas 29.
That was then followed by the Cowboys allowing Tampa Bay to pick up nine yards on their own, but handing over another 20 yards in penalties to give them first and goal at the Dallas 1-yard line. The Bucs got on the board with a Freeman loft to tight end Luke Stocker in the back corner of the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
Fortunately, Tampa Bay was in a giving mood as well. On their second drive of the quarter, Freeman tried to dump a pass underneath, only to see the ball tip off the fingers of running back D.J. Ware and into the arms of linebacker Sean Lee, giving Dallas field position at the Buccaneers’ 23-yard line.
The Cowboys then turned to DeMarco Murray, the back touching the ball on all four plays of the drive, the last a run around the left end that saw him dive for the pylon and the score, the Cowboys evening things up at 7-7.
With both defenses clamping down, the Cowboys caught another break with just over six minutes to play in the second quarter. Tampa Bay linebacker Dekoda Watson broke free on what should have probably been a blocked punt. Instead, he missed the ball and ran into punter Chris Jones for the penalty.
But on the other end of the field, Bucs return man Jordan Shipley muffed the catch, linebacker Orie Lemon, just called up from the practice squad yesterday, there to dig the ball out of the scrum. With the additional 15 yards tacked on for the roughing the kicker call, Dallas had great field position at the Tampa Bay 24-yard line.
A Romo scramble picked up a first down to the Buccaneers 12, but there the drive would stall. Dan Bailey then came out for a 32-yard field goal, splitting the uprights to give Dallas a 10-7 lead with 2:51 left in the half.
The Cowboys made the curious decision to go with an onside kick, the attempt failing and giving Tampa Bay a short field at their own 49. But four Buccaneers penalties on the possession effectively killed any opportunities for the visitors, Dallas taking over at their 20-yard line with 57 seconds remaining.
And, they made a go of it, Romo hitting Austin for 15 yards and Ogletree for 19 more to cross midfield to the Buccaneers’ 40-yard line. But, with 16 seconds on the clock, Romo was sacked, pushing them out of field goal range, the score unchanged going into the break.
Adjustments were made by Jason Garrett and his staff during halftime with the Cowboys’ offense coming out after the break and finding success on their first drive with short passes and quick slants. Romo found Ogletree for seven, Bryant for 18 and Austin for 21 yards to work their way down to the Tampa Bay 17.
But then on the ensuing play, Romo stepped up in the pocket to try and escape the pressure, only to have the ball knocked out of his hands, the Buccaneers recovering to take possession.
Soon thereafter, it happened all over again. However, this time the turnover occurred in Dallas territory. With Romo dropping back to pass, he was sacked by two Tampa Bay defenders, the ball coming loose and scooped up by cornerback Eric Wright at the Cowboys’ 31-yard line.
The Cowboys caught a bit of a break when the officials blew the play dead, thinking Romo was down before the ball came loose. A video challenge overturned the ruling, giving Tampa Bay the ball, but had they not blown the whistle initially, Wright would have waltzed into the end zone untouched.
That allowed the Dallas defense to do what it had been doing all day, stifling the Bucs, who were forced to punt when they were unable to move the chains.
With their defense keeping them in the game, the Cowboys offense got on the move again, this time the big blow coming on a 49-yard bomb to Austin that moved Dallas down to the Tampa Bay 30. Two snaps of the ball later, and Romo had a wide-open Jason Witten streaking down the middle, but the tight end was unable to haul in the catch, another tough afternoon for the former Pro Bowler.
Now in the fourth quarter, the offense was able to reach the Buccaneers’ 14-yard line before Romo took a vicious hit to push them back to the 21. Although Felix Jones brought a dump-off pass to the 8, the Cowboys would have to settle for a 26-yard field goal from Bailey, the advantage now 13-7 with 11:10 left in the game.
That would be all the Cowboys would need with the defense playing the way it was but just for good measure, a punt to the Tampa Bay 18 was pushed back 9 more yards due to unnecessary roughness. From there, the Buccaneers had no chance, the Dallas “D” moving them back to the 1-yard line, thanks to a sack and strip of the ball by DeMarcus Ware.
With Tampa Bay punting out of their own end zone, Bryant took the return from the 50-yard line, went to the right sideline, then cut back up into daylight before being taken down at the Buccaneers 6-yard line. His electric 44-yard return was easily the longest by the Cowboys this season.
Settling for a 22-yard field goal, Bailey’s effort, as it turned out, actually provided a little comforting insurance. With the score at 16-7 with just over two minutes left in the game, and the defense sitting back in a prevent, the Buccaneers were able to strike big on completions of 29 yards, 12, 23 and 7 to work their way down to the Dallas 10-yard line.
But on fourth and three, the Buccaneers elected to kick the field goal, narrowing the score to 16-10, and setting up an onside kick with 40 seconds on the clock. It didn’t work. The kick bounced high into the air and into the waiting arms of tight end James Hanna.
Tampa Bay did its best to prolong the celebration, calling two timeouts in the waning seconds, and aggressively charging the Cowboys kneel-down effort just as they had against the Giants the week before, but it was to no avail. The win improved the Cowboys’ record to 2-1 on the season with a showdown at home against the Bears coming up next Monday night.
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ARLINGTON, Texas — The offense still has issues. The offensive line is shoddy. The starting safeties are hurt. But it doesn’t matter because the Cowboys won Sunday afternoon, beating Tampa Bay 16-10 in the home opener at Cowboys Stadium.
Tony Romo was beaten up by the Tampa Bay pass rush, but two key fourth-quarter plays, a 45-yard punt return by Dez Bryant and a late sack by DeMarcus Ware on a third-and-4, sealed the game.
Still, the Cowboys (2-1) have to perform much better if they’re expected to compete at an elite level.
What it means: After the Cowboys knocked off the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the opener, they put up a stinker in Seattle. Now, they fooled around with Tampa Bay for four quarters and survived. This tells us the Cowboys, as we said last week, are not ready to move up to an elite level in this league. Yes, they won the game, but I can’t believe the Cowboys can beat elite teams playing like this.
Witten’s bad day: Jason Witten dropped three passes Sunday. He’s got an NFL-high six drops on the season, and he was penalized twice for false starts. When his day ended, the Cowboys’ tight end finished with just two catches for 8 yards. This is one of the worst stretches for Witten since the 2008 season. During a five-game stretch that season, he had four catches for 53 yards and no touchdowns. This season, Witten has just eight catches for 76 yards and no touchdowns. He hasn’t scored since Nov. 20, 2011, at Washington. Is this the beginning of the end for Witten? He is coming off a spleen injury that didn’t cost him any regular-season games, and he said on Friday he’s healthy.
Church injured: The Cowboys lost safety Barry Church to a right leg injury that appeared serious. Church suffered the injury with 7:31 to play in the third quarter, and he was replaced by Mana Silva. Several Cowboys players were tapping Church on the shoulder pads and offering him words of encouragement after he went out. Miles Austin also suffered an injury (ribs), but he returned and ended the day with five catches for 107 yards. Left guard Nate Livings left with a hand injury in the first quarter but returned and didn’t have any more issues. With Church out, the Cowboys were left without their starting safeties. Gerald Sensabaugh didn’t play because of a calf injury.
False start penalties: The Cowboys were riddled with false start penalties. Right tackle Doug Free was flagged three times and Witten twice. Left tackle Tyron Smith was also called for one. The false start penalties could be attributed to center Ryan Cook and the cadence with Romo or a lack of concentration.
Austin outplays Jackson: The two big-play threats from a receiving standpoint, Austin and Vincent Jackson, had opposing performances. Austin finished with five catches for 107 yards, his 12th 100-yard receiving game of his career. Jackson, the deep-play threat for Tampa Bay, had one catch for 29 yards, that one coming in the fourth quarter.
What’s next? The banged-up Cowboys will face the Chicago Bears on "Monday Night Football." Among the missing starters: nose tackle Jay Ratliff (ankle), center Phil Costa (back), Sensabaugh (calf) and Church (right leg).
RELATED: Safety Shuffle – Barry Church out with right leg injury
Barry Church left with 7:31 left in the third quarter after injuring his right leg on a play in which there was no contact. He went to the ground as he was accelerating toward the line of scrimmage and limped off the field after getting examined by the medical staff.
Gerald Sensabaugh, the other starter, didn’t play because of a right calf strain. Danny McCray started in his place.
Church did not finish last week’s game at Seattle because of a quadriceps bruise.
Mana Silva replaced Church and was called for a pass interference penalty on his second snap. The Cowboys don’t have any other active safeties after cutting Mario Butler to make room for linebacker Orie Lemon.
The Cowboys’ season began with promise. But a 27-7 loss to Seattle has raised doubts about whether Dallas can play consistently at a high level. Now, the Cowboys face a Tampa Bay team with a new coach and a new attitude. Here is a look at how both teams match up:
When the Cowboys run
After rushing for 131 yards and carrying the Cowboys to victory in Week 1, DeMarco Murray’s production declined in a 27-7 loss to Seattle last Sunday. Against the Seahawks, he gained just 44 yards on 12 carries. In part Murray’s diminished output was caused by Seattle’s run defense, which was ranked second in the league after Week 2. But the circumstances of the game also affected his performance. Dallas trailed by 10 points before five minutes had expired and Murray was soon rendered a non-factor. Tampa Bay — allowing only 2.74 yards per carry, the fifth-lowest average in the NFL — hopes it will be able to shackle Murray like Seattle did.
When the Cowboys pass
Tight end Jason Witten dropped three passes. Receiver Dez Bryant vanished for long stretches. Tony Romo made ill-advised throws. The Cowboys’ passing offense struggled against Seattle. But despite its failures, it is still ranked sixth in the league after Week 2. Now it faces a Tampa Bay defense that has shown it can be opportunistic but also vulnerable against a trigger-happy quarterback. In a loss to the New York Giants last Sunday, the Buccaneers intercepted Eli Manning three times but also surrendered 510 passing yards and three long touchdowns.
When the Buccaneers run
New Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano appears committed to developing a running game with rookie tailback Doug Martin as the featured ball carrier. Only nine teams have more rush attempts than the Buccaneers after two weeks. But Tampa Bay’s ground game hasn’t been a roaring success. The Buccaneers are gaining only 3.6 yards per carry – the ninth-lowest average in the NFL. But that may increase this week against a Cowboys defense ranked 23rd against the run after being tormented by Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch last Sunday.
When the Buccaneers pass
Josh Freeman’s 2011 season was one to forget. He threw more interceptions – 22 – than all but one quarterback in the league. But Freeman has been solid in the first two games and has benefited from the free-agent acquisition of receiver Vincent Jackson, who has made nine catches for 175 yards and a touchdown this season. Still, Tampa Bay’s air attack seems to be in the development stages. It’s the fourth-least productive in the league and this week it’s facing a Cowboys team that has the NFL’s third-stingiest passing defense.
The Cowboys’ special teams were atrocious last week against the Seahawks. Returner Felix Jones’ fumble on the opening kickoff and a blocked punt put Dallas in hole from which it never emerged. Kicker Dan Bailey, meanwhile, attempted only one extra point in the loss. Tampa Bay hasn’t experienced the same misfortune. In fact, Connor Barth has converted all five field-goal attempts after producing the second-highest field-goal percentage in 2011.
The Cowboys have yet to establish a true home-field advantage at Cowboys Stadium. In the 25 competitive games they have played there, they have won only 14. But Dallas should feel considerably more comfortable in the confines of Jerry World than they were in CenturyLink Field and MetLife Stadium – the sites of their first two games. If that doesn’t soothe the Cowboys then the knowledge that they have defeated Tampa Bay in their previous four meetings should.
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Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones the death this week of NFL Films boss Steve Sabol from brain cancer at age 69:
“He was one the greatest storytellers of our time – not just in sports but in any part of the American society. I have often said that they only throw ticker tape parades for war heroes, astronauts and people that win games or championships – sports figures – because they are larger than life. Someone has to take these accomplishments, these people and make them larger than life. Someone had to take a moment and turn it into a [legendary moment] and that is what Steve Sabol did for the NFL better then everyone …
“On a personal basis, he inspired me to put the biggest digital board right down the middle of the field because we wanted to, in a way, share the theater of stage with our fans. We wanted [fans] to come inside the huddle, instead of a face that is a foot high, we can put it right in the middle of the field as it is going on and put it 70 feet high. That style was Steve’s style and influence. He will be missed but he will always be remembered because of his great contributions to what we do every day and that is show the great nuances of our game.”