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.