After head coach Greg Schiano caused a minor stir last week after “Kneel-down Gate,” he took his team into Dallas to face the Cowboys. Seeking more consistency from his offense, as well some increased toughness and better play from his defense, the Bucs played a completely opposite style compared to the previous week against the Giants. As true as ever, the NFL continues to be unpredictable in the first month.
The Cowboys came home looking to lick their wounds after getting embarrassed in Seattle in Week 2. Tony Romo has looked good when he’s been afforded the time to throw or room to improvise. However, the offensive line has been inconsistent early on this season, and with a stronger Tampa Bay defensive front coming to town, how would the blocking unit handle them?
Although this game was short on offense and big plays, it wasn’t short on noteworthy performances. Let’s look at the deciding factors in this defensive battle.
Tampa Bay – Three Performances of Note
Turning the Defense Back On
After starting off the season very well against Cam Newton and the Panthers, the Bucs took the second half off in Week 2 against the Giants and were burned by Eli Manning. From the first snap on Sunday, the Bucs defensive looked to dominate a leaky Cowboys offensive line. Michael Bennett (+6.4), started on the left side against right tackle Doug Free, but did most of his damage inside alongside defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (+5.5). While Free only allowed one hit and one hurry, Dallas’ guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings could not keep the Bucs pass rushers in front of them, combining to allow three sacks, a hit, and three hurries. If McCoy continues his run of excellent play (+10.9 so far in 2012), he will silence all those who declared him a “bust” as the No. 3 pick in the 2010 draft.
As if that wasn’t enough, the front seven stymied DeMarco Murray and didn’t allow the Dallas running game to get into any rhythm. They stopped Murray for no gain or a loss on seven of his 18 carries. For a run defense that last year couldn’t stop Michael Turner from running all over it, they’ve made incredible strides in less than a year.
It should be mentioned that the Bucs lost defensive end Adrian Clayborn to a season-ending knee injury. While Clayborn didn’t have the greatest start to his season, this leaves the Bucs very thin at defensive end. With Da’Quan Bowers still on the mend from an Achilles injury in May, Schiano may have to get a bit creative at the position opposite of Bennett. It is certainly something to monitor going forward.
After two straight weeks of positive grades for Josh Freeman (-3.3), the fourth-year signal caller took a major step back against the Cowboys. While he was harassed to a degree, getting sacked twice, hit four times, and hurried six times, even when he had time in the pocket to throw, he missed receivers, throwing behind, over, and short of them. While he can’t be blamed for the interception that set up Dallas’ only touchdown (the ball bounced off Danny Ware’s hands and helmet and into the waiting arms of Sean Lee), Freeman struggled more on passes from 0-20 yards than on passes over 20. On those attempts aimed 0-20 yards downfield, Freeman went 4-for-15 with 30 yards, throwing his lone touchdown and interception. Yet, on throws over 20 yards, he was 2-for-5 for 52 yards.
Similar to the Cowboys, and not helpful to Freeman, the Bucs’ running game couldn’t really get off the ground. Doug Martin (-0.5) still showed his usual spryness, but there were few holes for him to find his way through. And as is Schiano’s preferred style and game plan, the Buccaneers found themselves losing the entire second half, albeit by less than a touchdown, but would continue to hand the ball off to very little success, leaving Freeman in a hole with many third and long situations.
In a game very short on offense, the Bucs defense should again be commended for keeping their team in the game. After getting burned by spot-on Eli Manning-to-Hakeem Nicks throws last week, Aqib Talib (+2.8) was forced to put that game behind him, drawing Dez Bryant for the entirety of this game. Although Talib allowed a high catch percentage (six catches on eight targets) to Dez, he always kept the playmaker in front of him, limiting Bryant to 62 yards on those six grabs. He also helped out with three defensive stops, killing off potential drives for the Cowboys. Additionally, he made one of the biggest plays in the first half, reading Tony Romo’s eyes and leaving Bryant to intercept a pass intended for Miles Austin. The turnover led to an early Buccaneers touchdown and lead. Unfortunately, they would only score three more points the entire game.
Dallas – Three Performances of Note
Superstar Sean Lee
Although he didn’t put up the gaudy box score statistics that he did the first two games of the season, Sean Lee (+2.5) put up his highest grade of the young season and played every defensive snap along the way. Despite having just the two tackles, both were defensive stops and he consistently was around the play, playing a major role in clogging up the running lanes for Doug Martin. Not to be outdone, he also was getting ready to blow up a screen pass intended for Danny Ware when the ball glanced off of Ware and into his lap. After that play, Josh Freeman only targeted Lee once more, with the pass falling incomplete. In comparison, the first two weeks, Lee had been eaten up in pass coverage, with all 11 passes thrown at him being completed for 73 yards. If Lee continues to perform like this in pass coverage, he would make the next step into the upper echelon of inside linebackers.
Quitin’ on Witten?
Jason Witten (-3.9) rushed back from his lacerated spleen in time for the opening game of the season. It would be expected that there would be a little bit of rust after not practicing with the team for nearly a month. Now that Week 3 has passed, it might be time to be a little more worried. He impressed early on by dragging a defender to pickup a first down. After that, though, he had a pair of costly drops, including one down the seam that routinely would have gone for a touchdown. Even when asked to pass block, he came up short, allowing a sack to Michael Bennett, and another hit. Not to pile on an already bad day, but he committed two false start penalties as well — something that could get another player benched. The one portion of the game he did do well (+2.1 run blocking) will go unnoticed because the Cowboys’ running game did not perform well. While it hasn’t been a great start of the season for Witten, there’s ample time to prove he’s still an asset to the Cowboys.
Vincent Jackson is regarded as one of the premier downfield threats in the NFL. He was rendered completely invisible in this game though. Although Brandon Carr (+2.5) wasn’t always lined up across from Jackson, he was always close by. Whenever the Cowboys moved from to their nickel or dime packages from their base 3-4 defense, Carr shifted back to safety with Mike Jenkins or Orlando Scandrick coming in and lining up against Jackson. Carr would be shadowing him from his free safety position, often deterring Josh Freeman from looking to his go-to receiver. Carr was only targeted twice, with one throw sailing wide of Jackson and the other pass being broken up. With Dallas’ defensive game plan working perfectly, Jackson was rendered ineffective, catching his first pass of the game with nearly two minutes left in the game. Credit to Brandon Carr for making Tampa Bay’s offense one dimensional and incapable of moving the ball.
– The highest offensive grade for the Buccaneers was Arrelious Benn at +0.9 who finished with one catch for 8 yards.
– If not for two penalties, DeMarcus Ware would have finished the day with a fairly dominant grade of +3.2.
– Gerald McCoy has the highest grade of any interior defensive lineman so far this season at +10.9; next is Brandon Mebane at +8.4 and Justin Bannan at +6.9.
PFF Game Ball
If the Buccaneers could’ve pulled this one out, McCoy and Bennett would take this home. However, almost everyone on the Dallas’ defense contributed in some way, with special honors going to Sean Lee, Brandon Carr, and DeMarcus Ware.