Bucs fall to 1-2 with loss to Cowboys
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 24 September 2012

Ronde Barber stood in a corner of the Buccaneers locker room at Cowboys Stadium late Sunday tying a purple necktie and rattling off a list of Tampa Bay's defensive superlatives for the day.

His accounting included four sacks of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, three takeaways and a dominant effort against the run that resulted in Dallas ball carriers gaining 38 yards on 23 carries. "Normally, those things win for you," Barber said.

Perhaps, but not much about the Bucs' 16-10 loss to the Cowboys was normal, particularly on offense. Take, for example, the Bucs' final offensive series. Down two scores at their 20-yard line with only 2:43 to play, Tampa Bay lined up in the shotgun, which is normal, but ran the ball on first-and-10 and third-and-9.

It turns out a transmitter malfunction in quarterback Josh Freeman's helmet was the cause of the odd third-down run call, but it was just that type of day for the Bucs offense.

After scoring 34 points against the Super Bowl champion Giants a week earlier, Tampa Bay struggled even to reach the red zone against the Cowboys, producing just 166 yards of total offense, 70 of which came on their final drive.

"They just had us out of sync," said Greg Schiano, whose team dropped to 1-2 for the season. "We just weren't clicking. It just didn't feel like it was flowing for us like it has at other times this year."

The offense has never really flowed this year, at least not consistently. It ebbed for long stretches in each of the first two games, but the Cowboys put an absolute dam in front of it. Dallas continued to contain a running attack that is now averaging 3.4 yards per carry and, through the first 57 minutes, limited Freeman to 39 yards passing while intercepting him once and sacking him twice for 19 yards.

"Each play, there's a reason why it doesn't work," said Freeman, who completed 10 of 28 for 110 yards and a career-worst 35.7 completion percentage. His 45.2 passer rating was his fifth worst as a starter.

"Maybe one time a guy was covered, or somebody gets through, or it was a pass where me and the receiver weren't able to hook up," Freeman said. "Whatever it was, we've just got to go back and figure out why and grow and learn from it.

After three games, Schiano has learned his team can't quite put together a game in which all three phases offense, defense and special teams play well at the same time. In the season opener, a 16-10 victory against Carolina, the Bucs hit what Freeman called an offensive "lull" that lasted most of the second half.

In Week 2, the Bucs surrendered a franchise worst 604 yards of offense and let a two-touchdown third-quarter lead slip away during a 41-34 loss to the Giants at MetLife Stadium. On Sunday, the offense and special teams let them down as the Cowboys turned an interception off the hands of normally reliable third-down back D.J. Ware and a muffed punt by Jordan Shipley into a pair of scores.

The pass that deflected off Ware's hands was picked off by linebacker Sean Lee, setting up an 11-yard touchdown run by DeMarco Murray that erased a 7-0 Bucs lead with 1:22 to play in the first quarter.

Shipley was signed to the roster earlier in the week, in part, because the Bucs lost confidence in Preston Parker's ability to handle punts. Shipley's fumble, however, set up a 32-yard field goal that gave Dallas a 10-7 lead with 2:51 to play before halftime.

Even the Cowboys' final two scores, both field goals, came as a result of the Bucs' spotty offense, which went three plays and out prior to each score. The first came after the Bucs recovered a Dallas fumble. "We never got a rhythm to keep it going, not all day," said receiver Mike Williams, who led the Bucs with two catches for 33 yards. "We all have to be on the same page, especially on third down."

Third down has been a problem for the Bucs this season. They entered Sunday's game tied for 30th in third-down efficiency, having converted just seven of 24 attempts, including one of three on third-and-1. They didn't get any better against the Cowboys. The Bucs converted just three of 15 third downs, an areas that will have to be corrected if Tampa Bay is going to end their two-slide.

"We didn't win the battles we said we had to win to win this game," said Schiano, who cited third-down efficiency and the Cowboys' ability to control the ball for 33:04 to the Bucs' 26:56. "The way the defense played today, we have to sustain some drives and give them a blow," left tackle Donald Penn said. "We didn't do that today. We've just got to do better than that.

Schiano is convinced they will. So is Barber. As he tightened up his neck tie and pulled on a gray sports coat, Barber suggested the Bucs are closer to being better than their two-game losing streak indicates.

"The good thing is, we've given ourselves a chance to win in all of these games so far, even last week," he said. "We just have to be able to finish better in the second half, and I think we'll do that. We'll get this right."