Dominant Defense Drives Bucs to Season-Opening Win in Dallas
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored the most points in the NFL over Tom Brady's first two seasons with the franchise, a span in which the team won a Super Bowl and went 29-10 overall.
If Sunday night's season-opener in Dallas is any indication, the Buccaneers may occasionally win with defense in Brady's third season. Well, defense and a little smattering of Mike Evans doing what he does best.
For the second season in a row, Tampa Bay opened its schedule with a prime-time win over the Cowboys, but this one was stylistically very different than last year's 31-29 shootout in Tampa.
In a 19-3 decision at AT&T Stadium, the Buccaneers defense dominated against the highest-scoring team from a year ago, limiting the Cowboys to 244 yards and 12 first downs and not allowing a point after an opening-drive field goal. On offense, Leonard Fournette's 127 yards led a grind-it-out attack that consistently moved the ball but struggled to finish drives in the red zone. Ryan Succop made four of his five field goal tries, with a long of 47.
First-half injuries to left tackle Donovan Smith and wide receiver Chris Godwin may have affected the play-calling in the second half, particularly with Dallas LB Micah Parsons wreaking havoc on third downs, but the Buccaneers presented a more balanced attack from the start. At halftime, the Buccaneers had run the ball 16 times while attempting 18 pass plays.
"We were trying to take what they gave us," said Head Coach Todd Bowles after the game. "They gave us some things up front and Lenny did a heck of a job running hard and physical and finding the hole. I thought the offensive line did a great job blocking. It was a total team effort tonight."
The Buccaneers didn't punt or turn the ball over in the first half and went into the intermission with a 219-95 edge in total yardage but held only a 12-3 lead thanks to those red zone woes, including two drives that ended on third-down sacks by Parsons, the unanimous 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Tampa Bay finally cracked the end zone late in the third quarter on a 79-yard drive that started with three runs for 37 yards by Fournette and ended with three catches for 32 yards by Evans, the last an acrobatic one-handed grab for a five-yard score.
"We've got to finish a little bit more in the red zone, but for the first game against a great team we played pretty good," said Bowles.
ILB Devin White recorded two sacks and a key fourth-quarter pass break up on fourth down to lead a defense that held Dak Prescott to 14 completions in 29 attempts for 134 yards and one interception by Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second quarter. ILB Lavonte David added six tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass defensed while Anthony Nelson and Vita Vea each had sacks. The Cowboys were held to 71 yards on the ground and 3.9 yards per carry.
"I thought the guys did a great job in preparation all week," said Bowles. "The biggest thing was communication. Hats off to the guys, Devin and Lavonte led them with Vita. I thought all the guys were in synch and they did a great job tonight."
Brady was efficient on the night, completing 18 of 27 passes for 212 yards, one touchdown and one interception and getting the ball to seven different pass-catchers. One of those was newcomer Julio Jones, whose 48-yard catch down the left sideline shortly before halftime set up a field goal and was the Bucs' longest play of the game. Jones finished with 86 yards from scrimmage, which included three catches as well as two end-around runs for 17 yards. Brady's final passing yardage total was his fifth-lowest in a game since joining the Buccaneers.
Godwin's evening started out in grand fashion, as he took a screen pass for 24 yards on the Bucs' first play from scrimmage. The sixth-year receiver was making a remarkably quick return from a torn ACL suffered last December, and he contributed three catches for 35 yards but unfortunately was knocked out just before halftime by a hamstring injury. Smith was lost earlier in the second quarter to an elbow injury, leaving Josh Wells to finish the game at left tackle.
"The good thing is it wasn't his knee," said Bowles of Godwin's injury. "We're happy about that and he was playing free and playing normal so hopefully he can get back and continue the things that he started."
The Buccaneers got good work from their special teams, including Succop's 13 points. Rookie punter Jake Camarda averaged 50.7 yards per punt with a net of 43.0 and dropped two inside the 20. TE Cade Otton and ILB K.J. Britt each had two kick-coverage stops as the Bucs held dangerous return man KaVontae Turpin in check.
"I thought the special teams did a great job of setting us up for some things and not letting that returner out," said Bowles. "I was definitely scared of him."
The Bucs moved to 1-0 with the win and are tied with New Orleans for the lead in the NFC South after one week. Those two teams will square off in the Superdome next Sunday.
Dallas got the ball first but had to start at their own 14 after a great open-field tackle by ILB K.J. Britt on KaVontae Turpin. The Cowboys got a quick first down but then lost eight yards on a reverse that OLB Shaq Barrett completely sniffed out. Prescott kept the drive alive with a sharp 16-yard pass over the middle to Lamb on third-and-seven. Two Elliott runs got the ball across midfield and led to a new set of downs at the Bucs' 42.
Prescott converted another third down three plays later with a nine-yard slant to WR Noah Brown. Rookie DL Logan Hall recorded his first tackle (and tackle for loss) on the next play, stopping a Wildcat run by Tony Pollard, and tight coverage forced two incompletions to force Dallas into a 51-yard field goal try. Brett Maher nailed it for the first points of the game.
After a false start, the Buccaneers' offensive season started in a very encouraging manner – a tunnel screen to Godwin that he exploited for a gain of 24. Two plays later, Brady had time to throw and settled on a deep curl to Evans for another 20 yards. Two Fournette runs left the Bucs in a third-and-one at the Dallas 25 and a counter by Fournette failed, leading to a field goal try by Succop. The veteran kicker nailed the 44-yard attempt to tie the game with five minutes left in the first quarter.
The Cowboys got a powerful seven-yard run by Elliott to start their next drive but a false start penalty and a pass breakup by Lavonte David made it third-and-long and pressure from DL Akiem Hicks led to a short incompletion by Prescott on third down. A 51-yard punt and a nine-yard return by Jaelon Darden set the Bucs up at their own 31.
Tampa Bay started the ensuing drive with both Fournette and White in the backfield but opened with a 19-yard sideline strike to Evans. Jones' first catch as a Buc was an eight-yard gain on a receiver screen and Fournette then broke free for 17 yards down to the Dallas 25. Three plays later, the Bucs faced a third-and-five and stalled again when a deep slant by Jones was incomplete. Succop came on again and hit from 38 for a 6-3 Bucs lead with a minute left in the opening period.
A holding penalty on the following kickoff return meant Dallas had to start its third drive on its own 10. The Cowboys faced a third-and-four at the 14 when the first quarter came to an end. The first play of the second quarter was a quick slant that CeeDee Lamb couldn't haul in, leading to another Dallas punt.
Starting at the Tampa Bay 39, Fournette took an inside handoff up the gut and got six tough yards, and two plays later Jones converted a third-and-one with an end-around that got into Dallas territory. A 13-yard catch by Jones down the left numbers made it first down at the Dallas 31, and Fournette leaked out of the backfield two snaps later for a nine-yard catch to make it third-and-two. This time, Brady faked an end-around to Godwin and then pitched left to Fournette, who found the edge for a gain of 10 to the Dallas 13.
Two plays later, Brady escaped a collapsing pocket and got off a short pass to Godwin to make it third-and-five. Parsons snipped the drive with his first sack of the season. The Bucs once again had to settle for a field goal try and this time Succop hooked his 36-yard attempt outside the left upright.
That let the Cowboys assume control at their own 26 but the drive started with an offensive pass interference call. That led to a third-and-10 snap which ended in disaster for the Cowboys as Winfield picked off the pass intended for Brown and returned it to the Dallas 23. Brady gave it to Jones for another end-around and it worked again, this time for 12 yards and another set of downs.
Fournette made a sharp cut to turn a first-down handoff into a six-yard gain to the five, but two plays later Parsons did it again with a third-down sacks and Succop came back to hit from 29 for a 9-3 lead.
Dallas had 3:20 left in the half when it got the ball back at its 24. Prescott got the Bucs out of a hole caused by a false start by running for 12 yards on an option to the left. However, Tampa Bay's defense forced another punt with three straight incompletions, one broken up by Jamel Dean and one caused by a hit on Prescott by Barrett. Bryan Anger's third punt of more than 55 yards rolled to a stop at the Bucs' 10.
Brady hit TE Cam Brate over the middle to convert a third down and then immediately went over the top to Jones down the left sideline, hooking up for a gain of 48. The drive stalled there but Succop came on once gain and drilled it from 47 yards to make it a 12-3 game with 14 seconds left in the half.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half after a touchback and Fournette immediately ripped off a 10-yard run. However, that quickly devolved into a third-and-12 and Brady took a deep shot to Breshad Perriman that S Malik Hooker was able to break up at the last second. After rookie Jake Camarda's first NFL punt - following one that was erased by an inadvertent whistle call (it actually hit the hanging scoreboard) and one that drew a running into the kicker penalty - the Cowboys started again at their own 20 due to a touchback.
The Cowboys got a quick first down on two Elliott runs but then faced a third-and-six and saw the drive end on a seven-yard sack by White. The Bucs started their next drive at their own and got quickly into Dallas territory on consecutive runs of 11, nine and 17 by Fournette. Three plays later, Brady converted a third-and-three with a 10-yard dig to Evans, making it first-and-10 at the Dallas 25.
Two plays later, Brady slid away from pressure and hit Evans on a deep slant for 17 yards down to the five. Brady chose to go back to Evans on the very next snap, throwing a fade to the left that the ninth-year veteran pulled in with one hand while falling on his back onto the end zone turf. The game's first touchdown gave Tampa Bay a 19-3 lead with 3:23 left in the third quarter.
The Cowboys got over midfield on the ensuing possession thanks in part to Prescott's 13-yard completions to Lamb and TE Dalton Schultz, but a holding call put them behind the sticks in Bucs' territory. Dallas chose to go for it on fourth-and-three from Tampa Bay's 42 and White broke it up with a pass defensed that was nearly a pick-six.
The Bucs committed their first turnover on the next drive, as Brady tried to throw a quick pass to Evans out of the slot but S Donovan Wilson made a diving interception at the Dallas 48-yard line. Tampa Bay's defense held up once again, forcing a quick three-and-out and a punt that was fair caught at the 13.
Fournette got around left end on the very next play for 14 yards but then took himself out of the game. Rookie RB Rachaad White came in and converted a third-and-two with a sweep right for five yards. Moments later, on third-and-three, Brady was hit as he threw and his pass didn't quite make it into Brate's hands.
Turpin fair caught the ensuing punt at the Dallas 13 with exactly seven minutes left in regulation. Prescott got that drive off to a quick start with a deep out to Brown for 22 yards, throwing off his back foot as he was hit. Prescott and Brown hooked up again two plays later over the middle and moved the sticks to the Dallas 49.
David sniffed out a screen and got his specialty, a TFL, on the next play, and Prescott was subsequently replaced by Cooper Rush moments later after an apparent hand injury. Dallas faced a fourth down at the Bucs' 43 with five minutes left and Rush kept the drive alive with a quick pass to Schultz at the 38.
After White's second sack of the game the Cowboys had to go for it again on fourth down, this time needing 15 yards, and nearly got it on a deep ball to Simi Fehoko before Mike Edwards arrived at the last second to break it up.
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 12 September 2022