TAMPA — On Dallas' first third down Saturday night, quarterback Tony Romo had so much time to throw that a full 7 seconds elapsed before he found receiver Miles Austin for an 8-yard touchdown pass.
It would be emblematic of a long night for the Bucs defense, which struggled to get off the field on third down.
"Third down killed us," strong safety Sean Jones said after the Bucs' 31-15 loss. "Romo scrambled around for a while and hit some guys who kind of (got) uncovered. We need to get more pressure on him so he can't do that, so those guys can't uncover and make plays. He did a good job of running around, buying himself time and finding open holes in the zone."
The Cowboys' first three touchdowns all came on third-down plays, and the fourth came immediately after Dallas converted on third and 2 from the Bucs 5-yard line. By halftime, Dallas was 6-for-7 on third downs, piling up more yards in those clutch situations (65) than the Bucs mustered in the entire half (55).
They weren't easy situations the Cowboys were converting, either. The first four third downs required at least 8 yards to move the chains, and Romo consistently found open targets in a secondary that lost cornerback Aqib Talib early to a left hamstring injury.
On Dallas' second touchdown, receiver Dez Bryant was so open in the back of the end zone that he bobbled the catch twice before pulling it in. All six of Dallas' third-down conversions in the first half came on Romo passes.
"Romo's a great improviser; he was out there improvising and making plays for this team," Bucs rookie linebacker Mason Foster said. "When he's moving around and making good passes, it's hard to stop. … You've got to make your plays, win your one-on-ones."
Entering the game, such a third-down situation would have seemed a fair battle between Dallas' offense, which was converting 39 percent of its third downs, and Tampa Bay's defense, which was holding opponents to 39 percent on third downs. Instead, Dallas' ability to sustain long drives was the difference, as the Cowboys' first five scoring drives were all at least seven plays and all at least 56 yards, tiring the Bucs defense.
Dallas' ability to move the ball on third down early was matched by the Bucs' comparable inability. Tampa Bay went 1-for-5 in the first half, missing on third-and-1 and third-and-2 opportunities.
Tampa Bay's offense started clicking in the third quarter, as the Bucs went 4-for-4 on third downs on the way to their first offensive touchdown; they missed on their remaining three opportunities to finish 5-for-12.