TAMPA — The Bucs were encouraged when they learned CB Aqib Talib would return for Saturday's game against the Cowboys after missing Sunday's contest at Jacksonville with a hamstring injury.
With a potent passing game on tap, Talib's presence was necessary. But Talib didn't last long, exiting midway through the first quarter of the 31-15 loss and leaving the defense in a vulnerable position.
Talib's absence left the Bucs to face a quick-strike Dallas passing game, led by hot-handed QB Tony Romo, without its best defensive back.
And the lack of depth at cornerback immediately became an issue, with the Cowboys completing numerous passes against Elbert Mack and Anthony Gaitor. Last year's third-round draft pick, Myron Lewis, was inactive, a coach's decision.
"It makes you do different things," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "Aqib had a premier matchup vs. Dez (Bryant). That changed where (CB) Ronde (Barber) was going to be, and obviously that changed where everybody else was going to be. We wanted Ronde in there with (Dallas WR) Miles Austin on third down in the slot. You want Aqib outside dealing with Dez Bryant."
Placing Talib on injured reserve might become an option.
PROTECTION ISSUES: The Bucs' offensive line had a difficult night against the Cowboys' pass rush, with QB Josh Freeman sacked three times and consistently under pressure.
The Bucs, who faced a 3-4 front, missed several blocking assignments and were outplayed in other instances.
The problem manifested in ways other than sacks. In the fourth quarter, with the Bucs hoping to pull within a touchdown, Freeman was called for intentional grounding when he threw a ball out of bounds while under duress.
RT Jeremy Trueblood was beaten by star LB DeMarcus Ware for a sack in the second quarter, and LT Donald Penn struggled with DE Sean Lissemore in another instance, resulting in another sack.
"DeMarcus Ware is a stud, and you're playing a Rob Ryan (Dallas defensive co-ordinator) defense, and they really mix things up," Freeman said. "They use a lot of defensive stunts up front, and they move guys around to kind of distort (the look of the defense). That being said, when you're playing a team like that, early on I just have to get the ball out of my hands as quick as I can."
FRIENDLY CROWD: The crowd was unusually friendly for the visiting team, with legions of Cowboys fans dotting the sold-out stadium. The game was the second sellout this season, and it's clear the interest generated by the Cowboys was the reason. At one juncture, the crowd broke into a "Let's go Cowboys" chant, and it cheered wildly on each of the Cowboys' scoring plays.
FREEMAN'S FEET: Freeman's 25-yard run on the Bucs' first possession was his longest of the season. Freeman sidestepped a defender in the pocket, turned up the field and had nothing but open field ahead. He also refused to slide at the end, taking on CB Terence Newman head on.
But Freeman didn't have nearly as much success on his next rushing attempt, fumbling at the conclusion of a 7-yard run on the next play. The ball was stripped from behind by LB Anthony Spencer and recovered by LB Bradie James.
BENNETT BROTHERS: The game featured a matchup of brothers, pitting Bucs DE Michael Bennett against Cowboys TE Martellus Bennett.
The Texas natives were represented in the stands by a number of family members who wore customized jerseys — half Bucs, half Cowboys — with "Bennett Boys" embroidered on the nameplate.
Both players gave their kin something to be proud of. Michael registered a sack in the fourth quarter, ending a Dallas drive. Martellus caught three passes for 23 yards.
CLAYBORN, AGAIN: Rookie DE Adrian Clayborn, after a mostly quiet first half, awoke in the third quarter. With Dallas facing third and 19 from their 11-yard line, Clayborn teed off on Romo, hitting him from behind and jarring the ball loose.
LB Dekoda Watson scooped up the ball and returned it 7 yards for a touchdown, the Bucs' first score of the night. Watson was in the game as a third-down rusher, a role he has played several times during the game.
The touchdown made it 28-7 Cowboys with 13:39 left in the third.