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Dallas' long plays doom Tampa Bay in season opener. The defensive lapses - two by Sabby Piscitelli - and other miscues mar the offense's big day.
Published Sep. 14, 2009

Safety Sabby Piscitelli is one of the Bucs' most athletic defenders. If you're still not convinced, consider how fast and how far he chased so many Cowboys receivers to the end zone Sunday.

At one point, after the Bucs yielded a crushing 80-yard touchdown catch and run to Patrick Crayton in their 34-21 loss, coach Raheem Morris finally pulled Piscitelli aside.

Even in the defense under new coordinator Jim Bates, Piscitelli was supposed to be playing Cover 2 on the play, but he got caught gazing into the eyes of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo instead of "plastering," or sticking with, Crayton.

"He knew exactly what he was supposed to do," Morris said. "There's no secret about it. I looked right at Sabby. I grabbed him right next to me. He looked at me and said, 'Plaster.' You can't make that mistake. You just have to do it. You can't come off the field and know it's too late. They got a touchdown already."

Romo passed for 353 yards and touchdowns of 42, 66 and 80 yards - the last one coming two plays after the Bucs had cut the Cowboys' lead to 20-14.

The big plays ruined a big day by the Bucs offense and the head coaching debut of Morris, who has no trouble calling out players in meetings or to the media.

Piscitelli was directly responsible for botching two of those long touchdown passes.

After the game, players tried hard not to throw their third-year safety under the Trailways.

"You know we don't give up the big play 'round here. (But) that's exactly what happened," defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "We gave up the big play. I'm not going to say names, but since I got here in 2005, the first meeting they said, 'I don't care what defense you're playing in this league; we don't give up the big play.' End of story. Twenty-one points. We don't do it around here. And the (mess) is going to get fixed tomorrow. That's all I've got to say."

Not that the loss to the Cowboys should fall completely on Piscitelli's shoulder pads.

He had plenty of help.

The Bucs special teams were atrocious. Kicker Mike Nugent had a 38-yard field goal blocked and missed one from 46 yards at the end of the first half. Returner Clifton Smith fielded a punt at his own goal line to saddle his team with bad field position and later muffed another.

And Piscitelli was penalized for running into punter Matt McBriar, resulting in a first down.

The Bucs should have taken a 7-6 lead to the locker room at halftime. But pinned back at their own 14 at the two-minute warning, the Bucs were only able to eat 58 seconds off the clock.

Romo made the Bucs pay with a 42-yard strike to Miles Austin, beating cornerback Elbert Mack, who didn't push him out of bounds. Safety Jermaine Phillips missed the tackle, and Austin's touchdown with 46 seconds remaining in the half gave the Cowboys a 13-7 lead.

"Those big plays absolutely destroy your football team," veteran cornerback Ronde Barber said. "And we've got to eliminate them."

The Cowboys made it a two-touchdown lead when receiver Roy Williams went into motion, flooding the zone on the right side of the formation, then raced past Piscitelli on a seam route for a 66-yard touchdown.

"They just ran back by us, and it was just breaking down in coverage, which you can't have if you're going to win in this league," Bates said. "You've got to eliminate big plays. They're going to happen to anybody. But three in one game? That's unacceptable."

For Piscitelli's part, he blamed some of the long touchdown passes on miscommunication. When asked what coverage the Bucs were playing on Crayton's touchdown, he said, "I don't remember the call, to be honest with you. It was not a good play."

Bates said he expected the Bucs defense to make the biggest improvement between now and Sunday at Buffalo. If the unit does, Tampa Bay may have a chance to compete in the NFC South.

Quarterback Byron Leftwich looked sharp in completing 25 of 41 passes for 276 yards and a touchdown while not turning the ball over. He spread the ball around to 10 receivers, including Michael Clayton, who led the team with five catches for 93 yards.

Running backs Cadillac Williams (13 carries for 97 yards, one touchdown) and Derrick Ward (12 carries, 62 yards, one touchdown) led a strong attack.

Before his news conference, Leftwich sat at his locker looking very confident.

"This is just one game," he said. "We've got to correct some things, but this thing is going to really work. Trust me. We've got something here."

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Biggest breakdowns

The Bucs gave up four plays of at least 42 yards or longer against the Cowboys on Sunday, three of them for touchdowns:


80..........4............2nd and 9.............Romo to Crayton, TD

66..........3............2nd and 10...........Romo to Williams, TD

44..........4............1st and 10............Romo to Crayton, to Bucs 20

42..........2............1st and 10............Romo to Austin, TD

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By the numbers

0 Turnovers by either team.

1 Sack of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, by cornerback Ronde Barber for a 9-yard loss early in the first quarter.

6 Plays of 20 yards or longer given up by the Bucs.

462 Total yards for the Cowboys on 52 plays - 28 passing, 24 rushing.

344 Net yards passing for the Cowboys, who had touchdowns of 80, 66 and 42 yards.

118 Net yards rushing for the Cowboys, who had a 6-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

140.6 Quarterback rating for the Cowboys' Romo, who went 16-of-27 for a career-high 353 yards and three touchdowns.