Bucs’ defense fails in wild-card loss to Dallas Cowboys

Coach Todd Bowles said the secondary busts were “troublesome,” because they were mistakes from things installed on Day 1.
Published Jan. 17, 2023|Updated Jan. 17, 2023

TAMPA — Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz didn’t even need to see the Bucs’ coverage bust to know how bad it was and, more importantly, what the result would be.

It came with 10 minutes left in the Bucs’ 31-14 wild-card loss to Dallas, after Tampa Bay scored to make it a three-score game. The outcome was, theoretically, still in doubt when the Cowboys faced fourth and 4 from the Bucs’ 18-yard line.

Tampa Bay never had a chance. When Dallas receiver CeeDee Lamb slipped outside, no defender followed him. Schultz lifted one arm, then the other to celebrate Lamb’s touchdown catch while the ball was still in the air.

That score was the final blow, but it was preceded by one after another.

“You’ve got to play in the moment,” coach Todd Bowles said. “You’ve got to play in the moment.”

Dallas Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz (86) celebrates his second touchdown of the game in the second quarter.
Dallas Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz (86) celebrates his second touchdown of the game in the second quarter. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Dallas did, with quarterback Dak Prescott accounting for five touchdowns. The Bucs did not, despite a strong start. The defense started by forcing back-to-back three-and-outs, and Prescott missed his first three passes.

The game turned quickly. Prescott hit his next 11 throws. One of them was a 22-yard pass that he lobbed to a wide-open Schultz. It was the start of a trend of unguarded receivers, especially tight ends. Schultz finished with seven catches for a game-high 95 yards, including a second touchdown reception at the end of the first half.

As rookie Jake Ferguson skirted into the flat in the second quarter, no Bucs defender was within 8 yards of him. His 34-yard catch was a career long. When Bowles was asked about his defense’s struggle to stop tight ends, he suggested that wasn’t the only issue Monday.

That was obvious with what happened soon after Ferguson’s only catch. Dallas opted against a chip-shot field foal on fourth and goal —probably a good idea, considering kicker Brett Maher’s historically bad night. Instead, Prescott faked a handoff to Ezekiel Elliott and escaped left. With no defender there to set the edge, he strolled in for a score.

“We busted a few things,” Bowles said. “We missed some tackles, and we didn’t play well defensively.”

Prescott joined Cincinnati star Joe Burrow as the only two quarterbacks to pass for four touchdowns against the Bucs this season. The 425 yards allowed were the second-most the Bucs have given up this season, ahead of only the 453 Baltimore amassed in October. A defense that ranked in the top half of the league in yards per play allowed (5.1) surrendered 6.4 Monday night. And an above-average pass rush had one sack on the second series but none the rest of the night.

The biggest concern, however, was the receivers running wide open across the field because of blown coverages.

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“It’s troublesome, because they were Day 1 installs,” Bowles said. “We’ve got to execute better.”

The culprit, Bowles said, was concentration, or a lack thereof. Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting suggested there was more to it.

“Just schemes,” Murphy-Bunting said. “They out-schemed us. They had some things that were nice out there, just things that they executed very well on.”

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) throws a pass to a receiver while being pressured during the first quarter.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) throws a pass to a receiver while being pressured during the first quarter. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

And things the Bucs did not. Prescott converted twice on third-down scrambles — two of the seven Tampa Bay allowed on 13 chances. The lack of pressure on the line of scrimmage kept the Cowboys out of third and long.

And Dallas succeeded in the red zone, scoring a touchdown on all four possessions.

“Big credit to them …” Bowles said. “I thought we made our own blunders well enough to help them along. They deserve all the credit.”

The Bucs will have a long offseason to assign the appropriate blame for a defense that broke in their biggest game of the year. The sting isn’t going to fade anytime soon.

“It’s always going to hurt,” Murphy-Bunting said. “You’re always going to feel it. It’s a tough loss. It’s a tough feeling to know that we left a lot of things out there, a lot of things that we did bad that we kind of wanted and wished that we could have back, but we can’t.”

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