For much of the third quarter the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense pushed the Dallas Cowboys around.
It was surprising after a dominating first half by the Cowboys defense, in which it held quarterback Jameis Winston and the Bucs to seven first downs, 1 of 4 on third down, and 105 total yards.
But he got it going after halftime and engineered two touchdown drives to give the Bucs a 20-17 lead after three quarters at AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys’ defense, however, regrouped and did much more than their bend but don’t break reputation.
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The ball doesn’t come out all the time but if you focus on it enough it’s bound to come out.
Cowboys DE David Irving
Dallas clamped down on Tampa Bay’s final five possessions of the game, including a huge interception by Jeff Heath with the game tied at 20-20 early in the fourth quarter.
The return to the Bucs’ 21 set up the Cowboys’ go-ahead field goal by Dan Bailey, who had three in the quarter to give Dallas the 26-20 final margin.
“The coaches kind of got in our butt a little bit,” said safety Barry Church, who had six tackles. “It was on us, basically. We were making mistakes out there we shouldn’t be making and giving up big plays. That’s not what our defense stands on. We turned our game around and responded in the right way.”
David Irving sacked Winston for a loss of 6 yards on the Bucs’ first play of the quarter and Heath intercepted Winston two plays later. Heath intercepted Winston twice a year ago. Three of his four career interceptions have come against Winston.
“It’s crazy how that happens,” Heath said. “It’s nothing special. Coaches put us in good positions to make plays and balls will come to you every once in a while.”
Church joked: “He’s his Kryptonite. Shoot, I’m glad he’s on my team.”
5 Total yards allowed in the fourth quarter by the Cowboys defense after the Bucs scored twice and gained 166 yards in the third quarter.
On the Bucs’ next possession, Justin Durant, unblocked, rushed toward Winston and deflected the pass to force a punt. After Jason Witten fumbled inside Bucs’ territory, the Dallas defense forced another punt with 6:55 left in the game.
The Cowboys held the Bucs to one first down and 5 total yards in the fourth quarter.
“That’s the defense we want. We don’t want the bend but don’t break. We want the defense that takes the ball away and gives it back to our offense,” Church said. “We had three takeaways so Coach [Rod] Marinelli is going to be happy about that but we still have to sharpen up some things. It shouldn’t have even been that close.”
After going four consecutive games without a takeaway, the Cowboys have seven combined in the past two games.
“It’s just coming together and focusing on the ball,” said Irving, who had five of the Cowboys’ nine quarterback hurries Sunday night. “The ball doesn’t come out all the time but if you focus on it enough it’s bound to come out.”
Irving also had two sacks, and Maliek Collins had a sack and two quarterback hurries in addition to a forced and recovered fumble.
“This was a good time for them to step up again tonight,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “I can tell you for Jason [Garrett] to have punted that ball and relied on our defense to hold them there that last 2 1/2 minutes, that tells you a lot about what we’re thinking of those young guys in there.”