In the NFL, a win is a win, and that's what the Cowboys need to take away from their performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was a sloppy performance that did manage to produce a few highlights like Dez Bryant's 45-yard punt return, but coming out of this game victorious is all that matters even if it wasn't a vintage performance.
The offensive line needs major work, and the proof is in the beating that Tony Romo took from the Tampa Bay pass rush. Collectively, this team is still looking for an identity after three games, and right now, the Cowboys are somewhere in no man's land.
After knocking off the New York Giants in the season opener and laying an egg against Seattle, they were able to survive four quarters against Tampa Bay and scrape by. This type of performance is clearly not indicative of an elite team just yet, but beating Tampa Bay was the singular goal for the day.
If the Cowboys continue to play this brand of football, then they won't be beating too many of the NFL's elite. We learned a few things from today's performance that I'd now like to focus on.
Jason Witten Continues His String of Bad Play
Witten dropped three more passes against Tampa Bay and was also penalized twice for false starts. He finished the day with two catches for eight yards. This stretch of play is very uncharacteristic of Witten and the question of his health has to come into play. What makes it even worse is that Martellus Bennett has three touchdowns in three games with the Giants.
Witten hasn't scored a touchdown since the Nov. 20, 2011, contest at Washington. It's a disturbing statistic that needs to be corrected. The question is whether or not he is really healthy or not.
Injuries at Safety Are More Than a Concern
Dallas lost safety Barry Church (via Nick Eatman of CBS Sports) for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. His injury appeared serious from the inception, and those fears were confirmed.
Church suffered the injury in the third quarter and was replaced by Mana Silva. The Cowboys were also without the services of Gerald Sensabaugh today due to an injured calf, so the depth now suddenly goes from concern to panic.
The Cowboys could be playing the Chicago Bears next week with Danny McCray and Mana Silva as the starting safeties. Dallas needs to strongly evaluate this situation, but they could also have several options at their disposal.
Could Matt Johnson be ready to contribute? Maybe Brandon Carr, who played safety today in the nickel, could take over. The Cowboys could bring Mario Butler back due to his familiarity with the team or look elsewhere on the waiver wire.
The Cowboys Have a Full-Blown Penalty Problem
The false-start penalties are turning into an outbreak of the plague. Doug Free was the culprit three times, Witten was flagged twice and Tyron Smith also got in on the action and was called for one.
Overall, the Cowboys were penalized 13 times, and this is becoming very reckless. Some of it can be attributed to communication along the offensive line, and some are just a by-product of playing too hard, but double-digit penalties on a weekly basis will get you a 6-10 record faster than a speeding ticket—a ticket right out of the playoff hunt.
Dez Bryant's Impact on Punt Returns Can Alter a Game
Having Bryant returning punts will always expose him to the additional propensity for injury, but we finally saw what type of impact he can make for this team. He reminded us why the rewards outweigh the risks by providing a big play when the Cowboys needed it. Bryant saw daylight and dashed 45 yards up the right sideline to set up what would become the game clinching field goal by Dan Bailey.
He might not break one every week, but this could clearly be a weapon for this team and a tool for changing momentum and jump-starting the offense. I would expect to see some more of these big plays from Bryant in future weeks.
Defense Won This Ballgame Today
Give credit to Rob Ryan's unit in a big way. The offense couldn't run, despite DeMarco Murray's touchdown, they couldn't block and the offense looks out of sync. But, this is why Rob Ryan was brought here, and his unit's run and pass defense was the difference. Tampa Bay was held to just over 160 yards of offense, and several players were responsible for this.
Anthony Spencer continued his strong play with seven tackles, Sean Lee had an interception, and DeMarcus Ware was, well, DeMarcus Ware. Imagine when he is at full strength.
The secondary was able to make it, despite its injuries at safety, by putting Brandon Carr back there. Mike Jenkins saw some extended playing time and had a nice pass deflection on a deep route. It was a great all-around performance by the defense.
Jason Garrett Needs To Get This Offense in Sync Pronto
Despite Murray's rushing touchdown, there wasn't much room to run against Tampa's defensive front. His numbers were 18 carries for 38 yards, and he has not had a 100-yard game since opening night. Doug Free was manhandled by Mary B's brother Michael, but the interior line was no better. If the Cowboys can't run the ball, the success of this offense will be limited and unsuccessful.
Maybe he needs to make more in-game adjustments or be more aggressive, but this team needs to get off to better starts, be more assertive from the onset of games and find and establish an identity. That starts with the coaches, especially Garrett.