Dez Bryant's punt return may have clinched the game - but it was only one special teams highlight from the Cowboys 16-10 victory over Tampa Bay.
The Dallas Cowboys pulled out an ugly 16-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It featured an inconsistent offense and a stout defensive performance against a very unimaginative Tampa Bay offensive attack.
It also saw a special teams effort that turned out to be crucial in securing the game. Although the ST effort was not perfection, including a failed onside kick, it did come up big at three important moments. And it did what needed to be done the rest of the game. The coverage units held Tampa Bay to a total of 25 return yards for the game. And Dan Bailey was perfect, which we have come to expect.
But three times the special teams made big contributions that should not be lost in the overall view of the game.
The first came at the 6:16 mark in the second quarter - and showed just how close the margin is between success and failure. Dallas had overcome the opening drive interception of Tony Romo by countering with Sean Lee's seventh pick of his career to tie the game at 7-7, but the offense was still trying to find a rhythm. After going three and out, the team went into punt formation. Tampa Bay had blocked one punt already in their opening game. Dallas had given up a block for a touchdown in the Seattle Seahawks disaster. They were coming hard - and replay showed that Chris Jones got the ball away with inches to spare as Tampa Bay linebacker Dekoda Watson took a bad angle. Instead, Jones drew a roughing the kicker penalty, which would have given Dallas a first down and kept the drive alive - and it would get better moments later.
The rest of the story after the jump.
That narrow miss on one end led to another narrow miss on the other - as Jordan Shipley, newly signed by Tampa Bay to help with return duties, muffed the punt. And Orie Lemon, newly signed by Dallas to help with special teams, covered the ball. This was one of those times where the bounce of the ball, or to be more exact, the angle it takes, made all the difference. What was very close to another disaster for the Cowboys led, after the penalty was tacked on at the end of the play, to Dallas having the ball at the Tampa Bay 24. The offense would stall out, but Dan Bailey was waiting in the wings. He gave the team a 10-7 lead, and Dallas never fell behind after that.
The next moment was the Dez Bryant punt return with 4:44 left in the game. Remember the game situation at the time: Dallas was hanging onto a 13-7 lead, as it had not been able to get back into the end zone, hindered by a couple of fumbles (both by Tony Romo, but at least one of them should be attributed to a moment of total ineptitude by Doug Free) as well as a continued issue with Jason Witten dropping balls. The electrifying 44-yard run was the first return of any impact for the team this year. Combined with Bryant's 62 receiving yards, it was the first real impact game for him. And even though the team could not convert for a touchdown as yet another penalty nullified a Murray run to the one yard line, Dan Bailey was still available, and his field goal made it a two score game.
Then, in one of those odd NFL sequences that seem to crop up regularly, Tampa Bay played until the two minute warning like they had conceded the game. Then, after the two minute warning, the Buccaneers seemed to remember that Josh Freeman could throw to Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. After doing almost nothing for the first 58 minutes of the game, the Tampa Bay offense marched quickly to the Dallas 10 with :56 left. Then the Cowboys defense stiffened, and the Bucs had to settle for a field goal, with :40 left.
Everyone knew that an onside kick was coming, with the score 16-10. If Tampa Bay could recover, they would have a chance to pull off a long-shot victory, but the ball bounded high off the ground and the hands team executed to perfection. James Hanna ended up with the ball and Dallas got the victory. It was a simple play, and looked almost routine when it happened, but it effectively sealed the deal for the Cowboys.
This was the first time that the special teams have done anything to stand out in a positive way. And it is certainly ironic that the first big play in Dallas' favor was very close to being a meltdown instead. The margin between victory and defeat in the NFL is often a narrow one. Dallas needed all the breaks it could get. Now they are tied for first place in the NFC East. There are a lot of issues that still raise serious concerns for the team, but for this game, the special teams made a big difference.