Tampa Bay's defense is showing signs of improvement under coach Greg Schiano, however the team's sputtering offense continues to raise questions about the development of quarterback Josh Freeman.
The Buccaneers were limited to 166 yards in a 16-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, with Freeman statistically notching one of the worst performances of his career.
The fourth-year pro converted a turnover into Tampa Bay's only touchdown on the team's first possession of the game, then didn't get anywhere near the end zone again before leading a march that produced a last-minute field goal.
"When you have as tough a day as we did on offense, there's not one reason, there's not one person, there's not one call, there's just a bunch of things," Schiano said Monday.
"But having said all that, when you go back and watch he tape, it's like normally as you expect," the first-year coach added, `"you're never as good as you think you were, and you're never as bad as you think you were."
Freeman completed 10 of 28 passes for 110 yards and one interception, with most of that yardage coming on Tampa Bay's final drive, which Connor Barth finished with a 28-yard field goal. Nine possessions in between scores ended with an interception and eight consecutive punts.
It's not the first time the Bucs have struggled this season after scoring early. The offense produced little during the second half of a 16-10 season-opening win over Carolina and also sputtered after taking advantage of three turnovers to build a two-TD lead before faltering in a 41-34 loss to the New York Giants.
Freeman, who was sacked twice and under constant pressure from the Dallas pass rush, was not available Monday. He said Sunday that the Bucs simply had an `"off" day against the Cowboys.
With the exception of the team's initial possession, which began at the Dallas 29 following Aqib Talib's interception, Tampa Bay didn't cross the Cowboys 41 again until the late field goal drive.
The absence of a running game didn't help Freeman, who was 6 of 20 for 39 yards passing before the final drive. The team finished with 75 yards rushing on 25 attempts.
"Each play, there's a reason why it doesn't work," the quarterback said. "Maybe one time it was a guy who's covered up and, by the time you get back, somebody gets through or it's a pass where me and the receiver weren't able to hook up. But whatever it is, we've got to go back and figure out why it is that we weren't hitting them early and try to grow from that and build on it."
Schiano rejected the notion that the play-calling was too conservative. He also said he has full confidence in Freeman, who's trying to rebound from a season in which he took a step back in his development.
After throwing for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions while leading the Bucs to a 10-6 record two years ago, the third quarterback selected in the 2009 draft had 16 TD passes vs. 22 interceptions in 2011, when Tampa Bay finished 4-12 with 10 consecutive losses to end the season.
One of the team's top priorities during the offseason was improving the 24-year-old's decision-making in the pocket.
"I have a great trust level with him. There's not a doubt in my mind that he's going to do great this year and beyond," Schiano said. "The only thing right now is we had two pretty good outings and then one not so good, and why. There are so many reasons."
The Bucs had 258 yards total offense and controlled the ball for nearly 15 minutes more than Carolina in the opener. They were outgained 604 yards to 307 by the Giants, but felt good about the way they were able to move the ball -- especially early -- against the Super Bowl champions.
Schiano defended the decision to continue to try to run the ball, even while trailing the entire second half.
"As it turns out, when you lose then it's too conservative. When you win, then for some it's still too conservative, but to others: `Boy, that's good football."' Schiano said.
The Bucs did more than waste a strong performance by a defense that held Dallas to 38 yards rushing, sacked Tony Romo four times and forced three turnovers to give the Bucs a chance.
Defensive end Adrian Clayborn was lost for the season to a right knee injury that will require surgery.
The second-year pro, who had 7 1-2 sacks as a rookie, was placed on injured reserve Monday. Schiano is weighing options to replace him.
Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and George Johnson are the team's backup defensive ends.
"We'll look at everything. We'll look internally. We'll look outside. We're look schematically," Schiano said. "Maybe we'll have to play some more three-down fronts and do some different things to stretch the personnel a little bit. Nothing's out of the realm. That's what you do. You adapt."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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