Cam Newton, Eli Manning and now Tony Romo.
September has been a challenging month for the young Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are trying to build a new identity on defense while facing a gantlet of some of the NFL's most prolific quarterbacks.
The Bucs contained the explosive Newton to beat Carolina in Week 1 and wilted against Manning and the Super Bowl champion New York Giants in a 41-34 loss last weekend. Up next is another stern test Sunday against Romo, who's been nearly flawless in three career games against Tampa Bay.
"He's a dangerous quarterback, and he's especially dangerous when he extends plays," first-year coach Greg Schiano said Wednesday.
Romo is 3-0 against the Bucs and has completed 71 percent of his attempts for 908 yards, 11 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 144.8 passer rating.
"He's a hard guy to keep from extending the play," Schiano added. "If you look at the big play reel, a lot of them are not initially open and then he moves. He can scramble and get yards, but that's not what he's looking to do. He's looking to extend the pass play. He's got a strong arm and is accurate on the run."
The Bucs throttled Newton by limiting the Panthers to 10 yards rushing, intercepting the second-year pro twice and sacking him three times in a 16-10 victory.
The performance in the team's debut under Schiano was viewed as a significant step forward for a defense that allowed a NFL-worst 494 points and ranked last against the run and in sacks en route to a 4-12 finish that prompted the firing of former coach Raheem Morris, who also served as his own coordinator.
The unit, bolstered by the drafting of safety Mark Barron and linebacker Lavonte David and signing of free agent cornerback Eric Wright, took a step back against Manning.
The two-time Super Bowl MVP threw for 510 yards, second most in Giants history, and led the defending champs back from a two-touchdown deficit.
Although the Bucs forced three first-half turnovers that led to 21 points, Tampa Bay wound up yielding a franchise-record 604 yards in the defeat.
Manning attempted 51 passes and was not sacked, and the Giants repeatedly made the Bucs pay for blitzing without getting to the quarterback.
"When you give up the amount of yards we did the other day, it makes you re-think a lot of stuff. ... The bottom line is we didn't affect him enough and that puts a lot of stress on the corners when you're not playing two deep safeties," defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said.
Schiano said the Bucs will continue to mix coverages and remain aggressive in pursuing the passer.
"We are who we are," Schiano said. "We're not going to have wholesale change because we had a not great defensive day. It's the same defense that did have a great defensive day" in the opener.
Romo beat the Bucs 38-10 in 2006, 34-21 in 2009 and 31-15 last December, when he threw for three first-half touchdowns and ran for a fourth to help the Cowboys build a 28-0 halftime lead.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said it's imperative that the Bucs' pass rush puts pressure on Romo, who's thrown for 558 yards, four TDs and two interceptions the past two weeks. Dallas opened with a 24-17 win over the Giants, but played poorly in losing 27-7 at Seattle last Sunday.
"We have to keep him in the pocket. ... He's so elusive. He's got eyes in the back of his head, on the side, everything," McCoy said. "He knows how to step, slide to the side, see what he wants to do and make the pass. He's one of the most accurate guys on the run that we have in this league."
Romo said Wednesday that there's no specific reason for the success he's had against the Bucs.
"I think we just executed well," he said, adding that he has high regard for the current Tampa Bay defense, despite the gaudy numbers Manning posted last week.
"I think they're a real sound defense. After seeing the yards and points, I was expecting to see a little something different on tape. But when you watch them, this is a good defensive unit. They play well together," Romo said.
"It's skewed a little bit because I think the Giants got behind and they threw it a lot in this last game," Romo added. "They're good. They've shown it on tape a bunch of times now. I think it's too quick to point and say they've given up a ton of pass plays and you think it's going to be duplicated over and over again."
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett also played down Romo's career statistics against the Bucs.
"You've heard me say this a lot. Teams are different from year to year," Garrett said. "Tony's played the Bucs a few different times in his career. But if you look at the makeup of our team and their team, the teams are really different. Coaching staffs are different and all that. Sometimes you play well against a particular team for whatever reason. I think Tony is a good football player and he's played well against a lot of teams."
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