TAMPA, Fla. -- Having been a significant component for six seasons in one of the premier defenses in NFL history, Dallas Cowboys strong-side linebacker Alshermond Singleton knew precisely what to expect Sunday afternoon from a Tampa Bay Buccaneers unit that limped into Raymond James Stadium, both literally and figuratively.
Wounded physically and minus half its starters in the secondary, still smarting from last week's defeat at San Francisco in which the Buccaneers possessed all the consistency of oatmeal, the defense had plenty of convenient excuses for another letdown. But for the entire week of preparation, Singleton, who had defected to the Cowboys this summer as an unrestricted free agent, warned his teammates about how his former colleagues would react to adversity.
Not even Singleton's cautionary siren song, however, was enough to adequately gird the upstart Cowboys for the level of intensity that awaited them here or to steel them for the ferocity with which the defending Super Bowl champions characteristically rebound after the kind of beating they absorbed last week in that other Bay Area.
"Hey, I've been with those guys after they haven't played well," said Singleton following a Bucs' 16-0 victory that nudged Tampa Bay back over .500 again, at 4-3. "I can imagine all the things that were being said over in that locker room all week. When those guys are backed up against the wall, well, you saw what happened. That's a proud defense, man, a really proud defense. They don't accept losing too well over there."
On Sunday, the battered Bucs accepted the challenge of facing a Cowboys team riding a five-game winning streak, and performing with a degree of confidence even most Tampa Bay veterans might grudgingly admire. Not surprisingly, given that the franchise has yet to lose consecutive outings under Jon Gruden, the Bucs didn't blink at the possibility of equaling in the first half of this season the number of defeats suffered in all of 2002.
Because the Cowboys opened the key NFC battle in a three-wide receiver formation, the Bucs countered with a "nickel" package, and four of five starters in the injury-riddled secondary were players who were backups only a year ago. With cornerback Brian Kelly on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle that will require surgery, and strong safety John Lynch sidelined by a pinched nerve in his neck, the unit was dramatically shuffled and not a single player lined up at his normal position.
Ronde Barber moved from right cornerback to the left side. Second-year veteran Tim Wansley, nearly torched beyond recognition in the infamous Monday night overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts here three weeks ago, started at right cornerback. Free safety Dwight Smith switched to strong safety and was replaced by Jermaine Phillips, who was making his first regular-season start. Another second-year pro, Corey Ivy, lined up on the outside in "nickel" situations, permitting Barber to play his usual slot cornerback role.
Arguably the NFL's most surprising young team, Dallas entered the matchup featuring a fairly potent aerial game, one in which the top three wide receivers averaged 17.9 yards per catch. The triumvirate of Terry Glenn, Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant had five plays of 40-plus yards and receptions of 21 yards or more in the first six contests of the season. On Sunday, against the patchwork Tampa Bay secondary, the Cowboys outside receivers had an aggregate five catches for 52 yards and Carter's longest completion was on a 28-yard screen pass to tailback Aveion Cason that came late in the game.
"We got a lot of help from the guys upfront, and they pretty much did it straight-up, since we had to protect (the secondary) and not blitz very much," said Barber, who authored a superb performance, with eight tackles, an interception that set up one of three field goals by Martin Gramatica, one other pass defensed and two forced fumbles. "But I thought, for all the moves we had to make in our back end, we played well. I'm really proud of all the young guys for the way they reacted to the pressure."
And make no mistake, for an outfit that preached in training camp the importance of not being known as just the latest Super Bowl one-year wonder, there was plenty of pressure. Tampa Bay had lost each of its first two home games, only the second Super Bowl winner in league history to perform that feat the year after capturing the title, and the Bucs could have fallen another game behind the Carolina Panthers, who keep finding ways to win.
A defeat would have left Tampa Bay below .500 for the first time since the opener of the 2002 season. It would have also marked the first time that the Bucs would have dropped two games in a row during Gruden's stewardship.
Seven times Tampa Bay has lost since Gruden became head coach in 2002. And seven times the Bucs have followed a defeat with a drubbing of the opposition, winning in such rebound contests by an average of 18 points, including four times by 21 points or more.
"No way," said Phillips, "were we going to let that happen. Two straight losses? Uh-uh, not this team, not the guys in this room. I don't care how many of our starters were out (with injuries). We're paid to make plays, not make excuses, right?"
Phillips had the game's first huge turnaround play, when he caught up on a pass where he appeared badly beaten by Galloway, snatched the first interception of his NFL career, and returned the pickoff 41 yards. That led directly to a Gramatica field goal and a 3-0 margin early in the second quarter. Ironically, the first touchdown catch Phillips had in a college career which began with him playing wide receiver at the University of Georgia, came on a Carter throw.
Carter certainly had Galloway open early on the play, but held the ball much too long, and then delivered an effort that was definitely underthrown..
Later in the second quarter, the Cowboys committed an unpardonable error, when cornerback Terence Newman was flagged for running into Gramatica on a 32-yard field goal attempt. The infraction extended the Tampa Bay possession and the sequence concluded with Brad Johnson throwing seven yards to Keyshawn Johnson for the game's lone touchdown.
Nursing a 16-0 lead, and with so many starters on the sideline, the Bucs got conservative offensively, confident the defense would continue to stifle Carter and the Cowboys. The strategy was a good once, since Cowboys coach Bill Parcells seemed to feel, right from the outset of the contest, that Carter would struggle, even against the jerry-rigged Tampa Bay secondary.
Once the Bucs assumed a workable lead, of course, the front four came aggressively at the Dallas quarterback, and he looked unstable and unsteady in the pocket. Rarely did the Cowboys roll Carter away from the pressure, with the "dash" series that had been a part of their five-game winning streak, and it might not have matured much anyway.
Forced to piece together a secondary with baling wire and duct tape, Bucs coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin did an excellent job. And given the pride that still permeates a Tampa Bay locker room where the mood has been dark, but never devastated during the early-season roller coaster ride, no one was shocked at the dominant nature of the performance.
"Look, they're still the Super Bowl champions, and they're not going to just give away that title," said Singleton. "They might have been short of bodies but I knew that they wouldn't be short of pride."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.