Bucs’ Second Half Comeback Falls Short Against Steelers

Buccaneers take their first loss of the 2018 season

Under the lights of both the stadium and the television cameras, some teams just perform differently. On Monday night, both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Pittsburgh Steelers both struggled at times, but when the offensive showcase ended it was the Steelers on top 30-27. The Buccaneers were handed their first loss of the season.

It was a late-arriving crowd on Monday night, a rarity for the NFL and even more so for a Monday night game. A severe thunderstorm around 6:00 shut down the parking lots around Raymond James Stadium temporarily, snarling traffic along Dale Mabry to the point that it could take over an hour to get from the highway to the parking lot.

Monday night’s affair was a sloppy one. The pregame storm created a bit of a mess on the field, with even top engineers not being able to do much about that much water hitting the turf in that short a period of time. Kickers and punters struggled to get the requisite distance on their kicks, Players struggled to hold onto the ball.

In particular, this did not bode well for Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Buccaneers’ starter, coming off of two historically good games, had trouble handling the Steelers’ strong pass rush, and it led to the kind of poor decision making that all but defined last year’s Buccaneers offense. Combine that with a sloppy field and slippery football, and it led to turnovers.

One cannot ignore that two of Fitzpatrick’s interceptions were essentially unforced errors. The Buccaneers’ quarterback overthrew Mike Evans in the second quarter for a baffling pick, and later on a rushed throw toward Jacquizz Rodgers was picked off for an easy Pittsburgh touchdown.

The other turnovers, however, cannot be easily packaged as the product of a quarterback that people might not want. Chris Godwin fumbled after a reception that would have led to a first down near midfield. The Steelers scored a touchdown on the ensuing play. A very promising drive in the second quarter could have given Tampa Bay the lead back, but good pass rushing on the part of the Steelers forced a deflection that led to an interception.

Blame matters little in the end, as the Buccaneers turned the football over on four straight second quarter drives. Before that, the score was 9-7 in favor of the Steelers. Four drives later, it was 23-7. With one more touchdown before the half, aided by a defense that just struggled to tackle throughout the night, the Steelers were up 30-10 at halftime.

“Over” was tossed around a lot around halftime, both in the stands and on Twitter. The game was “over.” Fitzpatrick’s time as a starter was “over.” The honeymoon with the new Bucs offense and Todd Monken’s playcalling was “over.”

Then the second half began.

After a halftime ceremony where Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy was inducted to the team’s Ring of Honor, Tampa Bay came out energized. They adjusted their offense to deal with what Pittsburgh was doing so well against them, and put together a defensive second half game plan that kept the Bucs in the game.

Whatever people may or may not think “Fitzmagic” is, it came out in the third and fourth quarters. With a deficit so bad that Bucs fans were starting to give up, the passing game came back into full gear.

The Steelers did not score a point after halftime. Ryan Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, went from 184 first half yards to 411 total on the night. In all, he threw for three touchdowns to the Buccaneers and one to the Steelers. Unforced errors aside, Fitzpatrick helped bring the Buccaneers’ offense back.

Make no mistake: Winning and losing in the NFL are both a team effort. While Fitzpatrick had some regrettable moments that contributed greatly to the Steelers winning the game, he was not the only member of the Buccaneers who made costly mistakes. Godwin’s fumble came at a time when the Buccaneers seemed to be gaining momentum. A second half punt return for DeSean Jackson could have been a touchdown but for a holding penalty that did not have much in the end to do with the actual return, the kind of off-the-ball penalty that can drive coaches insane.

Tackling was a major issue defensively. Coverage was as well, but a lot of leeway can be given to a secondary loaded with rookies and Brent Grimes coming off an injury. Under those circumstances one would expect teams to throw well on Tampa Bay. The surprising part was the ease with which Steelers bounced defenders right off of them en route to big plays. Vance McDonald caught a pass early in the game, and ran through Chris Conte without much of a fight, scoring a 75 yard touchdown mostly on Yards After Catch. More missed tackles enabled the Steelers to continue drives, kill clock, and early in the game continue scoring points.

Another continuing problem for the Buccaneers is the run game. Tampa Bay gave the ball to running backs just sixteen times on Monday night, largely because how badly they were trailing. In three games, Tampa Bay has produced 218 yards of rushing on 73 attempts. Both are well into the bottom half of the NFL.

Some of that has to do with the backs themselves, but the offensive line did not perform as tremendously as they did in weeks one and two. Either due to the Steelers simply playing better defensively than either the Eagles or the Saints did, or the Buccaneers simply not playing as well on the sloppy field while Ryan Jensen battles illness, the offensive line protection was just not there on Monday night. This had a profound effect on both the running game and on Fitzpatrick, showing a more shaky side of the Bucs’ offense than what we had seen to that point.

“They did a great job creating and forcing the turnovers,” said Ryan Fitzpatrick after the game, “but for us it was ‘let’s go out there and play, let’s go out there and play and see what happens.’”

This brings the conversation back to the near-comeback and what it might mean. The first thing it might mean is that the Steelers could really use LeVeon Bell, and if they don’t want him the Buccaneers might want him instead. Pittsburgh only produced 78 yards on the ground, and it is hard to believe the Buccaneers would have been so close to taking the game away had they been able to produce more.

We have seen this from the Pittsburgh Steelers in recent years. After a slow start and a particularly hard-to-swallow loss, hard questions are asked of the core stars of the team, one of those stars goes into the press and says some discouraging things about the way things are going, we in the football media run with it to an unreal degree, and then Pittsburgh wins a somewhat convincing game against a team that had previously looked pretty good.

While the Buccaneers did their share to lose the game on Monday night, Pittsburgh’s offense was up to the task of winning it. McDonald’s broken tackle and run for a touchdown was just their first score of the game, but it was emblematic of an overpowering passing game that was smart enough to take advantage of the Buccaneers’ injury-weakened secondary. It was a bad night to be a rookie cornerback, as the Steelers tend to produce world-class pass targets without much effort.

The Steelers’ most glaring flaw on Monday night was their special teams unit. There were missed kicks, with Chris Boswell missing both a field goal and an extra point on the night, but it was the penalties that really hamstrung Pittsburgh. They committed repeated penalties on kickoffs and punts, ceding field position to the Buccaneers in a number of ways. A facemask penalty on a kickoff turned a short return into good Tampa Bay field position. A penalty during a punt changed field position from the Buccaneers starting at their own one yard line to starting at the twenty after a touchback. Twice, Tampa Bay kicked off from midfield because of Steeler penalties.

While no fan would claim to like referees in either theory or practice, anyone who watches football knows what a tough job The Striped Ones are tasked with. Rules change every year, sometimes drastically, with focuses on enforcement going along with them.

Perhaps some forgiveness is in order for the amount of penalty flags in the NFL so far.

In an effort to boost player safety—most notably the safety of players at the most talked-about position in team sports—the league is trying to enforce roughing the passer penalties to discourage hits that could injure quarterbacks. In concept, this is a wonderful idea that anyone would agree with on the surface. In practice, both writing rules to protect players from injury and enforcing those rules can be awfully tricky.

The Buccaneers were flagged for roughing the passer for a hand touching Ben Roethlisberger’s helmet. Only he and the player whose hand met that modified symbol of US Steel will know just how hard that contact truly was, but the flag certainly cast a light on all the people unhappy with the new enforcement of these rules.

At the same time, what are those wearing the striped coat of thick skin supposed to do? The league wants them enforcing contact rules. What’s more, some of the more common ones these days, such as a penalty for falling on a quarterback with all a player’s weight, have been in place for decades.

While the Buccaneers got the worse of this, the Steelers were also flagged multiple times for roughing penalties that would have made guys like Reggie White into walking penalty flags.

There may be a better way to tackle people. Unfortunately, the players in the league right now did not grow up learning to tackle that way. There are still a lot of players in the NFL who came up as defensive talent that aim to tackle the way John Lynch did, the way Rod Woodson did. Woodson is in the Hall of Fame and Lynch should be, but the days of hitting like they and so many others did have passed.

It could be years until players can truly adjust to these contact rules.   Some players never will, getting flag after flag after flag thrown their way all the way up to their retirement ceremony.

Likewise, the refs also have to adjust. These are, after all, part time employees of the NFL. While spending the offseason working professions of their own, these individuals have to learn a changing rulebook almost on the fly.

Until the players, or the refs, or the league adjusts to these penalties, expect them. They are a way of life. It makes a person wonder if, for the time being, a strong pass rush is as much of a curse as it has always been a blessing. What could have been a game-changing sack or fumble or both can turn into a new set of downs and better field position easier than ever, just ask the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jameis Winston is now the focus of discussion, for good and for ill. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s perforance on Monday was, to say the least, up-and-down. He threw for 411 yards on the evening with three touchdowns, but there were also three interceptions, only one of which is easily written off as not really a quarterback’s doing. One of the unforced errors became a pick-six, without which the game would have been drastically different.

Still, in today’s NFL quarterbacks are judged by many on wins and losses. The Buccaneers lost the game, and as a result questions now swirl around a man who was a sensation on Monday morning. In reality it is and always was unlikely that Fitzpatrick would be named the team’s full-time starter at quarterback. The Bucs have too much invested in Winston, and as good as Fitzpatrick has been few would suggest he was doing it alone.

The most plausible scenario involves Fitzpatrick starting on Sunday in Chicago, as it is a short week and the Buccaneers have a bye thereafter. When they’re back in action week six, Jameis Winston is almost certainly going to be the starting quarterback if he is fit to play. Yet, for myriad reasons only some of which involve passing footballs, the phrase “quarterback controversy” is on Tampa Bay’s periphery.

Tampa Bay’s 2-1 start is both surprising and encouraging. Buccaneers fans who came into the season dreadful will head into week four largely optimistic, even after the loss. Now is the time for the next step, as their intended starting quarterback begins to return from a suspension. Expectations, fair or not, are going to be high.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.