Week 2 is in the books and so is another win. The Bucs have started the season 2-0 for the first time since 2010 when they did it with Raheem Morris and Josh Freeman. Back then, they did it by beating the Browns here in Tampa and a bad Panthers team in Carolina. This year, they did it by going into New Orleans and dropping 48 points on the Saints who finished 11-5 while winning the NFC South last season and then beating the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles who finished 2017 with a 16-3 record. And they’ve done all of that with their backup quarterback, virtually no running game, a defense that’s giving up 30 points per game, with the toughest three-game start to a season in the modern Super Bowl era and against all odds and predictions. This team is on the verge of pulling off what nobody thought they would do this season…go 3-0 without Jameis Winston.
So what has gone right in these first two games? Well, Ryan Fitzpatrick has completed an astounding 79% of his passes and only thrown one interception, which wasn’t even his fault (he threw a pass against the Eagles that should’ve been caught by OJ Howard but instead bounced off his hands and into the arms of a waiting Philly defender). He’s also thrown for 819 yards and 8 touchdowns over the first two weeks. There are four Bucs players averaging more than 12 yards per catch in Chris Godwin (12.2), Mike Evans (13.5), OJ Howard (30.0) and DeSean Jackson (30.6). Offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s playcalling has really opened up this offense. They’re taking advantage of mismatches and exposing mistakes in coverage. In the very first play against the Eagles, a play was called for Evans on an underneath route. However, when Fitzpatrick saw that the cornerback covering him was coming on a blitz and one of the safeties was coming up to cover leaving single-high coverage, he took advantage with a perfectly placed ball downfield to Jackson for a 75-yard touchdown. It was a great example of how in sync Fitz and his wide receivers are right now.
The unheralded heroes in this hoopla is the Bucs offensive line. In New Orleans, they didn’t give up a sack. Against Philly, who has one of the best if not the best front four in football right now, they gave up just 2 sacks and one of those was on a linebacker blitz. Not to take anything away from Fitz because he still has to make the right reads and the right throws, but he’s had plenty of time to sit back there and do so these first two games. If this group can get the run blocking on point as well, this offense will be near impossible to stop and the Bucs will be hard to beat.
Looking ahead to the Monday night matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are now 0-1-1 after finishing in a tie with the Browns in Week 1 and losing to the Chiefs 42-37 at home in Week 2, the Bucs have a chance in front of their home crowd and a national television audience to prove that these first two games weren’t a fluke. You’d think that after beating the Saints and Eagles this team would’ve gained a little respect, but they are heading into this game as 2.5 point underdogs to the winless Steelers. Tampa currently possesses the #1 offense in the league (482.5 yards per game), while Pittsburgh has the #2 offense (473.5 yards per game). They’re also numbers 1 and 2 respectively in passing offense (405 and 377.5 yards per game). Even without running back Le’Veon Bell, that offense is still potent. Ben Roethlisberger still has plenty of weapons on that team in wide receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, tight end Jesse James and running backs Steven Ridley and James Conner. That group has put up 58 points so far this season. And that group will be a challenge for an injury-depleted Buccaneers defense who’s been missing starting cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves, defensive tackle Vita Vea, SAM linebacker Kendell Beckwith and could be without defensive tackle Beau Allen and safety Chris Conte who both left Sunday’s game with injuries. That battered defense hasn’t played quite as bad as their ranking lets on. They’re ranked 31st in total and passing defense which is as expected between the injuries to their secondary and the fact that the team has played with a large lead for most of their first two games. However, they are ranked 2nd in run defense allowing just 67 rushing yards per game. Ironically, the Eagles are 1st in that category at 58.5 rushing yards per game. The defensive line is getting better and the pass rush is starting to take shape. Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David are playing good football. The rookie cornerbacks are holding their own as much as can be expected. Ryan Smith has even looked good, especially against Philadelphia. And Justin Evans is really coming into his own as a free safety. This defense is getting better each week. As long as they can stop losing players to injury, they should continue that trend. And this Steelers offense will be a great litmus test to see where they are right now. (UPDATE: The Bucs should be getting cornerback Brent Grimes back for this game and could be getting Vita Vea back as well.)
On the other hand, the Bucs offensive machine stalled out a little bit against a stout Philly defense. Had it not been for the two 75-yard touchdowns to Jackson and Howard, Fitz would’ve had an average 250-yard passing day. The good news for them is that the Chiefs second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes was 23 of 28 for 326 yards and 6 touchdowns against the Steelers defense on Sunday. On the flip side, Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor was just 15 of 40 for 197 yards and 1 touchdown against that same defense in Week 1. So, which Steelers team will show up on Monday night? Maybe the better question is which Ryan Fitzpatrick will show up on Monday night? If the right Fitz shows up, the “FitzMagic” version, it may not matter which defense the Steelers show up with. This is the final game before Jameis Winston’s suspension is over, so he may feel the need to go out with a bang. That is IF he is even actually “out” after this week, but we’ll leave that one alone until after this game is over.
My only concern is the running game. It’s ranked 27th in the league right now with just 155 yards in two games averaging an abysmal 2.7 yards per carry and scoring just 1 touchdown. Their passing attack is plenty potent, but in order to continue winning games, they’ll need the ability to lean on their running game late in the 4th quarter. Peyton Barber hasn’t been able to get things going so far, but he hasn’t exactly had a ton of touches to do so (just 35 attempts). Rookie running back and second-round pick Ronald Jones has been a healthy scratch from both of those games. But this game might just be their chance to get things on track in that department. The Steelers run defense is ranked 30th right now, giving up 152 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry to the Browns and Chiefs. If the Bucs can snag an early lead in the same way they did in their previous two games, they just might be able to close it out by ramming the football down Pittsburgh’s throat.
Tampa hasn’t started 3-0 since 2005 led by Jon Gruden and Brian Griese. In fact, they started 4-0 on their way to an 11-5 season where they lost to the Washington Redskins in the wildcard round of the playoffs. So how possible is 3-0? In my opinion…very much so. I’m not that impressed by what I’ve seen on tape from Pittsburgh. They seem to be dealing with a lot of off-the-field crap between Bell basically giving his team the finger and Brown’s recent tweet daring to be traded. Big Ben is only completing 61% of his passes at 7.8 yards per completion and he’s only thrown 4 touchdowns to his 3 interceptions. Without Bell in the backfield, he’s thrown the ball 101 times already this season including 60 attempts on Sunday against the Chiefs. So which Ben will show up in Tampa? Will it be the one who was 23 of 41 (56%) for 335 yards, 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions against Cleveland? Or will it be the gunslinger Ben who was 39 of 60 (67%) for 452 yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions against Kansas City? We’ll find out Monday night, but I’m not sure it even matters. This Bucs team has tasted victory for two straight weeks. And just like a shark that smells blood in the water, they want more. I think they’ll get just what they want…3-0.
Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!