Okay guys and gals, Monday night sucked. For me, it started when it took me two hours to get from the Himes exit off of I-275 south to my parking lot on the south end of the stadium causing me to miss the entire first quarter of the game. It ended with a 3-point loss to the winless Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football. The 30-27 loss was the Bucs first of the year and gave them a 2-1 record during Jameis Winston’s 3-game suspension, which nobody outside of One Buc Place was expecting at all. Tampa was facing the toughest 3-game stretch to start a season in the modern Super Bowl era based on the previous year’s records, which was a combined 37-11 record between the Saints, Eagles and Steelers. Most of the “experts” predicted them to go 0-3 or maybe 1-2 through that stretch. Ryan Fitzpatrick and the rest of the Buccaneers were expecting nothing less than 3-0 at this point. Last night, they fell just short of that mark.
Most athletes and coaches will tell you that there’s no such thing as a “moral victory” in a loss. If you do believe in them (like I do), there were plenty of positive things in this game for Bucs fans to be excited about. We’ll just start with the records first. Fitz became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 400 yards in three consecutive games. Yes, you read that right… first QB in NFL history. But as Dirk Koetter eluded to in his postgame press conference, I’m sure that he’d give up that record for a win. Mike Evans also set a franchise record for touchdown receptions (35). That catch also made him and DeSean Jackson the first teammates in NFL history with 300+ receiving yards and 3 touchdowns in their team’s first three games of the season. Another positive we can take from the offense was that running back Peyton Barber averaged over 4 yards per carry. Unfortunately, being down early didn’t allow the Bucs the chance to run the football very much and he finished with just 8 carries for 33 yards. The offensive line struggled to protect Fitz in the first half, but they did play better in the second half which showed up in the offensive stat line.
As for the game itself, the Bucs coughed up 4 turnovers (3 interceptions, 1 fumble) in the second quarter and spotted Pittsburgh a 20-point halftime lead. The Steelers had an interception return for a touchdown and got the ball back on the Bucs 35-yard line on two occasions from turnovers. Despite that, they fought their way back in the second half to make a game out of it. They lost by 3 points, but they had an opportunity to score a bunch more. The refs even helped take away a few here and there. The “incidental” touching of Chris Godwin’s toenail on a piece of Steelers jersey thread took away a touchdown. The “no-call” on the mugging of Mike Evans in the endzone that would’ve given the Bucs the ball on Pittsburgh’s 1-yard line. And then there’s the “hold” by Isaiah Johnson about 15 minutes before DeSean Jackson’s punt return for a touchdown. The Bucs hurt themselves plenty of times too. Fitz threw a pick inside the Pittsburgh 10-yard line that bounced off a helmet high into the air before being caught by a Steeler defender that would’ve resulted in some points. Another redzone trip where the Bucs had 1st and goal on the Pitt 5-yard line was stopped by a ghost hold on center Ryan Jensen and they had to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown. The Bucs had plenty of opportunities and left a ton of points on the board scoring on just two of their five trips in the redzone in a game where they only lost by 3 points. In fact, they scored points on just two of their four goal-to-go drives, meaning inside the 10-yard line.
Even defensively it wasn’t as bad as the score and stat line indicated. Sure they gave up 30 points and 353 passing yards to Ben Roethlisberger, but they held Antonio Brown to 6 catches for 50 yards (one of those was the 27-yard touchdown) and the Steelers only rushed for 78 total yards on 22 carries for a 3.5 yards per carry average. Juju Smith-Schuster had 9 catches for 116 yards, but one of those was a 43-yarder meaning his other 8 catches went for 73 yards. The “Conte killer” tight end Vance McDonald had 4 catches for 112 yards, but one of those was the 75-yard touchdown catch meaning his other 3 catches went for 36 yards. Besides keeping the running game in check, the Bucs d-line also got decent pressure on Big Ben with 9 QB hits and 3 sacks (Jason Pierre-Paul had 2, Gerald McCoy and Vinny Curry split the other). They also had 5 tackles for loss including 3 TFL’s for linebacker Lavonte David. Unfortunately, it was when the Bucs blitzed that Big Ben did most of his damage. He was 10 of 12 for 162 yards, threw all three of his touchdowns and had a perfect 158.3 QB rating against the blitz on Monday night. On the flip side, the Bucs held the Steelers potent offense scoreless on four possessions in the second half giving them a chance to win in the end.
The time of possession was about the same with a slight edge going to the Steelers (30:21 to 29:39), but the Bucs led in nearly every other statistical category. They had more first downs (28 to 22), better 3rd down efficiency (33% to 27%), more total yards (455 to 413), more net rushing yards (69 to 63), more passing yards (392 to 335), fewer punts (3 to 5) and fewer penalties (9 for 80 yards to 13 for 155 yards). It was just that really terrible second quarter that the Bucs couldn’t quite overcome. It was a very uncharacteristic first half of football that the Buccaneers had avoided playing in their first two games. In Dirk Koetter’s own words, they beat themselves in that first half with poor protection up front and turnovers galore.
All I’m saying is calm down. Not too many people thought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be 2-1 without Jameis. The offense scored 27 points and probably should’ve had another 40 point game. The defense is improving despite starting or heavily playing three rookies in their secondary. Koetter said that Carlton Davis played a great game on Monday night. Justin Evans had an interception. MJ Stewart and Jordan Whitehead are playing solid football. Ryan Smith didn’t even play a defensive snap against the Steelers after having arguably his best game as a pro against Philly last week. I know that they’re giving up 400 yards per game through the air, but Monday was Brent Grimes first game back and they’re playing without Vernon Hargreaves and they finished the Steelers game without starting safety Chris Conte who is now on IR. With the exception of Grimes, this secondary is young and still learning and the future looks bright for this group.
As for the defensive line, we still have yet to see that group at full strength. Rookie Vita Vea is back practicing and will hopefully be playing soon. Beau Allen was out for the Steelers game and sorely missed. Mitch Unrein is on IR and who knows if he’ll be back or not. The free agent signings of Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry seem to be paying dividends with their combined 4.5 sacks in 3 games. This team already has 7 sacks on the year, which is on pace for 35+ sacks for the season after totaling just 22 sacks last year. And as well as Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander have played so far, we forget that starting SAM linebacker Kendell Beckwith still hasn’t even played yet. Once this defense gets to be full strength and hits their groove, then I expect big things from them.
So Bucs Nation, just breath in and breath out. Everything will be just fine. It feels like the team has the right mindset this year. Much different than last year’s team that quit against the Cardinals in Arizona, this team kept fighting on Monday night and almost pulled off a comeback for the ages. No matter who is under center come Sunday (probably Fitzpatrick again), this team will be in good hands. And if, dare I say when they come out of Chicago with a “W” we’ll forget all about that brutally ugly second quarter on Monday night and that loss to the Steelers.
Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!