#STEELERS PREGAME STRETCH: Fitzpatrick’s best chance to beat Pittsburgh

WEEK 3

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (0-1-1) VS. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (2-0)

ESPN, MONDAY, 8:30 P.M., RAYMOND JAMES STADIUM, 65,618

Last week in a nutshell

Headline: STANDING PAT / Rookie Mahomes shreds Steelers clueless defense

Summary: We said last week the repeated 2017 mistakes in the 2018 season opener did not bode well for Pittsburgh and the Steelers doubled down on that in Week 2, making most of those same mistakes again and throwing in a couple of other old favorites – miscommunications on defense and poor game management – for good measure. The result was a very well deserved 42-37 defeat in which Chiefs rookie phenom Patrick Mahomes tossed six touchdowns without an interception and Mike Tomlin short circuited his team’s chance for a comeback by mangling clock management in the contests’ final nine minutes.

Announcers: Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, Booger McFarland and Lisa Salters. We have to admit we’ve paid zero attention to Monday Night Football so far so we’re eager to watch this crew as a blank slate. Tessitore has been excellent on PxP in other settings and McFarland is an entertaining and sharp commentator on some of the talking head shows. Witten was an excellent tight end, that’s all we got on him. Penn State grad Salters is as good as sideline reporters get, which is a compliment to her and a rip on the whole idea of sideline reporting. Also, Col. Jeff Triplette (thank you for your service!) is the rules analyst now for ESPN. Really. We can’t wait.

Weather – or not: Partly cloudy, humid, low 80s. No hurricane this week to worry about, but Florida games always come with the prospect of weather delays and cramping. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Ol’ Blind Pete Morelli. With all the high-profile retirements and defections to the broadcast booth, somehow Ol’ Blind Pete is still sporting an NFL white hat and he and his crew are still screwing up with a Monday night prime time game sounding like prime time for a Morelli Special controversy. Stay tuned. Wanna hear some better news? This crew has called 17 FREAKING PENALTIES PER GAME during the first two weeks of the season and assessed an average of 170 FREAKING YARDS IN PENALTIES per game. Just ridiculous. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: When these two last met in 2014 at Heinz Field, journeyman QB Mike Glennon carved Pittsburgh’s secondary up in an embarrassing 27-24 loss that saw Glennon connect with Vincent Jackson for the game winner with :07 left. (None of that sounds familiar, right?). The last time these teams played in Tampa, the Steelers pummeled the Bucs 38-13 in a game notable for Brett Keisel’s 78-yard interception return for a touchdown.

The line: Pittsburgh -1.5/49.5. Smarts say: Yep, after 67 consecutive disastrous minutes of football from the Steelers, they are still favored on the road against the unbeaten Buccaneers, that’s a 4.5-point spread on a neutral field and more than a touchdown if this game was at Heinz Field! This opened at -2.5, but has held stead heading into the weekend. At the same time, almost 90 percent of bettors were on the over for this game. Put the two together and you get something like Steelers 26-24. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 2nd passing, 20th rushing, 9th scoring (29.0 ppg), 16th sacks allowed (5)

TB defense, 31st passing, 2nd rushing, 28th scoring (31.5 ppg), 18th sacks (4)

When the Buccaneers have the ball:

TB offense, 1st passing, 27th rushing, 2nd scoring (37.5 ppg), 3rd sacks allowed (2)

PIT defense, 14th passing, 30th rushing, 27th scoring (30.5 ppg), 3rd sacks (8)

Giveaway/Takeaway: TB +2 (4th in league); PIT -4 (last in league)

Strength of schedule: TB .250; PIT .667

So…: The Steelers are last in the league in turnover margin and 30th in rush defense and that’s certainly a formula for being winless. There was a lot of talk about Keith Butler’s defense focusing on creating turnovers this year, but we have yet to see anything even resembling that as that unit struggles to even community who’s covering which receiver or which gap right now. Information courtesy www.nfl.com and www.espn.com.

Players on the spot:

Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger

Why: Despite his astronomical stats, #7 was not good again last week, not as terrible as he was in Cleveland, but still startlingly inaccurate, missing probably a dozen throws by “the broad side of a barn” measurements. He was wild high throwing to the end zone and wild long on deep routes. Of course, we was dealing with a banged up elbow and and he did make a bunch of impressive throws, but you heard Dan Fouts gently noting many times that Patrick Mahomes as slinging lasers while Roethlisberger was lofting rainbows. Last week, we mentioned whispers about how close Roethlisberger is to the end of that prime. If he gets outdueled by Ryan Fitzpatrick this week, those whispers get a lot louder. Now, add the Antonio Brown factor into the equation – as all of a sudden, one of football’s most reliable duos over the past five years seem to be on different pages, perhaps in different books – and this is a very important early season tester for the future Hall of Famer.

Tampa Bay: Ryan Fitzpatrick

Why: C’mon, after that brilliant post-game farce last week sporting DeSean Jackson’s wardrobe, the one-time nerdy Harvard grad is now the coolest thing going in pro football AND he’s on the game’s biggest non-postseason stage, a Monday night game. That’s a fair amount of pressure on a journeyman who is 0-5 lifetime against Pittsburgh teams, losing by an average score of 29-14.

Key matchups:

Steelers WRs Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Shuster vs. Bucs CB Brent Grimes and Carlton Davis. Why: Tampa is 31st in the league in pass defense and might be just the remedy Ben Roethlisberger an Brown need to get back on the same page. However, Grimes is returning this week from injury to give the Bucs a boost. Tampa does not like to shadow No. 1 receivers with Grimes so this will become a chess game in terms of maximizing matchups. We saw last week what happens when teams take Brown away with double coverage as Smith-Shuster went wild and was frequently running free. But we also saw a byproduct of that: Brown pouting (and a loss).

Quick hits:

+ The Steelers defense certainly has been putrid in its past few Heinz Field appearance, but the notion that Artie Burns is a bust, floated widely on Pittsburgh sports radio this week by fans and hosts alike, is absurd. Burns has been beaten on a few high-profile plays and he’s certainly not as effective when Joe Haden is out (which would be true for most NFL starting CBs), but he’s a solid to above average corner. If you don’t believe us, listen to Pro Football Focus, which rated him as one of six “high quality” performers on the Steelers roster entering this season. You can debate that rating, but you can’t get all the way to bust.

+ Speaking of bust, we are changing out official line on one Alvin “Bud” Dupree. For most the past four plus years, our fan’s eyes have told us one thing about Dupree’s play (unimpressive) while the Steelers brainstrust has told us another (solid). While it looks to the author of this blog and most reasonable fans who watch the games weekly like Dupree is largely overmatched in the NFL and totally ineffective in the most critical spot on the defense, Mike Tomlin and other Steelers have taken a different tack, claiming Dupree’s duties are different than a traditional edge rusher, he spends a lot of time in pass coverage and he’s doing just fine. Although we still believe the “wisdom crowds” is in the right here and not the wisdom of a handful of experts, we’re going to start taking a different tack. Fine, great, Dupree is doing what he’s supposed to and doing it well. Well, stop it, because it isn’t working. If Dupree is not the problem, then Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin are.

+ It will be interesting (again!) to see if the Steelers kicking game is any better Sunday after Mike Tomlin ripped Jordan Berry’s punting in his press conference then worked out both punters and long snappers before deciding to stick with his veterans for at least one more week. Berry’s directional punting certainly kept Tyreek Hill out of the game as a returner. Unfortunately, that was largely because the kicks were going out of bounds 10-15 yards in front of Hill. Also, we mentioned in the last two blogs that a couple of snaps looked shaky in the placekicking game and the Steelers braintrust must have felt the same.

+ We made this point about Mike Tomlin on the radio last week and we want to revisit it here because we think it’s an important dynamic: The question with Tomlin should no longer be “would he quickly be hired by other NFL teams if he were let go by Pittsburgh?” Obviously (ha!), he would. The question for the Rooneys has to be “Is this coach moving our franchise toward winning another Super Bowl?” Now, we are not advocating yet that Tomlin and the Steelers should part ways. We are saying the standard for discussing that can’t be “Well, the Giants would hire him in a second.”

+ Tampa’s No. 1 pick Vita Vae, the massive defensive tackle from Washington, is expected to see his first action of the season Monday night after battling a calf injury since training camp. Their No. 2 pick Ronald Jones, the RB from USC, has yet to play.

The pick: Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. Fool us three times, we must be trying to figure out the Steelers. Surely, this is the week they’ll get their #$^% together, right? Right? We’re not so sure. The injuries on the offensive line, especially if Marcus Gilbert can’t go, are concerning. The quarterback’s inaccuracy (while throwing for nearly 800 yards in two games!) is concerning as are his road woes. The defensive confusion is concerning. If we were betting with real money, we’d take Tampa and the points, but since this is funny money… wait, who are we kidding? That’s (another) recipe for disaster… Tampa Bay 42-28.

Last week: Welp, looks like we’re going to have the same kind of year as the Steelers. Our pick of Pittsburgh by 13 was obviously way off base, leaving us 0-1-1 straight up and 0-2 vs. the spread.

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