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Week 3 Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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When the Pittsburgh Steelers collide with the Tampa Bay Buccaneer tomorrow at Raymond James Stadium, there will be more of a common thread than just two 2-0 teams looking to continue their unblemished seasons.  It'll be a display of the stingiest scoring defenses of the AFC ( 20 Pts allowed, along with Miami) and the NFC (21 pts allowed).  Stingy will be the key word of the day on Sunday, as points should be at a premium, given the Bucs recent struggles establishing an ground game and Pittsburgh struggling to get the passing game going without Ben Roethlisberger. Due to the attrition of Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon from injury, 35-year old QB Charlie Batch will be getting the start for Pittsburgh Sunday, which is a boon for a Buccaneer defense sporting a gaping hole at its Free Safety spot following the suspension of Tanard Jackson. 

The Buccaneer offense comes into Week 3 off a veteran-esque performance from its 2nd-year QB Josh Freeman. Josh avoided pressure, read his progressions quickly and accurately, and, most importantly, avoided making a mistake and putting his defense in a tough spot.  Given the success the Steelers have had stopping the run and the struggles the Buccaneers have had running the ball, Freeman will likely be called upon to move the offense once again.  If the Buccaneers are to win Sunday, he'll have to repeat his performance in Carolina and avoid putting his defense in a bad position.

When Pittsburgh Has the Ball......Batch and the passing game were absolutely atrocious against the Titans, as Batch ended up 5/11 for 25 yards and in the arms of Titan defenders for 2 sacks.  Accordingly, the Titans were able to focus on stopping Rashard Mendenhall and the running game, which they did by limiting him to 3 ypc.  In Week 1, the Falcons were able to hold Mendenhall to 70 yards rushing before he ripped off a 50-yard game-winner in overtime, which happens to be the only offensive TD they've scored this season!  This week, the sledding could be tough again for the Steeler running game, as G Trai Essex will miss the game with an ankle injury and T Max Starks and G Chris Kemoeatu will likely play with respective ankle and knee injuries.  They will have to take the pressure off the running game by testing the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Cody Grimm deep with long-ball threat Mike Wallace and reliable TE Heath Miller.

When Tampa Bay Has the Ball.......The Steelers have allowed 104 combined rushing yards against Atlanta and Tennessee so far. That's quite the accomplishment, given those offenses. Exhibit A - Chris Johnson put up a meager 34 yds last week. This week, NT Casey Hampton will be back in the middle in front of ILBs James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons. Mix in Jeff Faine's calf injury, and you've got the recipe for a struggling Buccaneer running game to find the sledding even tougher on Sunday. However, given the struggles of the Steeler offense to date and Josh Freeman's big arm, the absence of an effective running game might not be a killer.

As such, the Buccaneers will have to mix up their playcalling and formations, even if they struggle against the run, to keep an aggressive Steeler defense honest. Spread out the defense with shotgun formations and run the ball. Mix in some play action for a change. Hit a screen pass to Caddy to counteract Dick Lebeau's aggressive blitzing. Throw the football out of power formations and try to get Mike Williams in one-on-one man coverage with Taylor/McFadden and take a shot deep; get Winslow on a linebacker. Basically keep that Steeler defense guessing. That's a tall task against a Hall of Fame coach like Dick Lebeau.

Pittsburgh Can Win If.........they do what they did last week --- give Josh Freeman the Vince Young treatment and create a short field for Batch to work with. Polamalu is a terror in the middle of the field, so Freeman will have to account for him on every mid-range pass he makes between the hash marks. Locking onto a receiver against this secondary is absolutely fatal.

Tampa Bay Can Win If...........they can keep the good times rolling with their run defense. The Buccaneer linebackers have been active and played smart football, staying in their gaps and, if not making the play, forcing the runner to go elsewhere. If they can keep Mendenhall in check, Charlie Batch, although a veteran who won't make the mistake of a player like Dennis Dixon, does not have the arm to carry this team far. As talented as the PIT defense is, the TB defense will need to create some short fields for their offense.  On offense, the Buccaneers will have to keep Josh Freeman upright, which is easier said than done against complex and aggressive blitz packages Dick Lebeau can put together.

Steeler to Keep an Eye on........Troy Polamalu.  Pretty obvious choice here. One of the best all-around safeties football players I've ever seen play the game and freakishly instinctive.  With 2 INTs already and facing a young quarterback who is still learning not to lock onto his receivers, Polamalu could be the X-factor that creates the breaks and turnovers that could swing this game in Pittsburgh's favor.

Buccaneer to Keep an Eye on.........Barrett Ruud. He's responsible for getting fellow defenders set and helping to stop that Steeler running game up the middle.  He'll also be active in pass coverage in the middle 5-15 yard range.  He'll be the linchpin of that defense on Sunday and needs to play well.

Line: Pittsburgh -2.5

My Prediction: Pittsburgh 13, Tampa Bay 10.  In a tight game where one play can determine the outcome, I like the chances of the the veteran Pittsburgh defense to make that happen.