It’s no secret: when you make mistakes in the NFL, you lose games. Penalties and turnovers are one-way tickets to adding a mark in the “L” column.
The Bucs know this. They went 3-7 in one-score games last season primarily because they made mistakes in both crucial moments and throughout a game on a common basis.
An ability to avoid major mistakes was commonplace throughout the first two games of the 2018 season, but it was rendered absent on Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The game got off to a great start for the Bucs. The defense forced a three-and-out on Pittsburgh’s first possession of the game, but the Steelers returned the favor on Tampa Bay’s subsequent drive.
The defense continued to make plays as Justin Evans read Ben Roethlisberger perfectly and intercepted a pass intended for JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The Bucs began their next drive in great field position at the Steelers’ 39. It only took a few plays until Peyton Barber broke off an 18-yard run all the way down to the Steelers’ four-yard line. Bucs’ tight end Cameron Brate caught his first touchdown of the season on the next play and gave the Bucs the first lead of the game, 7-0.
All of a sudden, Pittsburgh had dug themselves in a hole, but that changed quickly after Roethlisberger found a wide open Vance McDonald coming off a busted coverage. After the reception, McDonald stiff-armed Bucs’ safety Chris Conte into China as he rumbled down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown.
Do not underestimate Vance McDonald's stiff arm.— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 25, 2018
: ESPN pic.twitter.com/yRuGCUEeXz
Fortunately for the Bucs, the Steelers have some kicking woes of their own. Chris Boswell missed the PAT and Tampa Bay avoided the tie, 7-6.
The Bucs were moving the ball well on the next drive, but a nice pass break up by Jon Bostic on O.J. Howard and a sack on the next play took them out of field goal range. The offense had to settle for a Bryan Anger punt that pinned the Steelers at their own eight.
A missed attempt by Bucs’ cornerback Brent Grimes to tip a Roethlisberger pass ended up as a 43-yard completion to JuJu Smith-Schuster. To make matters worse, Gerald McCoy was called for a roughing the passer penalty that tacked on an extra 15 yards.
Good tackling by the defense held the Steelers to a 38-yard field goal as they took the lead, 9-7.
Tampa Bay committed their first turnover of the game on the next drive after Chris Godwin fumbled the ball on a catch and run that would’ve been good for a first down. Pittsburgh took over at the Bucs’ 33 and scored just two plays later when Antonio Brown put Brent Grimes on skates en route to a 27-yard touchdown on a quick pass.
The Steelers now led 16-7 and a sense of urgency had begun to develop on the Tampa Bay sideline.
The next drive got off to a great start as Mike Evans took a pass 27 yards into Steeler territory. A personal foul on the Steelers brought the ball even further down the field and the Bucs looked to be in good shape.
But a Pittsburgh blitz left linebacker Jon Bostic unguarded and Fitzpatrick’s pass was not only tipped at the line of scrimmage, but picked off by Mike Hilton.
The defense held strong on the next drive and forced the Steelers to punt the ball, but the offense still couldn’t find their footing as a miscommunication between Fitzpatrick and Evans resulted in another interception.
Fitzpatrick threw his third - and most costly - pick of the game after another defensive three-and-out, but this time Bud Dupree took it to the house for six and further increased the Steelers’ lead, 23-7.
An amazing 51-yard catch by Evans set the Bucs up with a first-and-goal, but a dropped pass by Godwin in the back of the endzone kept the Bucs to just three points, 23-10.
Roethlisberger was absolutely masterful on the Steelers’ next offensive drive. With just 1:15 left on the clock, he drove the offense down and scored a touchdown in just ten plays to give Pittsburgh a three-score lead at halftime, 30-10.
Could the Bucs mount a second-half comeback with no running game, an inconsistent pass rush and limited pass protection?
The first drive of the second half was a bag of mixed results to say the least. An amazing 2-and-17 pass from Fitzpatrick to Godwin was ruled a 56-yard catch and run for a touchdown after it initially appeared as no one touched him down.
But the replay revealed that Godwin’s shoe clipped the shoulder of Pittsburgh’s Hilton on his way to the ground. The Bucs faced a critical 3rd-and-18 just a few plays later and were able to convert on a short screen pass to Godwin that gave the receiver just enough room to run for the first down.
Tampa Bay’s red zone woes continued, however, as an illegal shift penalty followed by a sack essentially killed the drive and they had to settle for another field goal to cut the lead to 17 and make the score 30-13.
The good news was that the defense received a great amount of rest due to the Bucs’ drive taking 7:53 off the clock, but the bad news was that they failed to score a touchdown in the red zone for the third time (2/5) in this game.
A lack of a pass rush kept the Steelers offense moving on their next drive, but just when Tampa Bay needed a play, they got one. A strip-sack courtesy of Jason Pierre-Paul forced Pittsburgh to attempt a 47-yard field goal by Boswell.
Even though the Bucs didn’t recover the fumble on the strip-sack, the end result was the same as Boswell’s attempt bounced off of the right upright and left the score unaffected.
As it turned out, that was the breath of life that Tampa Bay needed to get back in the ball game.
They drove all the way down to the Steelers’ four-yard line when Fitzpatrick scrambled to his left and chucked a high-arching pass to a wide open Godwin in the back of the endzone.
All of a sudden, it was a game after the Steeler lead was cut down, 30-20.
Pierre-Paul carried on with his day of harassing Roethlisberger in the pocket and the Bucs’ defense held tough once again, but there was an abnormal amount of cheering throughout the stadium - especially for a defensive stop.
As the cameras panned over; viewers - amongst others - realized that it was DeSean Jackson sitting back awaiting the punt.
It turns out that all of the excitement foreshadowed one of the more exciting plays of the game that was unfortunately wiped out due to a penalty. Jackson used his world-class speed to cut through the punt return unit for an electrifying 83-yard touchdown that sent Raymond James into a frenzy.
Fitzpatrick and the offense didn’t let the penalty phase them. Instead, they created big plays of their own, culminating in a beautiful, 24-yard pass to Evans that cut the lead to just one score, 30-27.
FITZMAGIC IS ALIVE!— FanDuel (@FanDuel) September 25, 2018
The Bucs trail the Steelers by 3 after this scoring drive ending in a Mike Evans touchdown pic.twitter.com/GYGdtVksUw
Tampa Bay was in business. Pittsburgh was on its heels. Such is life in the NFL.
But John Conner wasn’t having any of it. On 1st-and-10, Conner immediately broke off a 27-yard run that was the catalyst to finishing the game off for Pittsburgh. Another nine-yard run by Conner and a subsequent quarterback sneak by Roethlisberger further dismantled the Bucs’ chance at a comeback.
The Steelers rushed for a total of 30 yards as a team before that drive. In those three plays, they ran for 37.
The defense held firm on the next three plays which included some excellent coverage by Carlton Davis on Antonio Brown that not only prevented a first-down conversion, but gave the Bucs the ball back with a chance to score.
The offense was red hot and they had scored on their last three possessions. Could they do it one more time?
It was an anti-climatic response as Fitzpatrick and the offense went three-and-out and then watched from the sideline as Big Ben ducked, dodged, and weaved his way out of a McCoy sack in order to complete a throw to the one and only Smith-Schuster to put the final nail in Tampa Bay’s coffin.
Stats from the game:
- Both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mike Evans set new records today. Fitzpatrick is the first quarterback to throw for over 400 yards in three consecutive games, while Evans broke former Bucs’ receiver Jimmie Giles’ all-time receiving touchdowns record.
- Tampa Bay’s red zone issues continued today and were a big reason why they trailed for most of the game. The Bucs were 2/5 on scoring opportunities inside the 20 and were 2/4 in goal-to-go situations.
- The Bucs recorded three sacks and now have seven on the season, good for almost a third of their entire 2017 total. At this pace, they will finish with 37.5 sacks on the season.
- Ben Roethlisberger was a nightmare. He finished 30/38 for 353 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. His ability elude pressure and the fact that it sometimes took three guys to get him down is what hurts you the most, though.
- Not only did Mike Evans pass DeSean Jackson as the team’s leading receiver, but he is just 31 yards away from the leader, Michael Thomas, who has 38 receptions compared to Evans’ 23.