Scouting the Enemy: Steelers

Charlie Batch and Mike Wallace will try to improve the Steelers' 31st ranked passing attack against the Bucs.
Charlie Batch and Mike Wallace will try to improve the Steelers' 31st ranked passing attack against the Bucs. /
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Charlie Batch and Mike Wallace will try to improve the Steelers' 31st ranked passing attack against the Bucs.
Charlie Batch and Mike Wallace will try to improve the Steelers' 31st ranked passing attack against the Bucs. /

As the Buccaneers prepare to for Sunday’s game, standing in the way of their bid for a 3-0 start will be the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are one of the proudest, most historical franchises in the NFL. And their fans, considerate though they always are, will happily remind you that fact stands in stark contrast to the Buccaneers’ rich history. However on Sunday the two teams stand equal, at 2-0 on the young season, as the Steelers will visit Raymond James stadium.

Conventional wisdom would tell you that the Steelers come into this game with an edge. But “conventional wisdom” is based on the ESPN formula for coverage (we’ll get into that another time) which can be fairly bunk. So let’s look at some of the more underscored facts going into this game.

1.) The Steelers are not infallible.

That may sound stupid but a huge part of the Steelers’ success is their mystique. They play fearsome defense, they run the ball down your throat and they are extremely physical. Great. It’s easy to buy into all of that because it gets repeated 150 times a week on ESPN, but this is a team that finished last season with losses to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns. They nearly squandered a game at the end of the season to a 3rd string quarterback running a fraction of the offense down in Miami.

Obviously that was last year, but this isn’t a team that doesn’t drop a few games here and there. Since the off-season Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith have gotten a chance to get healthy and their defense did hold the Titans’ Chris Johnson in check last week. But their offense also only amassed 21 yards passing, failed to score a touchdown and for the day totaled just 127 yards. This is a team which can be beat if you can just generate enough offense. The Titans defensive unit isn’t elite, but they sure didn’t have a tough time stopping the Steelers and their band of backup quarterbacks.

2.) The Steelers aren’t the only team in this game whose defense is back.

While it may be premature to say Tampa’s defense has turned the corner it could also be premature to claim the Steelers defense is back. Truth be told two games is hardly enough of a sample size, but it’s worth mentioning that for all the talk about the Steelers D returning to form, nobody outside of Tampa is mentioning the fact that the Bucs are 2-0 behind a revitalized defense that has forced three turnovers in each of its first two games.

If the Bucs are going to win this game they’re going to need their defense to continue creating turnovers. Of course for that to happen they will need their young defensive front seven to really stymie the Steelers’ run game. Not to mention Cody Grimm is going to need to play well in his first start. Fortunately for Tampa, as has been mentioned, the Steelers offense has hardly been able to muster much of a passing attack.

Defensively for Pittsburgh they can bring the lumber. They forced seven turnovers against an overmatched Titans squad last weekend and held an Atlanta team that hung 41 against the Cardinals last Sunday to under ten points in their opener. As always with the Steelers they play physical, bring a lot of pressure and try to force your offense into mistakes. And even though that’s basically the M.O. for every defense, that’s somehow a trademark of the black and yellow.

3.) The quarterback position is a question mark for one of these teams

Josh Freeman looks to improve to 3-0 as a starter in 2010.
Josh Freeman looks to improve to 3-0 as a starter in 2010. /

Six months ago if you’d said that one of these teams would be facing an issue at quarterback in week three you’d have thought it would be the Bucs in a no-brainer. Not the case. Josh Freeman is growing into his role as the Tampa starter. Through the first two games of his second season he has already thrown for more yards, touchdowns and won more games than his two QB counterparts in the 2009 first round (Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford). While it’s still anything but a sure bet that Freeman turns into an elite QB, he certainly has played well enough to give Bucs fans some confidence going into week three.

On the other sideline Mike Tomlin is waiting for his sexually impulsive starting quarterback to return from his league-mandated hiatus. In his stead, Dennis Dixon, Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch have tried to lead the Steelers offense. The good news is the team is halfway through Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension and currently sits at  2-0. The bad news is the Steelers offense falls somewhere between entirely one-dimensional and anemic. Dennis Dixon has already suffered an injury, the team has resigned Byron Leftwich after cutting him training camp and are turning to Charlie Batch (probably because Tommy Maddox was unavailable) to start on Sunday.

With the 31st rated passing attack in the league and an offensive line that has already seen one backup QB go down and given up 7 sacks thus far in two games, things may not even get better when Big Ben returns. The Steelers let arguably their most dynamic playmaker go when they shipped the troubled Santonio Holmes to the Jets last spring. Hines Ward is a gifted receiver but is relegated to the role of glorified blocker on most downs. Mike Wallace is still unproven in the eyes of the rest of the league and Reshard Mendenhall has had trouble staying healthy. Offensively this Steelers team is hardly a juggernaut.

I’ll have a full preview of the game for you some time tonight. But in the meantime, this is a winnable game for the Bucs if they just play smart football. Hang on to the ball and play for field position. Avoid turnovers and make the Steelers offense drive the whole field to score. Chances are, Pittsburgh can’t drive the whole length of the field and punch in seven. They settled for four field goals against Tennessee last weekend and their lone score came on an Antonio Bryant kick return. If Tampa can control the field position, capitalize on a few offensive shots and keep the Steeler offense facing a long field, they have a very good chance to win this game. Despite what ESPN says.