By Patrik Nohe
Race is always such an uncomfortable topic, it’s brought up so frequently in reference to negative events and precedents that the mere mention is oftentimes considered taboo. But one thing you so rarely hear the Buccaneers organization commended for is what has now become a strong legacy of good, equal hiring practices. If anything, I think that’s a legacy Tony Dungy and to some extent Rich McKay left in place before leaving Tampa, but arguably no organization in football has done more recently to help the advancement of African American coaches.
Regardless of personal views, the league has seen fit to mandate a rule requiring all coaching searches to include at least one minority candidate. Tony Dungy was instrumental in the implementation of that guideline. It should be obvious why. Since Tony Dungy was the head coach in Tampa, the Buccaneers organization have helped employed Lovie Smith, Herm Edwards, Mike Tomlin and Raheem Morris. All of whom have gone on to become head coaches. Today in Tampa two of Dungy’s disciples will face off in a battle of unbeatens.
Mike Tomlin is a tenacious young Superbowl winning head coach whose team prides itself on physical football, a smashmouth defense and rushing attack. Raheem Morris is a tenacious young coach whose team shares the physical, smashmouth defensive philosophy, but needs to find an offensive identity moving forward. Today both teams are looking to assert themselves and improve to 3-0.
Steelers Offense vs. Buccaneers Defense
Talking to a friend of mine from a Patriots blog the other day he mentioned the Steelers had done well to get to 2-0 and when Big Ben came back, and with that defense, the Steelers would be a force. I disagreed. They may prove me wrong today but so far this offense has been atrocious. Without Big Ben the Steelers rate just 31st in passing. The team is now on their third quarterback, after Dennis Dixon was injured last week against the Titans. So far the offensive line is responsible for giving up 7 sacks on the young season, most of those coming with the very fleet-footed Dixon taking the snaps. That number should go up as the flat-footed Charlie Batch steps in to take over.
At any rate, that passing attack managed a meager 21 yards last Sunday. Before Tanard Jackson decided to go make bad decisions I don’t know that I wouldn’t have taken the Tampa secondary over Tennessee’s. Now with Cody Grimm stepping into the line-up the secondary is a bit of a question mark, but if I had to pick one passing attack to break the rookie in against, this might be the one. Though, realistically, it may be difficult to hold the Steelers below their dreadful total from week 2, I don’t think the Steelers are going to have much fun trying to throw consistently on the Bucs D.
That makes the rushing attack paramount for the Steelers, Rashard Mendenhall is a runner in the true Steeler mold, he’s fast, tough and strong. He can run between the tackles but he can break the big one too as the Falcons found out when he scored the game winner against them in week one. Unfortunately, unless the Steelers can prove to Tampa that they can indeed throw competently, the Bucs will load up and shut down the Steelers running game. This offseason the Buccaneers addressed the middle of their defensive line in a big way and today is the day they’ll really get an idea of the early returns. I like the make up of this young team though.
Player to Watch: Mike Wallace, WR Pittsburgh
If the Steelers are going to have a big day, Wallace is going to need to be the X-factor. Hines Ward is still a very talented receiver but hasn’t been a number one in some time. Last year Wallace showed flashes that he could be the guy, averaging nearly 20 yards a catch and hauling in 6 touchdowns as a rookie. This year through two games he has just four receptions. If Wallace can make a few big plays for the Steelers, the Bucs’ defense will have to loosen up and the Steelers will be able to play their ground-and-pound style effectively.
Advantage: Buccaneers Defense
The Bucs secondary has created three turnovers in each of its games this season. I think they’ll play physical, force at least a couple more turnovers today and hold the Steelers offense at bay throughout the afternoon.
Steelers Defense vs. Bucs Offense
Tampa needs to take a look at its definition of a successful offensive drive for this game. This Steelers defensive unit is healthy again and it’s looking to be truly elite. Troy Polamalu has reinvigorated the Steelers secondary, Aaron Smith is playing at a high level again and Lawrence Timmons looks to have blossomed into a star, recording 26 tackles in the first two games. This isn’t a game Tampa is going to have much success on long drives, realistically, a field goal is a very successful outcome on any drive that starts inside the Bucs’ own 35. And there’s nothing wrong with just reversing field position on a drive starting from the 20.
What Tampa needs to concentrate on doing is taking care of the ball and playing for field position if it has to. Josh Freeman needs to be very careful not to make poor decisions and leave the Tampa D with its back to the wall. It’s always challenging with a young quarterback when you say, “go play, but be careful.” You end up getting a quarterback who looks scared to pull the trigger a lot of times, not unlike Mark Sanchez in week one against Baltimore. What Freeman can’t afford to do is throw into double coverages or take chances though, as tough as that is for a young QB he has to try to avoid it. There’s nothing wrong with throwing it away or even taking a sack, then punting as opposed to making a risky throw that ends up in a Steelers’ hands. Fortunately, Pittsburgh isn’t going to have much luck driving the length of the field either.
Then the other half of what the Bucs need to do is be opportunistic. When they get good field position, or a big play or a turnover, the Bucs need to capitalize and turn it into points. This defense has proven to be pretty talented at taking the ball away. Chances are the Bucs will see a couple of good opportunities to score points off of turnovers. They may get some deep looks, those are the only shots I feel comfortable with Freeman taking, you throw a deep interception it’s basically just a punt, but so far Freeman and Bucs offense have been pretty effective with the deep ball and at the very least the threat will loosen up the Steelers D and give a little more room to the struggling rushing attack. The rushing attack will be integral in this game. Even if Tampa isn’t picking up chunk yardage, they have to stick with it or the Steelers will pin their ears back and go after Freeman.
This may sound incredibly conservative, but arguably the Steelers best offensive weapon is their defense and special teams. They didn’t score an offensive touchdown last week. In week one they scored just one, and not in regulation. But one bad throw, a tipped ball, any little thing and that defense can hang seven on you or at least put the ever-dependable Jeff Reed in range of a field goal. Make Pittsburgh earn every point it gets. Part of that is playing smart offensively against an extremely aggressive, extremely talented Steelers D.
Player to Watch: Josh Freeman, QB Tampa Bay
If Josh Freeman plays a good game the Bucs can win today. Freeman is an extremely gifted young quarterback, but with youth comes mistakes. The Bucs are riding high at 2-0, Freeman thus far has looked extremely good on the young season, but facing a good defense in the Steelers he needs to be extremely careful that he plays within himself, doesn’t try to do too much and stays composed. It’s a lot harder to get away with improvising on a broken play against a defense like the Steelers. Freeman has to play well for the Bucs to win.
Advantage: Steelers Defense
Sorry, this defensive unit is good. I hope for the best for Josh Freeman but this defense can chew up and spit out elite quarterbacks, it’s a tall order for a second year guy on an up-and-coming team.
If Jeff Reed is your fantasy kicker, chances are you are loving him and the Steelers ineptitude on offense right now. So far this season Reed has attempted 9 field goals in two games and hit seven. Anything inside of about 45 yards is pretty automatic for Reed, and the Steelers clearly rely on him heavily. On the other side Connor Barth is 3 for 3 and has proven to be more than a serviceable kicker for Tampa.
The return game for Pittsburgh has yielded as many touchdowns as their offense. Former Buc Antonio Bryant returned a kickoff against the Titans last weekend and the Steelers return game is a legitimate threat to house one if the Bucs special teams don’t honor their responsibilities every time they kick. Fortunately for the Bucs, Michael Spurlock is a pretty good return guy in his own right.
It really boils down to the punters in my opinion though. The Steelers have a bit of an edge in this department. While the Buccaneers’ own Chris Bryan averages nearly 42 per punt, the Steelers’ punter, Daniel Sepulveda can absolutely boom it, he averages just over 46 per punt. As negligible as four yards seems, it does give a slight edge in the department to Pittsburgh.
Player to Watch: Antonio Bryant, WR Pittsburgh
Bryant is probably pretty hungry after being cut from by the Bengals in embarrassing fashion. He had a blistering return last week, chances are he’ll have some incentive to show his old team something this week. The Bucs need to be careful on special teams because one play is all it takes to put them in a hole.
This one is probably a push, I’m just amused that Jeff Reed on the young season accounts for 22 points. The rest of the Steelers offense: 6.
Final Prediction: Steelers 21, Buccaneers 20
This one will be close, but in the end I think the Steelers will eke this one out. Hopefully I’m wrong, a win here would be a huge statement for this young Buccaneers squad. But it might be wishful thinking. The Bucs keep it close but the Steelers will edge them out in the end.