We’re at the point in the season where the teams that start [insert record] have a [insert percentage] of qualifying for the postseason stories are a ubiquitous part of the NFL news cycle; here’s one, which explains that teams who start 0-3 have about a three percent chance of turning things around and making the playoffs. While the aforementioned study doesn’t take ties into consideration, I think it’s safe to ascertain that teams who are winless—such as a team with, say, an 0-2-1 record—entering Week 4 are in trouble. I guess this is kind of a roundabout way of saying that the Steelers, who tied the Browns (who actually are maybe good?) and lost to the Chiefs (who are absolutely incredibly good) in Weeks 1 and 2, are facing somewhat of a must-win situation against Tampa Bay tonight. In Tampa. Against the 2-0 Bucs. Whose offense is red-hot and whose quarterback is playing out of his mind.
Yes, yes, the quarterback.
Ryan Fitzpatrick looks like the final boss from the next Far Cry game and has transformed Tampa’s vertical passing attack into arguably the league’s most formidable outfit. Of course, none of this should come as much of a surprise; the Bucs were trendy Super Bowl contenders last season specifically because of the strength and multidimensionality of their passing attack, and Fitzpatrick has somewhat of a penchant playing really, really well when he’s handed the keys to a new offense. More accurately, Fitzpatrick has always been a gunslinger, and he’s now playing within a system and alongside the personnel that best accentuates his gunslinging attributes.
It’s an offense laden with playmakers. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better duo of deep-ball playmakers in the NFL than Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, and there aren’t many tight ends who can get upfield quicker than O.J. Howard, either. Chris Godwin has emerged as a reliable tertiary receiver, and tight end Cameron Brate, who’s amassed 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns over the past two seasons, hasn’t even been needed this season, having only been targeted twice through two games. And we haven’t mentioned the backfield, which features the highly-underrated Peyton Barber and second-round pick Ronald Jones III. Having to face off against this lot just a week after trying to contain the Chiefs and their overflowing font of offensive firepower isn’t fair.
Much like Kansas City, Tampa’s secondary is missing its best player (cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who will miss the remainder of the 2018 season with a bad shoulder), so, if the Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger to throw 60 passes again, he should find success doing so. Still, there’s a lot to like about Tampa’s defense. Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David are Pro Bowl linebackers, and Gerald McCoy might be the best defensive tackle in the league not named Aaron Donald. Jason Pierre-Paul is here now.
What should concern you most about the Bucs is that each of their wins this season have come against 2017 division winners. They nearly hung 50 on the Saints in New Orleans in Week 1 and convincingly dispatched the Super Bowl-winning Eagles in Week 2. This is a remarkable, stunning turn of events. In recognition of the misfortunes that general befall 0-3 teams, experts and laypeople alike wrote the Bucs off the day the schedule was released. This team finished 5-11 last season; hardly anyone could’ve imagined that this group would escape their treacherous early-season stretch against New Orleans, Philly, and Pittsburgh with even a single win, let alone two or three. They should be favored against a Steelers teams that’s failed mightily to live up to its lofty preseason expectations.
Prediction: Bucs 30, Steelers 27
I hope I’m wrong about this particular game, but I just have a feeling that next week is gonna be when the Steelers finally turn the corner. The Bucs’ vertical passing attack is a major concern, and Pittsburgh’s performance (or lack thereof) against Kansas City provided no assurances that this outfit is capable of abating dynamic playmakers.
I’m interested to see how Antonio Brown bounces back (if you can even call it that; the man if coming off a game in which he caught nine passes) after his...controversial...week. I’d recommend finding an online bettor that does prop bets and placing a wager on Roethlisberger’s first completion going to Brown.
Also, what could really put the Bucs offense over-the-top is a multitalented workhorse running back. What could really help ease some of Pittsburgh’s defensive woes is a speedy middle linebacker. If the Steelers really are interesting in trading Le’Veon Bell (for whatever it is worth I think this is a very dumb idea, but I don’t get paid to make those kinds of decisions), perhaps they could ask the Bucs if they’d be interested in swapping Alexander for Bell.