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Steelers’ Jekyll-and-Hyde Act continues as they hang on for a 30-27 win in Tampa

After a dominant first half which raised expectations they had mended their ways, all of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ bad habits resurfaced in the second half, nearly costing them the game.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

I know — a win is a win is a win. No such thing as style points — yada, yada. But when Ryan Switzer caught a touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to cap an impressive drive which began with only one minute remaining in the first half — making the score 30-10 in Pittsburgh’s favor — you’d have been laughed right out of the stadium if you suggested either of the following scenarios:

No. 1 — The Steelers’ offense would be shut out for the entire second half, and

No. 2 — Switzer’s TD would provide the final margin of victory.

But when Tampa Bay took possession of the ball with 3:02 remaining in the fourth quarter and the score narrowed to 30-27 — in the wake of 17 unanswered points scored by the Bucs — things were looking pretty dicey for the Black-and-gold. Luckily, on a 3rd-and-10 play, Ryan Fitzpatrick misfired on what might have been yet another 3rd-and-long conversion, thus forcing the Bucs to punt the ball back to the Steelers for what would be the game’s final possession.

As redeeming and enjoyable as the first half at Raymond James Stadium had been, the second half was so ugly that it almost made you forget the first half ever happened. After Tampa Bay received the second-half kickoff, their offense was promptly flagged for two consecutive false starts before Fitzpatrick launched a pass to Chris Godwin on a play which initially looked like a catch-and-run for a TD. But the score was nullified when the play was reviewed and Godwin was ruled to be down by contact. The Bucs ended up having to settle for a field goal which made the score 30-13 in Pittsburgh’s favor. At that point, the 17-point lead still looked pretty safe.

But on the Steelers’ first possession of the second half, on a 3rd-and-3 play from the Bucs’ 28-yard line, Ben held onto the ball too long and was strip-sacked. Fortunately, B.J. Finney jumped onto the loose ball, salvaging a field goal attempt which, unfortunately, Chris Boswell doinked off of the right upright.

Then, in the fourth quarter, on their next possession, the Bucs marched right down the field, converting a key first down on 4th-and-7 play from the Steelers’ 42-yard line — which led to another Tampa Bay TD, cutting the margin to 30-20. After yet another Steelers’ drive stalled, the Bucs once again drove right down the field, scoring on a Fitzpatrick pass to Mike Evans that caught Artie Burns badly out of position.

It was the Steelers’ next-to-last possession of the game, though, which was particularly troubling. After a nifty 27-yard run by James Conner — followed by another 9-yard Conner run — the Steelers ran one of their trademark slow-developing sweep plays on first down (the likes of which formerly had been blamed on Todd Haley) and lost four yards. Then, on a 3rd-and-9 play, Ben tried to force the ball deep to Antonio Brown, who was covered like a blanket, thus giving the Bucs their final shot to pull out a win.

Besides a couple of Conner runs, just about the only good thing the Steelers’ offense did during the entire second half was on their final possession, when Roethlisberger scampered out of the pocket on a third-down play, throwing across his body to hit JuJu Smith-Schuster on a crucial first-down pass that sealed Tampa Bay’s doom.

Old habits persist

While this win certainly is welcome and much-needed, the way that the second half played out was anything but reassuring for those in search of some clues about the character of this 2018 Steelers team. Considering that the Tampa Bay defense was fielding a group of backups in its secondary for the entire second half, and the Bucs’ defensive line was getting little or no pressure on No. 7, the much-hyped Steelers’ offense somehow failed to manage even a single score of any description during the final 30 minutes of football.

In crucial situations where one or two successful plays might have thwarted any possibility of a Tampa Bay rally, the Steelers appeared equally inept in their offensive schemes as they’d often been under Haley’s tutelage. Furthermore, the Black-and-gold were taking far too many costly penalties which handed the Bucs huge chunks of free yardage. In fact, the Steelers’ offensive line might have been the only consistently-good aspect of the team’s play in Tampa. For the most part, Ben had adequate time to throw the ball, and the sacks he took were mainly coverage-related. Additionally, in the second half, the Steelers squandered two of their three remaining timeouts, and they were quite fortunate they didn’t need them late in the game.

So while it might be true that a win is a win — and style points don’t count — if the Steelers fail to address some of their nagging inconsistencies on both sides of the ball in the coming weeks, they’re likely to find themselves on the losing end at least as frequently this season as when they bask in the glory of the winner’s circle. With Pittsburgh leading at halftime 30-10, the second half of Monday night’s game should have been a relative walk in the park. But the fact that this eventually became a true nail-biter, despite Fitzpatrick’s self-destructive play during the first half, harkens back to the “same old Steelers” profile of a team that eases up on the gas pedal much too early, thus allowing lesser opponents — particularly in road games — to remain within striking distance on the scoreboard.

The sheer ugliness of the Steelers’ second-half performance in Tampa thus leaves the faithful of Steelers Nation with essentially the same conundrum we faced after last week’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Still not being quite sure when Dr. Jekyll might morph into Mr. Hyde, or vice versa, it’s practically impossible to make any judgments at this stage about where the Black-and-gold might be headed as a team. While the Steelers’ defense appears consistently hopeless — at least for the time being — should we judge the offense based on the juggernaut witnessed during the first half on Monday night — or perhaps that feckless band-of-bros who took the field after halftime? Given the weird way that things are unfolding so far, we might not have a clear answer until we reach the season’s midpoint.