It has all the makings for alarm. A wounded Buccaneers team coming off a bad loss on national television is changing quarterbacks while mixing in the return of key players.
How does a team only three games into the season prepare for so many unknowns? The Steelers don't have film on quarterback Mike Glennon playing for Lovie Smith's Buccaneers in a normal game situation. It appeared their eventual 56-14 loss to Atlanta was already beyond doubt by the time Josh McCown left with a thumb injury.
Perhaps more importantly, Mike Glennon wasn't in charge of an offense that had Doug Martin at his disposal. Martin will get to start Sunday in Pittsburgh with a clean slate; no score, no Bobby Rainey fumbles, nothing at all but three extra days to prepare for a team that's been wildly up-and-down so far in this young season.
Mike Glennon shouldn't scare anyone but what he has at his disposal does cause some concern. A redwood forest-sized cadre of receivers, a featured running back, a big arm and nothing to lose. Glennon is the extremely poor-man's version of Kirk Cousins, replacing the injured starter and needing to put some tape together in what's likely to be a rare opportunity to start before he hits free agency in the spring of 2017.
Will Glennon be Tampa Bay's version of Cousins in Week 3 when he dominated the Eagles' defense, or will he be more like the Cousins of Week 4 (Thursday night) when he was picked off four times en route to a horrible defeat at the hands of the Giants?
The Steelers are 7.5-point favorites in this game, playing at home and coming off their biggest win since last season's 30-20 win over the Bengals on Sunday Night Football. Fans will immediately go to the "letdown game" narrative. This isn't a question of the Steelers playing down to their opponents, it's about whether their opponents can maximize that extra few days of preparation into the game plan against them.
Why can't they? It's exactly what the Steelers did to Carolina. Just like the Buccaneers, the Steelers suffered a bad loss to a division rival on the road in a short week. Then they had extra time to prepare for another road game at Carolina, who was favored. They beat the hell out of the Panthers and played, without question, their sharpest four quarters of football this season.
Player for player, Tampa Bay isn't as talented as the Steelers, but the Steelers had less time to prepare a game plan that includes starting three new players (Sean Spence for Ryan Shazier, Arthur Moats for Jarvis Jones and William Gay for Ike Taylor, although Gay was the team's nickel back). Carolina has had more than the usual amount of time and plenty of film on those new starters and the Steelers' defense in competitive situations.
There's a lot to be said for the level of preparation and the motivational factor for a team that just got whupped. Or even one that just lost three games in a row. Since 2004, teams that lost three games in a row and were underdogs in their fourth game are 95-68-3 against the spread. Those road-dogs having lost three in a row who are getting 7-plus points in the fourth game are 83-70-3 all time. That's plenty of reason to believe this very well could be a tighter game than people think.
Beware of the Bucs. The element of surprise is a powerful thing in the NFL.