1. RB Peyton Barber
The Bucs have been talking about the need to get the run game involved more all week. While witnessing back-to-back 400+ yard performances by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is equally as impressive as it is exciting, the flip side to that coin is a pretty one-dimensional offense. It’s been working, as the Bucs are 2-0, but balance in the offense in the form of a more established ground game would take some pressure off Fitzpatrick and keep the Steelers’ defense guessing.
Barber is looking for that ‘breakout’ game – and his first touchdown - this season. There’s an opportunity to do that against Pittsburgh, who’s rushing defense ranks 30th in the league, allowing 152.0 yards per game.
It isn’t solely up to Barber to take advantage of that opportunity. The Bucs’ offensive line will play a big role in creating openings for Barber to run through. The good news is that the line has settled in over the past two games after shuffling a significant amount in the preseason due to injuries. The front five are healthy and know they have to help Tampa Bay backs capitalize on the opportunity the Steelers are presenting.
2. LB Kwon Alexander
Linebacker Kwon Alexander is coming off a game where he recorded his first sack since 2016 as part of a seven total tackle effort, six of which were solo. He’s forced a fumble in both games this season, matching his career season-high, and has recorded four tackles for loss, which is tied with the likes of Broncos’ linebacker Von Miller and the Steelers’ T.J. Watt for second-most in the league. In short, Alexander is having one of the best starts to a season you could hope for.
He’s played a pivotal role in Tampa Bay’s second-ranked rushing defense. Granted, neither opponent ran the ball a whole lot. The Saints rushed just 13 times and got a total of 43 yards on the ground, while the Eagles who rely heavily on their ground game, were limited to just 91 net rushing yards on 24 plays. That’s all probably due in part by the fact they couldn’t get anything going with the Bucs becoming more stout up front and both Alexander and fellow linebacker Lavonte David available to make plays in space should a rusher get into the middle level.
Alexander will likely be needed in space against Pittsburgh. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is known for his improvisation when plays break down, so being fluid in coverage will be crucial to stopping him from being successful. Another forced fumble wouldn’t hurt, either.
3. CB Brent Grimes
This will be the veteran cornerback’s first game back after suffering a groin injury in the preseason. It comes as the Bucs will be needing a veteran presence in the secondary to combat two of the league’s best receivers in Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The pair are tied with 18 receptions, which ranks fourth in the league.
Grimes, known for his athletic ability in covering corners with a size advantage on him, will likely be assigned to cover Brown with either cornerback Ryan Smith or rookie cornerback Carlton Davis III lined up opposite him.
The Steelers have the second-ranked passing offense behind the connection Roethlisberger has with the two aforementioned receivers. Pittsburgh will be looking to take advantage of the fact that the Bucs’ passing defense has left something to be desired in the past two games. Tampa Bay ranks near the bottom, so it will be up to Grimes to give the secondary the boost it needs to contain the opposition’s aerial attack.
4. WR Mike Evans
Wide receiver Mike Evans needs just one more receiving touchdown to move into sole possession of first all-time in franchise history. He currently has 34, which ties him with former tight end Jimmie Giles for the most of any Buccaneer.
Evans is off to fast start himself this season and has had a touchdown reception in both games so far this year. Against the Saints in Week One, he had seven catches (on seven targets) for a whopping 147 yards. The added element of receiver DeSean Jackson having success as a deep threat this season has left teams unable to double cover Evans and he’s just simply winning his matchups on the perimeter with his 6’5” frame.
Evans is one of the few players on the Buccaneers’ roster that were around the last time Tampa Bay played the Steelers in the 2014 season. It was Evans’ rookie year and he caught his very first NFL touchdown in the first quarter of the game on a seven-yard pass from then-Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon. He caught four of seven passes for 65 yards in the game overall and remembers the matchup well. In two games on Monday night, Evans has a 15.27 yards per reception average and gets 14.43 yards per reception on prime time in general. He’ll be looking to be a factor again in the spotlight on Monday Night Football.
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center.
5. DT Gerald McCoy
This will be defensive tackle Gerald McCoy’s third appearance on Monday Night Football and he’s won in both of his previous bouts. He’s also had two sacks total in those two games as well. McCoy registered his first sack of 2018 against the Eagles last Sunday and will be looking to add on to that total against the other Pennsylvania team. The only thing is that Roethlisberger isn’t the easiest to bring down. McCoy himself has acknowledged that. A lot if it is due to the fact that ‘Big Ben’ is 6’5” and 240 pounds, giving him the ability to shed defenders even when the pocket collapses or play breaks down. In fact, he’s made some of his best plays when improvising, which makes him an unpredictable target.
McCoy will be holding down the interior of the defensive line in Monday’s game, where the Buccaneers have found themselves a little thin. Through two games though, he’s as disruptive as ever, leading the team with four quarterback hits. Getting through the Steelers’ line will be McCoy’s goal and it’s a unit where Pittsburgh is a little banged up. Both guard David DeCastro and tackle Marcus Gilbert were listed as doubtful on Friday’s injury report. This doesn’t rule them out completely, but if the Steelers have to start two younger players up front, you can bet McCoy will be among those trying to capitalize.