Turnovers have won many a ballgame in the National Football League. On Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, however, the takeaways that didn't happen had nearly as much impact as the ones that did.
In a battle of 2-0 teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 38-13, marking the Buccaneers' largest margin of defeat since last November against New Orleans (38-7), just before Head Coach Raheem Morris took over as defensive coordinator. The Steelers scored 14 points off Tampa Bay's two turnovers, including a 79-yard interception return for a touchdown by DE Brett Keisel off a tipped ball. Steelers third-string QB Charlie Batch, playing for the injured Dennis Dixon, threw only 17 passes but completed 12 of them, three for touchdowns.
CB Aqib Talib intercepted Batch on his first pass attempt of the game, setting up a game-opening 40-yard field goal by the Buccaneers' Connor Barth. However, Talib's chance at a second interception caromed off his hands in the end zone and went directly to Steelers WR Mike Wallace for his second touchdown of the first half.
Pittsburgh built a 28-6 halftime lead on Wallace's 46 and 41-yard scores and veteran WR Hines Ward's nine-yard touchdown catch. Rookie S Cody Grimm, in his first start, had good coverage on Wallace's first touchdown catch but couldn't locate the ball for the takeaway, and Talib narrowly missed another interception on Pittsburgh's fourth touchdown drive.
The Bucs may have missed several key opportunities on Sunday, but they remain in position to take advantage of a very good start to the season. At 2-1, Tampa Bay is in a three-way tie with Atlanta and New Orleans at the top of the very competitive NFC South.
"Obviously, that was a disappointing game," said Morris, whose team had averaged approximately 16 points allowed in the previous eight games since he took over as the coordinator. "We have to build on this during the bye; we are 2-1. There are a lot of things positive from beginning of the season to now, and a lot of things we need to work on. I was proud of our fight, however, and proud of the way they stayed in it. Big picture – 2-1 and the bye, a chance to go home, evaluate and come back ready to get some more wins.
"It's the big picture. You've got to go through situations like these and learn from them. It's a great time for all of us to get together, bond and be one and not let anybody try to tear us down."
Pittsburgh's running game, led by Rashard Mendenhall, supported the 35-year-old Batch with 201 ground yards, 134 of them in the second half when the Steelers began grinding it out with a big lead. Mendenhall finished with 143 and a touchdown on 19 carries, scoring on a three-yard run in the second quarter.
Tampa Bay's rushing attack produced only 75 yards, but did uncover an intriguing new contributor in rookie LeGarrette Blount, who was claimed off waivers from Tennessee prior to the season opener. Blount carried six times for a team-high 27 yards and scored the Bucs' only touchdown on a one-yard run in the fourth quarter.
QB Josh Johnson directed that one touchdown drive for the Buccaneers after relieving Freeman and completed all six of his passes for 67 yards. Freeman was not lifted due to a poor effort, however; he completed 20 of 31 passes for 184 yards, and the Keisel interception first deflected off the hands of WR Sammie Stroughter. Freeman's favorite target was once again rookie Mike Williams, who caught five passes for 55 yards but also set up a Pittsburgh touchdown drive with a second-quarter fumble.
"He played good enough to win that game," said Morris of Freeman. "We lost that game on defense, we lost that game on field position. When you play a good team, it doesn't always go the way you planned. We played a heavyweight, we got outplayed and they got the win."
Between them, Freeman and Johnson completed 26 of 37 passes (70.3%) despite constant pressure from Pittsburgh's accomplished 3-4 front. The Steelers sacked the Bucs' passers four times and allowed very few downfield passes.
Overall, the Steelers finished with a 387-303 edge in total yardage but were more proficient on their scoring opportunities. Until the final minutes, Tampa Bay's best drive was a 15-play, 74-yard march in the first quarter that included two impressive third-down conversions by Freeman. The drive stalled inside the 10, however, and the Bucs had to settle for a second Barth field goal and a 7-6 deficit. The Steelers then scored three unanswered touchdowns before halftime.
The Buccaneers scored first thanks to Talib's second interception in as many games. Tampa Bay took over at the Pittsburgh 31 but failed to get a first down when CB William Gay fought through a receiver screen to drop Stroughter a yard short. Barth stayed perfect on the season with a 40-yard field goal for a 3-0 Buccaneer lead just three minutes in.
A favorable exchange of punts for the Steelers allowed Pittsburgh to start its third drive in Tampa Bay territory, and the visitors needed just two plays to score. On second-and-11, Batch escaped a big rush from DT Gerald McCoy and heaved a pass 46 yards to the end zone to Wallace. Rookie S Cody Grimm had coverage on Wallace but couldn't locate the ball before the receiver hauled it in.
The Bucs answered right back with an impressive 74-yard field goal drive, converting a pair of third downs in the process. Blount contributed four carries for 26 yards on the drive and TE Kellen Winslow made a dazzling one-handed sideline catch to keep the drive alive. The march fizzled inside the 10 but Barth drove him his second field from 24 yards out to pull the Bucs within one.
Unfortunately, Pittsburgh's response was even swifter, and it resulted in seven points. Aided by a surprise 24-yard scramble by Batch, the Steelers marched 67 yards on just six plays, ending in Mendenhall's three-yard touchdown run. The visitors thus had a 14-6 lead with 10 minutes to play in the first half. They made it 21-6 three minutes later following a fumble by Mike Williams. Pittsburgh S Ryan Clark caught Williams' fumble in midair, and two plays later Batch found Wallace deep again for a 41-yard score. This time, Talib had outstanding coverage and appeared to have an interception in his grasp, but the ball bounced off his fingertips and went right to Wallace for the hard-luck score.
Pittsburgh scored once more before halftime, driving 79 yards on 11 plays to get in position for Ward's nine-yard touchdown catch. Click here for a detailed report of the game's first half.
Rookie WR Preston Parker gave the Bucs a spark to start the second half with a 37-yard kickoff return out to the Bucs' 39. However, the resulting drive went nowhere as a third-down corner blitz resulted in a seven-yard sack for William Gay. Chris Bryan's punt went just 28 yards so the Steelers had good field position to start their next drive.
From the Steeler 37, Mendenhall burst up the middle for 17 yards out of the Wildcat formation, getting Pittsburgh back into Buccaneer territory. The Steelers faced a fourth-and-one at the Bucs' 37 and elected to go for it, but Tampa Bay's defense stood up for the much-needed stop. Grimm and Ronde Barber combined for a stop of RB Isaac Redman for no gain.
Two dumpoff passes put the Bucs into a third-and-two at their own 45, and a fine reaching effort by Mike Williams on another short pass moved the chains. Unfortunately, a nine-yard sack by Nick Eason put the Bucs in a big hole and a good-looking screen pass was blown up by a tip by DE Evander Hood. After a third-down incompletion, the Bucs punted and an unnecessary roughness penalty on the kick moved the ball all the way back to Pittsburgh's 41.
Content to run the ball as the third quarter clock wound down, the Steelers got five from Mendenhall and four from Redman to set up third-and-one just across midfield. Batch's quarterback sneak moved the chains, and Mendenhall broke through the line against a big run blitz on the next play, gaining 34 yards to the Bucs' 14. Tampa Bay held the Steelers out of the end zone but Jeff Reed increased the visitors' lead to 31-6 with a 24-yard field goal.
The Bucs went to a hurry-up with two minutes left in the third quarter and Freeman completed a five-yard pass to Stroughter before finding Winslow for four more. Williams slanted over right guard for a first down and action paused as the Steelers' Clark had to be helped off the field. On the next play, RB Earnest Graham broke several tackles as he rumbled up the right sideline for a 46-yard gain on a screen pass, bringing about the end of the third quarter.
The fourth quarter began very badly. Freeman tried to throw a quick screen to Stroughter but the ball was a bit high and it deflected off the receiver's hands. Brett Keisel, the Steelers' 285-pound defensive end, caught the deflection on a dead run and rambled 79 yards for the touchdown. Freeman tried valiantly to break through a line of Pittsburgh blockers but couldn't quite get to Keisel.
With the Pittsburgh defense laying back with a 32-point lead, Freeman threw repeatedly over the middle to Cadillac Williams and Graham, and in four plays the Bucs were near midfield. Graham's nine-yard run to the Pittsburgh 43 earned a new set of downs for Freeman, who threw incomplete in Micheal Spurlock's direction. After a third-down completion to Winslow came up three yards short, the Buccaneers punted from the Pittsburgh 36, with the ball going out of bounds at the four.
Mendenhall and Redman followed with two runs each to get Pittsburgh all the way to the Steeler 44. Mendenhall broke through again on the next play for 18 more, missing out on a long touchdown only because Barber dragged him down from behind. Three plays later, Black intercepted a Batch pass over the middle and returned it four yards to the Bucs' 32.
Josh Johnson came in to relieve Freeman on the ensuing possession and immediately ran for a nine-yard gain. He proceeded to complete three passes to rookie WR Arrelious Benn, one on a tipped ball, and then fired a 32-yard completion to TE Jerramy Stevens. A pass to Graham put the Bucs in a third-and-goal from the one and the Bucs sent in Blount to try a dive over the middle. S Ryan Mundy met Blount at the top of his dive to keep him out of the end zone.
Game Notes: Pittsburgh now leads the all-time series with Tampa Bay, 8-1, with the Bucs' lone victory coming in 1998. The Steelers are 5-1 all-time in games played in Tampa in the series. … Two undrafted rookies saw their first action of the season for the Buccaneers on Sunday, as RB LeGarrette Blount and WR Preston Parker were active for the first time. Blount ran six times for 27 yards and one touchdown, and Parker returned two kickoffs for 52 yards, with a long of 37. … Buccaneers K Connor Barth has now connected on 11 straight field goal attempts, dating back to the 2009 season. … Former Buccaneer S Dexter Jackson, who earned MVP honors in Tampa Bay's Super Bowl XXXVII victory, attended Sunday's game. He watched the action as a guest of the Glazer family in the owners' suite. … WR Mike Wallace's second touchdown catch of the first half followed a Mike Williams fumble. The score marked the first points off a turnover against the Buccaneers in 2010. … RB Earnest Graham's 46-yard reception on a screen play in the third quarter stands as Tampa Bay's longest play from scrimmage this season. It is also the longest reception in Graham's career, surpassing the 24-yarder he turned in during the 2008 season. … LB Quincy Black's pick of a Charlie Batch pass in the fourth quarter marked the first interception of his four-year NFL career.
Inactives: With only 52 men on their active roster, the Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive for Sunday's game: CB Myron Lewis, RB Kareem Huggins, LB Niko Koutouvides, C/G Ted Larsen, DL Michael Bennett, WR Maurice Stovall and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter. Lewis, Huggins, Koutouvides and Stovall were out due to injury.
The Steelers deactivated these eight players: QB Dennis Dixon, CB Keenan Lewis, RB Jonathan Dwyer, CB Crezdon Butler, T Tony Hills, G Trai Essex, WR Emmanuel Sanders and LB Thaddeus Gibson. Dixon and Essex were out due to injury.
Injuries: Neither team reported an injury from the sideline during the game.