The Pittsburgh Steelers may have lost their Week-Two matchup with the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs, but they scored 37 points in the process. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 452 yards and three touchdowns and was not intercepted. Critically, he was sacked just once by the Chiefs and hit just three times despite making an incredible 61 dropbacks.
The Steelers tied Cleveland in Week One, topping out at 21 points. Roethlisberger threw for 335 yards but he was also sacked four times, with the Browns' pressure helping to force three interceptions. The Steelers put up big yards in both of those games, just as they have for most of the last five years, but the Browns' ability to get to Roethlisberger made a difference in how those yards translated to points.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be Pittsburgh's next opponent, as the two teams meet on Monday night for a national audience. The Buccaneers know the difference between a hurried and unhurried quarterback, and especially one with Roethlisberger's track record and surrounding weapons. Head Coach Dirk Koetter agreed on Saturday, after his team's last practice of the week, that a good pass rush was going to be very important on Monday night.
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"Definitely so," said Koetter. "With the skill they have, let's face it, it's going to be tough for anybody to slow down a team like that. One of the only ways you can do it is to try to either disrupt the passer, get him off his spot, hopefully hit him some, hopefully get your hands on some balls, or the other thing is your re-routes on your receivers. Get their receivers off their spots and then when we're playing man coverage you've got to stick to them. But it's an uphill battle. These guys are good."
Complicating matters is the fact that the Steelers' offense has a lot of shorter, quicker throws built into their offense, ones designed to get the ball into the hands of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster and let them create in open space. Roethlisberger definitely likes to push the ball downfield, especially when a play goes off-script, but the quick passing game allows the Steelers to keep him off the ground. In the previous three years (2015-17), Roethlisberger was sacked an average of just 19.3 times per season. Buccaneer pass-rushers are going to have to really work hard to get into the Steelers' backfield as quickly as possible.
"[Brown] and Smith-Schuster are the two guys that they're going to try to get the ball in their hands," said Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "They do it in a number of ways. It's not always taking the top off the defense, which both of those guys are capable of doing. They're also very effective in the screen game. I saw an interesting graphic about where the balls were being thrown and there were a lot of them underneath, but we know he can take the top off a defense."
The Buccaneers wanted to attack offenses like this one with a deep defensive line rotation that kept all of their pass-rushers fresh for a full game. That plan has been prevented from coming to full fruition so far by a series of injuries to those linemen. That continues to be the case in Week Three, as defensive tackle Beau Allen has not practiced all week due to a foot injury and rookie defensive tackle Vita Vea has been limited in all three workouts.
That's actually a big step forward for Vea, who just returned to the practice field this week after suffering a calf injury on the third day of training camp. Nearly two months later, after working extremely hard on rehab and cardio workouts and – to Koetter's delight – trimming 15 pounds off his physique, Vea is just now trying to get back into the flow of the game.
"When you've been out for seven weeks…conditioning indoors is different than playing football outdoors, when you've got bodies around your legs," said Koetter. "There's no lack of want-to or anything like that; we've just got to be reasonable with how much time we give him. We'll see."
As such, Vea will not play this Monday night against the Steelers. Nor will Allen, as the Buccaneers ruled both tackles out on their Saturday injury report. Cornerback Marcus Williams is also out due to a hamstring injury, but that could be balanced by the return of Brent Grimes after a two-week absence due to a groin injury. Both he and starting safety Chris Conte (knee) are questionable for Monday night's game. All the other players who have been on the Bucs' injury report this week – tackles Demar Dotson and Donovan Smith, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, wide receiver Chris Godwin and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul – have no game status listed on the injury report and have thus been cleared to play.
The Buccaneers, who play at Chicago in Week Four and then enjoy an early bye week, hope to get Vea back on the game field soon. When they do, they expect their first-round pick to make a big impact.
"Vita's a big man," said Smith. "He's going to demand four hand on him. If they try to put two hands on him. He's going to be a guy that going to be able to get penetration into the offensive backfield. We're just waiting for the word where he can get out and help us."