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Bucs Drop Preseason Opener to Steelers in Flag-Marred Outing

A total of 12 penalties kept the Bucs from getting in stride on offense Friday night in a 27-17 loss to Pittsburgh to open the preseason, but the effort was highlighted by a touchdown catch from rookie wideout Trey Palmer


A silky eight-yard back-corner touchdown pass from Baker Mayfield to rookie WR Trey Palmer on Friday night may have represented what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense is capable of in 2023. It was not, however, enough to propel the Buccaneers to victory in their preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Raymond James Stadium. RB Anthony McFarland Jr.'s 14-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was the decisive play in a 27-17 Steelers victory on a very steamy night in West Florida.

Mayfield is locked in a head-to-head battle with third-year man Kyle Trask for the Buccaneers' starting quarterback job, and he got the start against Pittsburgh, playing with an offense comprised mostly of second-stringers. Mayfield completed eight of nine passes for 63 yards and the one touchdown, without an interception, finishing with a passer rating of 132.9. Trask entered the game with minutes left in the first half and played until late in the third quarter, completing six of 10 passes for 99 yards and one interception.

"[Mayfield] was composed, he did a good job of running the offense," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "He made the plays he was supposed to make. I'm satisfied."

Mayfield and Trask worked with essentially the same cast of characters on offense, including an offensive line that did not start left tackle Tristan Wirfs, left guard Matt Feiler and center Ryan Jensen. Palmer, second-year wideouts Deven Thompkins and Kaylon Geiger and veteran addition David Moore got extensive first-half playing time while running backs Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Chase Edmonds split time in the backfield.

"They both played with the same offensive line, so you evaluate them accordingly," said Bowles. "I thought Kyle made some good throws as well and he commanded the offense just the same. They both had the same type of plays, they both had the same guys in there, wide receivers and offensive line-wise, so we'll continue that next week."

Mayfield engineered the Bucs' lone touchdown drive on his third possession, hitting key completions to Moore and Geiger to get the ball inside the 10. Palmer hauled in Mayfield's pass over CB James Pierre and barely dotted both feet in for the touchdown. Overall, however, Tampa Bay's offense had difficulty maintaining drives, finishing with 322 total yards. It was not a particularly surprising result, given that Tampa Bay coaches chose to hold out 19 players, including the majority of starters on both sides of the ball. Other than Mayfield and linemen Cody Mauch and Luke Goedeke, those front-liners who did start came out of the game relatively quickly.

"They've taken a lot of reps in practice," said Bowles of the team's first-string players. "There's a lot of guys we wanted to see in live action. You can't make decisions on the young guys in practice; the old guys, you know what they can do, the guys with experience. So we wanted to see a lot of the young guys tonight."

The Buccaneers also hampered their offensive efforts with a total of 12 penalties for 127 yards, including four offensive holding calls, one of which erased a touchdown run by rookie running back Sean Tucker. The offense drew two illegal formation penalties in the first quarter, as well.

"That's the big thing, the penalties," said Bowles. "We talk about in practice. We only had 12 drives, so when you get 12 penalties that kind of negates everything. We've got to be better at that and more disciplined."

The Buccaneers defense held Pittsburgh to 306 total yards and got interceptions from two second-year players, cornerback Zyon McCollum and linebacker J.R. Russell. However, the outing was marred by poor tackling and a 67-yard touchdown pass from third-string QB Mason Rudolph to WR Calvin Austin in the third quarter. The Bucs' mostly second-string defense also surrendered an 83-yard touchdown drive on Pittsburgh's first possession, ending in a 33-yard catch-and-run by WR George Pickens that unfortunately featured some missed tackles.

"[The] young guys need a lot work," said Bowles. "The ball cannot go over your head. [We were] sloppy, especially on the first drive. Check-downs shouldn't go for 10, 12, 18 yards. I thought it was sloppy and guys just leaving their feet too early. We need a lot of tackling work."

Vaughn got four yards on each of the game's first two plays but was stopped a yard short on third-and-two. The Bucs originally chose to go for it on fourth-and-one but after a false start sent out the punt team. Jake Camarda's 54-yard punt rolled to a stop at the Steelers' 17.

The Steelers came out with their full starting offense and got a first down on short completions to WR Diontae Johnson and TE Pat Freiermuth. Anthony Nelson's tackle for a loss on a screen pass to RB Najee Harris helped put Pittsburgh into a third-and-10, but Pickett made a scrambling sideline completion to Johnson to move the sticks. Another Pickett-Johnson hookup set up a first-and-10 at the Bucs' 35. First-year DL Mike Greene had a nice pass rush to force an incompletion and a third-and-eight, but Pickett found Pickens over the middle on the next snap and the second-year wideout weaved through traffic for a 33-yard game-opening score.

Thompkins spun out of two tackles to get three yards on a first-down screen to start the next drive, and Mayfield rolled out left on the next play before firing a seven-yard strike to Palmer. An illegal-formation penalty on Palmer erased a 10-yard run by Vaughn, and the Bucs soon faced a third-and-eight at their own 35. Mayfield appeared to scramble for close to a first down on the next play but a holding penalty brought that one back, leading to a punt. A 61-yard blast by Camarda and a penalty on the Steelers pushed the line of scrimmage back to the Steelers' four.

The Bucs' defense got a three-and-out against new Steelers QB Mitch Trubisky and the ensuing punt rolled to a stop at the Bucs' 41 with two minutes left in the first quarter. Edmonds ripped off an eight-yard run over left guard to start the next drive then drew an unnecessary roughness penalty on a second-down catch. That made it first-and-10 at the Steelers' 36, and a quick dart to Moore on a buttonhook converted a third-and-four as the first quarter came to an end.

Edmonds started the second period with a three-yard run to the left and Mayfield rolled out left again on the next snap to deliver a 10-yard pass to WR Kaylon Geiger. On third-and-six from the eight, Mayfield delivered a precision strike to Palmer over an outstretched defender in the back right corner of the end zone to tie the game.

The Steelers tried to go deep to start the next drive but CB Zyon McCollum came down with the ball for an interception at the Bucs' 41. Mayfield and Palmer hooked up for another good gain but the ball came back on and offensive pass interference call. Mayfield found Geiger down the right seam for a gain of 20 to make it third-and-one at the midfield stripe and a third-down run by Vaughn failed to move the sticks. The Bucs went for it on fourth down but were smothered well behind the line of scrimmage.

The Steelers took over at the Bucs' 47 and got a quick 17 yards on an end-around by WR Calvin Austin. A blitzing K.J. Britt batted away a pass deep in the backfield on the next play but the same play by Austin got six more. Trubisky converted the third-and-four with a quick slant to TE Connor Heyward, making it first down at the Bucs' 14. RB Anthony McFarland bounced his next carry around right end and ran untouched to the end zone for the go-ahead score.

Trask took over on the next drive and quickly hooked up with Moore for a gain of 23 to get the ball near midfield. An Edmonds outside-zone run that caught the corner for 15 yards was erased by a holding call. On third-and-19, Trask tried to keep the drive alive with a comebacker to Moore but S Trenton Thompson cut under the route for an interception he returned to the Bucs' 48.

With Rudolph now in at quarterback, the Steelers got another nice run by McFarland but ended up moving backwards on a holding call and bad snap. The result was a third-and-32 at the Pittsburgh 40, and Cam Gill dropped Rudolph for an 11-yard sack as the two-minute warning arrived.

The Bucs got the ball back at their 24 but couldn't move the sticks thanks to a sack of Trask and a third-down pass that TE Ko Kieft couldn't quite haul in. Rudolph hit Heyward down the right seam two plays into the ensuing drive to make it first-and-10 at the Bucs' 30 and Pittsburgh called a timeout with 45 seconds left in the half. Two plays later, Greene and Gill combined to get Rudolph down for a four-yard sack. The Steelers used their second timeout on third-and-14 with 34 seconds left. Rudolph was able to escape the pocket on the next snap and scramble for enough for a new set of first downs. After a third timeout, the end result was a 30-yard field goal by B.T. Potter that made the halftime score 17-7.

Pittsburgh got the ball to start the second half, with Rudolph still under center, and got an immediate 38 yards on a pass-interference call against CB Duron Lowe. Tampa Bay's defense then forced a third-and-eight at its own 25 and Gill chased Rudolph into an incompletion, leading to Potter's 43-yard field goal.

Trask remained in the game to start the second half. A defensive holding call gave the Bucs a first down at their own 38 but a sack two plays later for a loss of six made it third-and-14. A completion to Palmer failed to move the sticks and the Bucs punted away, with the ball coming to a rest at the Steelers' 21.

Pittsburgh quickly tacked on another seven points. After getting one first down, Rudolph went up top to Austin down the left sideline and hit him in stride for a 67-yard touchdown and a 20-point lead midway through the third quarter.

Trask stayed in as quarterback and overcame an early holding penalty to hit Moore on a 38-yard completion. A facemask call on Moore at the end of the play cost the Bucs 15 yard but Trask then found Geiger, who bounced around one tackler to get 23 yards into Pittsburgh territory. The drive stalled, however, when LB Nick Herbig sacked Trask back at the 44 on third-and-six. The resulting punt went into the end zone for a touchback.

The Steelers brought in their third quarterback, Tanner Morgan, to start the next drive and he hit TE Rodney Williams on a rollout pass for 11 yards. The Bucs' defense then forced a third-and-four and rookie S Kedrick Whitehead made a fine open-field tackle to stop RB Greg Bell on a short pass, forcing a punt.

Wolford came in to relieve Trask on the next drive and immediately hit rookie WR Taye Barber for a gain of 17. Wolford faced a third-and-six moments later but his seam pass in TE Dominique Dafney's direction fell incomplete and the Bucs punted it back down to the Pittsburgh 10. The third quarter came to an end on C.J. Brewer's tackle of Bell for a loss of one.

The two teams switched sides of the field and nearly switched possession of the ball when Morgan dropped the snap and Brewer seemed to come up with it. However, the play was reviewed, and it was ruled that Morgan had recovered the ball and been touched down. It was only a play later when the Bucs' defense got the ball back anyway, with LB J.J. Russell cutting in front of Williams for an interception at the Pittsburgh 20. A nifty 12-yard touchdown run by Tucker came back on a holding call and the Bucs settled for Rodrigo Blankenship's 35-yard field goal.

Pittsburgh's next drive was a quick three-and-out ended by a blitzing PBU by rookie LB Brandon Bouyer-Randle. The resulting punt bounced out of bounds at the Bucs' 38 with 12:30 left in regulation. The Bucs ran a tricky play to start the next drive, eventually pitching it to Barber on an end-around for a gain of 13, putting the ball just over midfield. Three plays later, the Bucs faced a fourth-and-four at the Pittsburgh 43 and went for it, with Barber unable to hold onto a quick pass over the middle.

The Steelers got into field goal range on the ensuing drive, but rookie OLB Markees Watts knocked them out with a 14-yard sack of Morgan on third-and-12, which forced a fumble that the quarterback recovered at midfield. Another penalty on the Bucs on Pittsburgh's punt forced them to start at their own five with just under six minutes left in the game.

Wolford got the Bucs out of that hole with strikes of 20 and 22 yards to tight ends Tanner Taula and David Wells, respectively. A scrambling 12-yard completion to rookie wideout Ryan Miller made it first-and-10 at the Steelers' 25 with a little over two minutes left, and a roughing the passer call two plays later made it first-and-goal at the seven. On second-and-goal from the four, Wolford threw a dart to Durham right on the goal line and the rookie tight end was ruled to be just across the line for a touchdown.

The Bucs used two timeouts on the next drive, a three-and-out, to force one more punt and possibly set up a long field goal try. That thought backfired when Geiger fumbled on his punt return, with Pittsburgh recovering at the Bucs' 42. The Steelers kneeled once to end the game.

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