The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the national stage this week as the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town for Monday Night Football matchup. In a game that pits the two most prolific offenses and passing attacks in the NFL, the Buccaneers will try to forge their first 3-0 start since 2005. Here are five issues to consider while waiting for the 8:15 p.m. ET kickoff of the Bucs' Week Three game against the 0-1-1 Steelers:
1. Who really has the upper hand when the ball is in the air?
Through the first two weeks of this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have averaged 377.0 passing yards per game to rank second in the NFL in that category. And that's hardly a fluke – the Steelers ranked third on the NFL's 2017 passing chart, fifth in 2016, third in 2015 and second in 2014. Even without pass-catching back Le'Veon Bell in the fold just yet, the Steelers have the name-brand aerial assault that puts up huge numbers every year, beginning with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown.
"They're lighting it up," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Ben Roethlisberger: 13th year, going to be a Hall of Fame quarterback. We talk about in our division with Drew Brees going to be a Hall of Fame quarterback, but Ben will be a Hall of Fame quarterback. And then those two receivers – Brown as good as there is in the league, [JuJu] Smith-Schuster, a young guy, extremely explosive. They target those two guys. The tight end's a good player. This is a good football team They're all good, but these guys are really good."
The tight end in question is Jesse James, whose season totals (eight catches for 198 yards and a touchdown, 24.8 yards per reception) look a lot like the ones produced by the Bucs' own rising star at the position, O.J. Howard. Smith-Schuster leads the team with 240 receiving yards and is tied with Brown with 18 catches, as the Steelers have put it in the air more than any other team. Brown's per-catch average to this point is a surprising 8.9, but he's not likely to be kept off the big-play highlight reel for long.
Against almost any opponent in any of the last five seasons, that would be enough to give the Steelers the upper hand when comparing what the two aerial attacks might do. However, there is one team off to a hotter start with its passing game this season, and that's the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay has averaged 405.0 net passing yards per game and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has already tossed eight touchdown passes. Fitzpatrick has unlocked the big-play potential of DeSean Jackson (30.6 yards per catch, three touchdowns) and made excellent use of Howard, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. He's got two more reliable weapons waiting in the wings in Cam Brate and Adam Humphries, too.
Jackson, who scored on a 75-yard pass to start the Bucs' Week Two win over Philadelphia, says that Fitzpatrick's timing and accuracy – the product of 14 years of experience – is making all the big plays possible.
"One thing that's good about him is he has good a good feel for it, dropping back and reading defenses, putting the ball where the defenders are not," said Jackson. "It doesn't necessarily mean you've got to throw the ball 60 yards down the field. He drops back and gets it out [of] his hand. A lot it's like 30, 40 yards down the field. It really gives you an opportunity right when you're coming out your break to catch the ball. If you throw it early that's when [defenders] aren't really ready. If you throw it later, [defenders] have time to adjust and react to the ball."
While Roethlisberger and Fitzpatrick have been in the league for almost the same number of years, the Steeler quarterback has had a steadier starting gig the entire time. That said, Fitzpatrick has the NFL's hottest hand. Which one prevails may come down to how much time they have to throw, and in that regard, the Buccaneers' quarterback can count on an offensive line that has protected him very well the first two games.
2. How will the Buccaneers arrange their defensive-line rotation, particularly on the inside?
On the other side of the trenches, the Steelers are without starting right guard David DeCastro, who suffered a hand fracture in Week One. Roethlisberger has been sacked five times through Pittsburgh's first two games, though that's on a league-high 106 dropbacks. The Buccaneers would like to get him on the ground more frequently on Monday night.
That said, what the Buccaneers do not want to do is to move Roethlisberger from his spot without actually getting him down. The Steeler veteran is extremely dangerous when one of Pittsburgh's plays goes off-script as he escapes a collapsing pocket. This happens fairly often because getting to Roethlisberger and actually bringing him down are two different challenges.
"You just called him Big Ben and then followed by saying is it hard to get him on the ground – it's Big Ben," said Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "He's elusive actually and just a strong guy. One of the best we've ever seen in extended plays. He believes he can make any throw. He's a future Hall of Famer and all respect goes to him. With Pittsburgh, we have to make sure we finish our rushing. [We] can't just stop on the rush and think we can get our hands up. He's not that guy – he's going to extend the play. We've got to get to him."
The question is, who exactly will make up this "we" that McCoy will count himself a part of on Monday night. We know it won't be defensive tackles Vita Vea and Beau Allen, as both have already been ruled out by injuries. Assuming that the Buccaneers keep eight defensive linemen active, as they do most game days, McCoy will be joined by defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, Will Gholston, Will Clarke, Carl Nassib and Noah Spence.
There's an obvious imbalance there. Ideally, the Buccaneers would like to have four defensive tackles ready for a rotation, but they're currently down to two healthy bodies. Fortunately, a number of those ends have shown they can also absorb some snaps on the inside. Pierre-Paul and Curry occasionally do just that on passing downs, and the Bucs have used Gholston inside on all three downs when needed. It seems likely that Gholston will be playing a lot of defensive tackle on Monday night.
Both Nassib and Worthy came to the Bucs very late, Worthy near the end of the preseason and Nassib as a waiver claim in Week One. However, Nassib in particular has already found a prominent role in the Bucs' rotation. If Gholston moves inside, he'll probably need to soak up more snaps on the edge. The Buccaneers will also rely heavily on Pierre-Paul, who can handle a very heavy workload. Tampa Bay came into training camp wanting to build a very deep D-Line rotation to reduce everyone's number of snaps, but on Monday night it's likely that they'll have to keep key players like McCoy and Pierre-Paul in the game as much as possible.
3. How well will Tampa Bay's offensive line stand up against the challenge of a true 3-4 defense that is averaging 4.0 sacks per game?
Most defenses in the NFL, whether they identify as a 3-4 team or a 4-3 team, use both concepts and actually look quite similar on film. The Steelers, though, have long been the NFL's standard for a 3-4 front, with three down linemen joined by stand-up pass-rushing linebackers, and that remains the case in 2018. The current version of the Steelers' traditional edge rushers consists of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, the former of which already has three sacks.
"They're a true 3-4 defense," said Koetter. "This isn't one of those teams that just says they're 3-4 – they really are a 3-4 team. Those outside backers are very versatile players – Watt and Dupree. They're rushers, they're droppers, they're zone exchangers, they're ends in sub. [The Steelers] are very stout inside [with] their defensive ends that become defensive tackles in sub."
Traditionally, Buccaneer offenses have struggled against true 3-4 defenses, and that includes the Steelers in particular. The two teams have squared off five times since the turn of the century and the Bucs have won one of those games. They allowed only sack in that contest, just four years ago; in the four other games they allowed a total of 25 sacks.
"Definitely adds a challenge because it's not something that we see from our defense and it's not something that you see every week," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "These guys have played a lot of football in the NFL and coaches the same way. Sure, you've got to do things a bit differently, but it's still, 'How do we do it? How do we execute? How do we win our matchups up front? How do we win on the perimeter when they give us those chances?'"
Tampa Bay's offensive line, as noted above, has been stellar so far, allowing just two sacks of Fitzpatrick, one of which came after the quarterback had chosen to tuck the ball and run but was caught before the line of scrimmage. Neither of those sacks came around the end. Fitzpatrick thinks his blockers up front will figure out the Steelers' pass-rush and keep giving him good protection.
"That's all stuff that gets ironed out throughout the week," he said. "Everybody's got their own little wrinkle going into each week and we've got our little wrinkles. It's just part of game-planning. There's some stuff you do versus a 3-4 and don't do versus a 3-4 and vice versa with a 4-3. A lot of it is just communication that we iron out throughout the week. We do see more of the four-down teams than the 3-4 teams."
View photos of Ring of Honor Inductee Tony Dungy.
4. Can the Bucs find a spark in the return game?
Rookie running back Shaun Wilson started the season with a nice 29-yard kickoff return in New Orleans, but he hasn't had another shot since, as Buc opponents have mostly kicked deep enough for touchbacks. Tampa Bay's punt return game, led by Adam Humphries with some cameos from DeSean Jackson, has averaged only 6.9 yards per runback, though Jackson had a fine return against the Saints shortened by a penalty. So far, the return game has not been a particularly significant factor for the Bucs, either when running them back or covering them.
The Steelers might offer a chance to change that. Pittsburgh ranks 29th in the NFL in opponents' average punt return, giving up 23.0 yards per attempt. The Steelers' kicker Chris Boswell, is middle of the pack in touchbacks, ranking 15th. If the two offenses in Monday night's game hold true to form, the contest could turn into another high-scoring shootout. The Buccaneers have had one of those already, and one that came close to qualifying as such, and both ended up as one-score games. Any big play in the return game could swing the contest one way or another.
5. Will the Buccaneers find – or need – a run-pass balance in their offensive attack?
Tampa Bay currently ranks first in passing offense and 30th in rushing offense. That imbalance hasn't been a problem yet, as that aerial attack has been good enough to put the Bucs first in overall yards and second in points. The Buccaneers will ride the hot hand of Fitzpatrick and his talented group of pass-catchers as long as it lasts, but at some point would probably like to find some more balance in their attack.
"First of all, I need to call it better," said Monken. "That's starts with us coaching-wise – I have to call it better and stick with our plan. We have to be able to run the football when we want to run the football. That's the biggest part of it. It's still about yards and scoring points – not turning it over and being explosive, which we have been. That was probably one of the most frustrating thigs from the game the other day. You're not going to count on two 75-yard touchdown plays. What we do want to be able to count on is not dropping the football and not fumbling it. Those are things that we need to count on moving forward – not anticipate having two 75-yard plays because really we left some things out there with drops – or mishandling the football is the best way to put it."
Peyton Barber has given the Buccaneers some good early-game runs both weeks but has also had to take the ball into a lot of stacked fronts when his team has been protecting second-half leads and trying to burn the clock. Barber's overall per-carry average of 2.6 reflects that tough duty, and the Buccaneers as a whole have averaged just 2.7 yards per tote.
This could be a good week for the Buccaneers to emphasize the run a bit more. Pittsburgh's run defense has been torched for 137.0 yards per game and 4.83 yards per carry so far, ranking 30th and 26th in those two categories, respectively. Keeping the ball on the ground some more would not only provide balance but might also help the Bucs in terms of their time-of-possession issue. Tampa Bay currently has a possession imbalance of 3:30 per game, which of course is in big part due to very quick scoring drives ending in big plays. Both of the Bucs' 75-yard touchdowns against Philadelphia came on the first play of a possession.
Obviously, the Buccaneers will take as many 75-yard touchdown passes as they can get. That said, the occasional six-minute touchdown drive built on a strong rushing attack would come in handy, too.