- WR Louis Murphy had a surprising impact Sunday for a player who wasn't on the team a week ago
- K Patrick Murray made his first 50-yard try as an NFL kicker, and that proved crucial
- DE Da'Quan Bowers' one impact play of the game had a lot to do with the final score
Quarterback Mike Glennon described the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' victory in Pittsburgh on Sunday as "a great team win," and he's right that Tampa Bay plumbed every corner of the depth chart to pull out the three-point decision. There were a mere seven seconds left on the clock when Vincent Jackson hit the turf with his diving touchdown catch, and the Bucs might never have had a chance to run that decisive play if some less-heralded players not come through at just the right moments.
To be sure, the team's biggest names were in full effect on Sunday. Tampa Bay's three touchdowns came from the three most players likely to find the end zone – Jackson, Doug Martin and Mike Evans. All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy had a sack on the game's second play and high-priced free agency addition Michael Johnson followed with a sack and a forced fumble on the very next snap. Lavonte David – 12 tackles, three of them for losses, and a forced fumble – was all over the place as usual.
But those brightest Buccaneer stars wouldn't be enjoying the team's first victory of 2014 – and one of the most enjoyable Tampa Bay wins in recent memory – without the key contributions of some players who aren't always in the spotlight. Let's shine the light on them now. Here are five unexpected heroes who helped the Buccaneers leave Pittsburgh with a victory:
4. WR Russell Shepard
Shepard is a receiver by name but a special teams ace by trade. There's little doubt that it is his strong work in the kicking game that won him a spot on the Buccaneers' 53-man roster for the second straight year, and sure enough he had a kick-coverage stop in each of the team's first three games in 2014.
Shepard did not get a special teams stop on Sunday in Pittsburgh, but the Bucs will forgive him because he did something that proved much more important.
In the third quarter, Evans came up lame on a deep pass attempt, and he was unable to return for the rest of the game due to a groin injury. That moved third receiver Louis Murphy (more on him later) into a starting spot and left the Bucs searching for someone to man the slot. Rookie Robert Herron was inactive and rookie Solomon Patton has very little experience in the offense. That left the job to Shepard, who had never before caught a pass in an NFL game.
With just over six minutes left in the game, the Buccaneers faced a third-and-five from their own 30, trailing by four. Shepard lined up in the slot and Glennon found him running up the seam for a catch-and-run that gained 22 yards putting the ball over midfield. That kick-started a drive that reached the Pittsburgh 25, whereupon Glennon found Shepard again on the right sideline for an eight-yard gain. After a Bobby Rainey run to move the sticks, the Bucs had a first down at the 14 and a chance to win it with a touchdown.
Now, it's true that four straight incompletions followed and the Bucs' comeback hopes were deferred (though not ultimately denied). But the change in field position proved big when Tampa Bay's defense forced a three-and-out and the resulting punt got only to Pittsburgh's 46. It was from that spot that the Bucs launched their winning drive.
3. K Patrick Murray
It was something of a surprise when the Buccaneers elected to keep the rookie Murray and let veteran incumbent Connor Barth go about a month ago, but we haven't had much of an opportunity to judge the wisdom of that move yet. Murray has had only two field goal attempts through the Bucs' first three games, and the one he "missed" was blocked.
Well, Head Coach Lovie Smith showed confidence in Murray early in Sunday's contest. After Evans' early touchdown put the Bucs on top, the Tampa Bay defense forced a quick punt and the visiting team had a golden opportunity near midfield. The Bucs got the ball down to Pittsburgh's 32 but stalled there, facing a fourth-and-seven. This is well-defined "four-down territory," where a team often chooses to go for it simply because a long field goal is a field-position risk and a punt won't change field position much.
It would not have been a surprise to see Smith call an offensive play on fourth-and-seven from the 32. Instead, he showed confidence in Murray and was rewarded for that decision. The rookie blasted a low, hard kick that appeared to be tipped by a defender, and yet still had enough power to make it to the intended target. The kick didn't clear the crossbar by much, but it made it through, giving the Bucs a 10-0 lead. Given that the game was eventually decided by three points, one cannot underestimate the importance of this moment in the game, even if it came early in the opening period.
2. DE Da'Quan Bowers
Speaking of that final three-point margin, how would things have been different if Pittsburgh had been able to tack on a field goal at the end of the first half.
The Buccaneers won Sunday's game, and deservedly so, but there's nothing to be gained from ignoring all the circumstances that led to a last-minute decision. After the Bucs' rushed out to their 10-point lead, Pittsburgh completely dominated the rest of the first half. The Steelers had the ball for close to 22 of the game's first 30 minutes and had a 253-64 yardage edge by the intermission. Those aren't misleading statistics; Pittsburgh was in control heading into the break.
Still, it was only a one-score game when halftime arrived, and the Bucs were able to erase that on the opening drive of the second half, and in the process create a whole new narrative. Things might have been different if Pittsburgh had produced four straight scoring drives before halftime instead of three.
After Antonio Brown's 27-yard touchdown catch put the Steelers up by three midway through the second quarter, the Pittsburgh defense forced a punt at the two-minute warning. The Steelers then drove down to the Buccaneers' 30 with 55 seconds left in the half. A four-yard run by Le'Veon Bell and a clock-killing spike by Ben Roethlisberger made it third-and-six. The Steelers were on a roll. That's when Bowers, playing right end, short right around left tackle Nate Beachum and circled behind the unsuspecting Roethlisberger. Before the Steeler QB could get off the pass, Bowers reached out with one and hand dragged him to the ground backwards for a six-yard sack.
At that point, Pittsburgh had no choice but to settle for a field goal. Shaun Suisham, who has been nearly a 90% kicker for the Steelers since 2010, came in to try a 50-yarder, and he pushed it just right. It's fair to wonder what would have happened had Roethlisberger had time to throw a short completion to set up a field goal more in the range of 35 or 40 yards.
WR Louis Murphy caught six passes for 99 yards Sunday, just five days after re-signing with the Buccaneers
1. WR Louis Murphy
This is the clear first choice for this list, of course. Murphy was not even a Buccaneer a week ago. He had performed well in the preseason, but the team came down to a close choice when forming the first roster of the season and Murphy was at the time dealing with a minor back injury. The Bucs kept Chris Owusu, a younger receiver who has shown some promise and, of course, was healthier at the time.
This past Tuesday, however, Tampa Bay brought Murphy back and waived Owusu, though it's possible the latter will be back with the team at some point. Murphy stepped right into a prominent role as the team's third receiver on Sunday, with Owusu gone and rookie Robert Herron inactive. That role became far bigger when Evans got hurt, making Murphy the outside complement to Vincent Jackson. The results were very, very good.
Murphy ended up leading the team with six receptions for 99 yards, all of that in the second half of the game, when Tampa Bay's passing offense generated most of its 287 net yards. Murphy had two short catches in the third and fourth quarters, one that converted a third down, but the first big strike was a 31-yarder that set up Murray's second field goal to make it 24-20 in Pittsburgh's favor.
Glennon hit Murphy two more times on the aforementioned drive that reached Pittsburgh's 14 before flaming out. The best was yet to come, however. The defense kept Tampa Bay's hopes alive with a three-and-out, and a very short punt gave the ball back to the offense at the Steelers' 46. After a hurried first-down incompletion, the Bucs called a play they had installed just two days before. Murphy ended up in a seam route on the right side and Glennon threw a hard pass in his direction. Murphy made a fingertip catch, then eluded one tackler and dashed all the way down to the Steelers' five. Jackson's touchdown catch won it three plays later.
Photos from the Bucs' victory over the Steelers in Pittsburgh.