Stop the run? Check. Unfortunately, the rest of the equation failed to fall into place Sunday in Pittsburgh
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the formula half-right, at least.
The Buccaneers' stymied the Pittsburgh Steelers' rushing attack, created a number of long third downs and forced mistake-prone QB Ben Roethlisberger into several ill-advised throws early in the game. Unfortunately, the last part of that formula, the Buccaneers' pass rush, was once again ineffective and Roethlisberger had enough time to throw for 198 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-3 Pittsburgh win at Heinz Field on Sunday.
The Bucs' defense held dangerous back Willie Parker to 61 yards on 22 carries, with 28 of those yards coming midway through the fourth quarter. In all, the Steelers rushed for 76 yards on 31 carries, averaging 2.5 per tote. Roethlisberger was forced into a 48.0% completion rate but was rarely hurried and sacked only once.
On offense, the Bucs are simply struggling to make things add up. The Bucs gained 254 yards on the day, but 57 of them came on a final, meaningless drive with the Steelers' defense sagging back. QB Bruce Gradkowski completed 20 of 34 yards for 175 yards but was intercepted three times and did not throw a touchdown pass. The running attack gained 110 yards on 30 carries, but tailback Cadillac Williams picked up just 27 yards on 11 totes.
And, unfortunately, Pittsburgh did not struggle to get to the passer, sacking Gradkowski five times, including four times in the first half. The Steelers' confusing 3-4 defensive front led to constant pressure on the rookie passer and kept the Bucs from taking shots downfield. That put the pressure on Williams' legs and Gradkowski's short passing attack, and though there were some periodic successes in those areas – five different ballcarriers had runs of five or more yards, for instance – it proved too difficult for the Bucs to maintain such a drive all the way down the field. A short field on occasion would have helped, but Tampa Bay had just one takeaway, on their own side of the field early in the game. Time after time, the Bucs ground their way to the middle of the field and then fizzled out.
Then, when a beautiful punt by Josh Bidwell and a defensive stop finally gave the Bucs that short field they needed, the offense squandered the opportunity with two terrible miscues. First, WR Michael Clayton dropped a deep pass as he ran wide open down the right sideline, with the end zone just ahead. Then, after Gradkowski completed 24 and 11-yard passes to Galloway and Clayton, respectively, an attempted fade pass to rookie WR Maurice Stovall in the left edge of the end zone resulted in a turnover. Gradkowski simply put too much air under the pass and it went over Stovall's head and into the hands of leaping CB Bryant McFadden for an interception.
On the verge of pulling within three points with a quarter to play, the Bucs instead saw the game's momentum change as drastically as possible. Roethlisberger took the ensuing drive 80 yards in just six plays, once again enjoying too much time in the pocket as he completed passes of 36 yards to Nate Washington and 16 yards to Heath Miller, the latter for a touchdown. A quick three-and-out by the Bucs' offense, a short punt and a penalty and the Steelers were right back in Buccaneer territory. That drive didn't end in points, but it did run several minutes off the clock and, furthermore, the Steelers then took the ball back on downs four plays later.
The Steelers also did a better job of forcing and capitalizing on turnovers. Though it was the Bucs' defense that struck first, with LB Derrick Brooks' first-quarter interception, that turnover would prove to be the visitors' only one, and it produced no points. In contrast, the Steelers took the ball away four times and turned that into 17 points.
The Bucs didn't score until the game's final seconds, as Matt Bryant's 27-yard field goal capped a 57-yard game-ending drive and proved to be the last play of the contest. Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed had tacked on his own 39-yard field goal on the previous possession.
The Steelers were without all-world S Troy Polamalu but certainly not lacking in defensive weapons. Tampa Bay's first possession was good for negative-seven yards, mostly due to an eight-yard sack by pass-rushing LB Joey Porter, who easily shed a block attempt by RB Michael Pittman. Porter finished the game with two sacks.
The resulting punt gave Pittsburgh the ball near midfield for their first possession, but Brooks got it back for the Bucs with his second interception of the season. Brooks snuck into the right flat and directly into the line of Roethlisberger's pass to WR Nate Washington at the Steelers' 32. The Bucs stalled back at midfield, however, when Williams dropped an easy third-down conversion, trying to spin and run for more yards before he secured the ball.
Shelton Quarles' sack and a hard tackle by Brooks on Najeh Davenport helped force a fourth-and-one at the Bucs' 36 a few minutes later, but the Steelers false-started while trying to get off a play and then elected to punt. Gradkowski got the Bucs started off well with a 21-yard completion to Clayton, but his next pass was picked clean by LB Larry Foote. The Steelers used that fine bit of field position – the Bucs' 27 – to score the game's first points, a two-yard touchdown catch by TE Jerame Tuman on third-and-goal.
Porter had another sack early in the second quarter to kill the Bucs' next drive and move into fourth place on Pittsburgh's all-time sack list with 60 on his career. The ensuing punt pinned the Steelers at their own 12 but they quickly escaped with Roethlisberger's 24-yard strike to Washington down the right seam. CB Ronde Barber nearly intercepted Roethlisberger three plays later and the Steelers had to punt it back.
Gradkowski drove the Bucs back to midfield on the ensuing possession, though the Bucs had to throw the red flag to preserve the drive. After a nine-yard catch-and-run, Williams lost the ball after hitting the ground at the Bucs' 49 and Pittsburgh recovered the fumble. The Bucs challenged, however, and retained the ball when it became clear that Williams' elbow had hit the ground before the ball came out. The drive eventually reached the Pittsburgh 32 but died on a third-down sack by Brett Keisel.
The Steelers followed with their second scoring drive, moving 48 yards on six plays to set up Reed's 50-yard field goal. The Bucs used a variety of methods to pressure Roethlisberger, including a brief 3-4 cameo in which LB Jamie Winborn joined the rest of the Bucs' starting linebackers, but Roethlisberger twice escaped to hit long downfield plays, including a 25-yarder to RB Willie Parker. That was perhaps fitting for the Bucs this season; no NFL kicker had ever before made a field goal of 50 yards or longer at Heinz Field.
Reed's celebration indicated he knew that, and his Steelers were equally thrilled to be heading into halftime with a 10-0 lead. The Bucs did come out of the locker room hot, forcing a quick three-and-out and driving past midfield on the ensuing possession. However, Williams fumbled after a short reception and this one was not overruled by replay, though the Bucs did toss out their red flag again, in vain.
LB Shelton Quarles, playing for the first in a month, led the team with 10 tackles and a sack and was instrumental in the stellar run defense. S Jermaine Phillips added nine stops and a pass defensed and Barber turned in six solo tackles and two passes defensed.
The Bucs dropped to 3-9 with the loss and are still winless in three regular-season visits to Pittsburgh. This was their first regular-season contest in Pittsburgh since 1983. The Steelers improved to 5-7. Next, Tampa Bay returns home to face Atlanta on December 10.
Game Notes: TE Anthony Becht made his 100th consecutive appearance and start on Sunday. The streak dates back to his rookie season with the New York Jets in 2000. … CB Ronde Barber made his 132nd career start on Sunday, tying John Lynch for the fifth-most in franchise history. Also, LB Shelton Quarles debuted on the top 10 of that list with his 109th start, equaling Chidi Ahanotu's total as a Buccaneer. … RB Michael Pittman's first reception of the game, a seven-yarder late in the second quarter, was his 240th as a Buccaneer. That grab moved him past Gerald Carter (239) into sole possession of eighth place on the Bucs' all-time list. … LB Hardy Nickerson's first-quarter interception was the 23rd of his career. That moved him into a tie for fifth place on the Bucs' all-time list with Lynch. Brooks is tops on the list among linebackers. … WR Maurice Stovall's 11-yard catch in the fourth quarter was the first reception of his career.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: CB Alan Zemaitis, S Donte Nicholson, C Nick Mihlhauser, T Donald Penn, WR Paris Warren, DE Charles Bennett, DT Jon Bradley and designated third quarterback Luke McCown.
The Steelers named the following eight players inactive: WR Willie Reid, RB Duce Staley, S Troy Polamalu, C Marvin Philip, G Chris Kemoeatu, T Willie Colon, WR Hines Ward and designated third quarterback Brian St. Pierre
Injuries: DE Greg Spires had the wind knocked out of him in the second quarter but was able to return. WR Michael Clayton left the game in the fourth quarter with a knee sprain and did not return. S Kalvin Pearson sustained a thigh bruise in the fourth quarter but was available to return.
For the Steelers, WR Cedrick Wilson sustained a left ankle injury in the first quarter and did not return. S Ryan Clark suffered a groin injury in the third quarter and did not return.