CB Ronde Barber won the battle for this ball, one of his two interceptions, but Pittsburgh finished the game on top
All week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were concerned about Jerome Bettis hurting them with his feet. Turns out it was Bettis' right arm that was the biggest threat. At least at first.
Bettis, who was averaging over 100 rushing yards per game coming into the weekend, faced a Buc defense determined to put the brakes on 'The Bus.' That may have worked in the Steelers favor when, on the game's biggest play, Bettis threw the ball.
With Tampa Bay leading 3-0 in the second quarter and Pittsburgh facing a third-and-three at the Bucs' 32-yard line, Bettis took a pitch from QB Kordell Stewart and began sweeping right. The entire Buccaneer defense rushed up to meet him; Pittsburgh TE Jerame Tuman ran in the other direction.
Recalling the game-winning play of last season's stunning loss to the New York Jets, Bettis pulled up and threw a halfback option pass to Tuman, who was behind the Bucs' defense. Just the second pass of Bettis' illustrious career, it was an easy touchdown, giving the Steelers a 7-3 lead in a game they would go on to win 17-10.
The Bucs drop to 2-3 with the loss. Pittsburgh moves to 4-1.
"It's a very disappointing loss," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "I thought that we had some good effort but again, there are four or five plays during the game that you have to come up with a big play, and we didn't make it. We're not making the big plays when we need to."
Bettis' pass was, admittedly, less than halfway into the contest, but a heavy rain swept in from the south just as the second half began and a game that was already somewhat of a grinder became increasingly ground-oriented, at least for the Steelers. Bettis retired his throwing arm and used the second half to do what he does best. After gaining just 25 yards on eight carries in the opening half, Bettis blasted for 118 after the break, including a 46-yard touchdown run that gave Pittsburgh a 14-3 lead early in the third quarter.
Pittsburgh's NFL-best running game never stopped once it got going, eventually picking up 221 yards. That marks three straight games in which the Steelers have crossed the 200-yard mark as a team, increasing their per-game mark to an unbelievable 197.8.
"We held the running game down pretty well in the first half, but even then, when we needed to get the stop on third down to get the ball back, we didn't get it done," said Dungy. "We have to develop consistency."
The Bucs had their chances in the second half, thanks in part to the turnover efforts of CB Ronde Barber. Barber finished the game with two interceptions and a fumble recovery, two of those takeaways coming in the second half.
Tampa Bay drove into Pittsburgh territory three times in the last two quarters, but came away with just seven points. Steeler blitzes resulted in 10 sacks, tying a record against the Buccaneers and short-circuiting several Buc drives that had reached scoring territory. In addition, a promising deep pass over the middle to WR Keyshawn Johnson was tipped away at the last second by CB Chad Scott and intercepted in the end zone by S Mike Logan.
That loomed larger when the Buccaneers closed the gap to a single touchdown with an impressive 80-yard drive in the closing minutes. QB Brad Johnson, who completed 24 of 40 passes for 283 yards, one touchdown and one interception, helped the Bucs convert three fourth-down plays on the drive, including a fourth-and-13 from deep in Tampa Bay territory, and eventually completed it with a five-yard touchdown pass to WR Frank Murphy.
Murphy, into the game because both starting receivers were out with injuries suffered on that drive, scored his first career touchdown.
The Bucs then tried an onsides kick with 28 seconds remaining, a gambit that had not worked for Tampa Bay since 1992. It appeared as if that drought was over when CB Brian Kelly got his hands on a high hop at the end of Martin Gramatica's bouncer, but the ball was lost back to the Steelers somewhere at the bottom of the pile. Possession was originally handed to the Bucs by the onfield referees, but the ruling was overturned by the man in the replay booth.
Before a hip flexor strain following his 10th catch of the game, most of the passes thrown in Johnson's direction found their mark, as the receiver's breakout season continued with 10 receptions for 159 yards. He now has 41 catches for 548 yards through five games and is the first Buc receiver to post back-to-back 100-yard receiving games since Mark Carrier late in 1989.
The only missing number in Johnson's outstanding season is touchdowns, the same fate that befell the Buccaneers on Sunday. Struggles on the ground (64 rushing yards) on third down (four of 15) and in the red zone (one touchdown in three tries) limited the Bucs to a single touchdown one week after they scored 28 in Indianapolis.
On the flip side, the most confounding and damaging trend of the Bucs' young season continued as Pittsburgh was allowed to convert on six of ten third downs. That marks four straight Tampa Bay opponents that have succeeded on 50% or more of their third down tries.
"We're 2-3, definitely not where we want to be," said Dungy. "We have to keep going the rest of the way, play a little better and get this thing going."
Buccaneers.com provided reports after the end of each quarter during the contest. Those reports, complete with details of all the big plays, follow to provide a closer look at what happened during the Bucs' narrow loss.
First Quarter Report