Tampa Bay Buccaneers

SS Mailbag: Matching Up with the Steelers

After a rousing 2-0 start for the team, Buccaneer fans have questions about the defensive line, the key matchups on Monday night and a developing pattern that's straight out of the 1990s

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 2-0 for the first time since 2010, and for the first time ever they've opened a season with consecutive wins over teams that were in the playoffs the year before. Feels good, doesn't it? Well, 3-0 would feel even better.

The last time the Buccaneers opened a season with three straight wins was 2005, and that team went on to finish 11-5 and win the NFC South. This year marks the team's eighth 2-0 start, but only four of the previous seven 2-0 seasons ended in a playoff berth. However, the Bucs have been 3-0 on four occasions – 1979, 1997, 2000 and 2005 – and they have used that as a springboard to the postseason all four times.

So, yeah, 3-0 would feel really good. Okay, now on to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. As you'll see from time to time, I also unilaterally appropriate for myself – as any good pirate captain would – questions I like that are meant for our Insider Live show or are simply responses to one of my previous tweets. I've also taken to stealing emails meant for our Salty Dogs podcast. As always, if you specifically want to get a question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Well, the first part of that question is easy: The Buccaneers' defense has produced four sacks so far, one in the opener in New Orleans and three last Sunday against the Eagles. Four different Bucs have one sack each: Kwon Alexander, Vinny Curry, Gerald McCoy and Jason Pierre-Paul.

Those are not overwhelming numbers by any means, but the Bucs' pass rush was pretty decent against a very talented Philadelphia offensive line. Tampa Bay defenders were credited with hitting Foles a whopping 12 times, four of them by Pierre-Paul. McCoy and William Gholston had two each. Foles was on the run quite a bit, though he admittedly made a couple really good plays after narrowly escaping sacks.

Again, those sack totals aren't enormous, but I consider it a good sign that each of the team's two new defensive end starters is already on the board. Curry got the team's first sack on Drew Brees in Week One and JPP got his first as a Buc on Foles last Sunday. You know the last time the Buccaneers' two opening-day defensive ends each had at least one sack by the time the first two games were over? 2001! That was a very strong duo of Marcus Jones and Simeon Rice.

So, how will the Bucs' defense fare against Pittsburgh's offense? Well, I can tell you this: It's going to be a big challenge, just as it has been the last two weeks. The only team putting up more passing yards or overall yards than Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers right now is your Buccaneers. The Steelers have bene moving the chains, averaging a league-best 29.0 first downs per game, though they haven't quite been as explosive (yet) as you might expect. Antonio Brown has 18 catches but is averaging just 8.9 yards per grab; he seems like a big play waiting to happen. JuJu Smith-Schuster has a 67-yard catch but is still only at 13.3 per grab over his full 18 receptions. Pittsburgh's top big-play machine has actually been tight end Jesse James (198 yards on just eight catches). James Conner has done a credible job of impersonating Le'Veon Bell.

Notably, Roethlisberger has been sacked five times and picked off three times through two games. That, Mr. Goldenhi, is what I think the Buccaneers' defense will have to do if they are going to fare well against this potent attack. Forget the final yardage total – the Buccaneers gave up 412 yards to Philadelphia but were in control for most of the game. The key is big plays – turnovers, third-down stops, sacks. As I mentioned above, the Bucs' defensive line moved Foles around quite a bit and Buc defenders also contested a lot of his throws, with six passes defensed. Tampa Bay made 10 third-down stops in 15 tries and also denied two of five fourth-down attempts.

The answer to this question will also be affected by the injury developments we get this week. I'll feel a lot better about our chances to slow down Brown and Smith-Schuster if Brent Grimes is back in the mix. The possible return of Vita Vea would help slow down Conner, especially if Beau Allen's new foot injury keeps him out.

Whether or not Grimes and Vea or back, I think this is what the Bucs' defense will do: Bend but not break. Roethlisberger and company will get their yards but the defense will do enough to support the team's suddenly red-hot offense.

View some of the top photos of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick against the Eagles.

Given the wording of this tweet and that it was a response to a tweet that said, "If you have a question about the Week 3 matchup against the Steelers...," I'm going to guess that it was meant as a joke. But you know what? I'm going to answer it anyway!

I'll give you three matchups to keep an eye on Monday night:

1. Bucs tight end O.J. Howard versus Steelers safety Sean Davis. It's clear that Howard, the 19th-overall pick in the 2017 draft, is coming into his own as a big-play maker. His 75-yard catch-and-run against the Eagles is Exhibit A, but Ryan Fitzpatrick has already found his tight end down the field on multiple occasions through two games. Howard is averaging 30 yards a catch and he's finding room to run because defenses have to worry so much about Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson.

The Eagles have three talented safeties, including Davis, whom they drafted in the second round in 2016. Davis and former Packer Morgan Burnett are listed as the starters but the Steelers also like to get 2018 first-round pick Terrell Edmunds on the field. They do so by utilizing nickel and dime packages where they keep the two starting safeties on the field and add a third in Edmunds. This gives them more flexibility in terms of covering tight ends, in particular. Davis is big, fast, aggressive and a good leaper, which makes him a good match for any tight end, though Kansas City's Travis Kelce did manage to have a big day against the Steelers last Sunday.

2. Steelers LB T.J. Watt versus Buccaneers RT Demar Dotson. The Steelers have an incredible knack for finding pass-rushing linebackers to employ in their classic 3-4 front, and their latest uncovered gem is T.J. Watt, the younger brother of Houston's J.J. Watt. Pittsburgh's Watt brother opened the season with a three-sack game against the Cleveland Browns and Tyrod Taylor.

Watt generally rushes standing up on the left side of the Steelers' front. That puts him in conflict with the right side of the opposing offensive line. If the right side is the strong side in the offensive formation, Watt often does battle with a tight end; however, when the tight end is on the other side he usually becomes the responsibility of the right tackle. Some of the NFL's right tackles don't have quick enough feet to keep Watt at bay all day.

Tampa Bay's offensive line is off to a great start in 2018, allowing just two sacks of Fitzpatrick through the first two games and generally giving the Bucs' viral star time to spin his Fitzmagic. Beyond those two sacks, Fitzpatrick hasn't absorbed too many hits. Taking his usual spot at right tackle, Dotson has been a big part of that strong protection. The Buccaneers haven't allowed a sack to a player coming around either edge yet; Eagles DT Fletcher Cox got one going straight up the middle on Sunday, and the other one was a scramble play where Fitzpatrick was caught from behind by a linebacker.

3. Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster versus Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis. You don't need me to tell you that Antonio Brown is one of the most dangerous weapons in all the NFL. Keeping him contained will certainly be a tall task on Monday night. But the Steelers have cultivated another big-play threat in Smith-Schuster, the second-year player out of USC.

Smith-Schuster is a significantly bigger body than Brown at 6-1 and 215 pounds. He leads the Steelers with his 240 yards, getting 80 more than Brown so far on the exact same number of catches. Smith-Schuster also has the team's longest play from scrimmage, a 67-yard reception.

The Buccaneers drafted Davis in part because they liked his size and physical style of play. They believed he could develop into a cornerback who can match up against the league's bigger receivers and, if necessary, jam them up at the line. Davis has had to develop a bit more quickly than expected, however, because the team is currently without its two starting cornerbacks. Vernon Hargreaves was lost to injured reserve in Week One and Brent Grimes hasn't played yet due to a groin injury.

As noted above, the Buccaneers' pass defense has given up quite a large number of yards. That said, Davis made a couple of standout plays against the Eagles and was credited with one pass break-up. He'll get another strong test on Monday with Smith-Schuster.

Worth noting that Phillip sent that question in before the win over Philadelphia, so he was basing his optimism on just one game. I like it!

Anyway, sure you start to see patterns and compare them to others when you've witnessed a lot of seasons, and that's a valid observation there. The Buccaneers also went from 11-5 and in the playoffs in 2005 to a dismal 4-12 campaign in 2006 and then back to a division title in 2007. These things happen. I very much hope that, if we are experiencing something similar in this 2016-18 stretch, it's more like the one Phillip noted than the one I just described, because Tony Dungy's team was clearly ascending despite that 1998 blip. I'm not sure we can say the same thing about the end of the Gruden era.

We might be stretching the comparison a little bit here, though. The "lull" season in that three-year stretch under Dungy was an 8-8 campaign, and the Bucs weren't actually eliminated from the playoffs until a few hours after their last game, a 35-0 drubbing of the Bengals in Cincinnati. A defense that looked to be on the rise in 1997 gave up a surprising amount of points but pulled it together near the end of the season as the Bucs won four of their last five. I'm not sure you could say that about the 2017 team, which struggled on defense most of the way after finishing 2016 very strong. On the other hand, none of the teams in that 1997-99 stretch had anything like an offense that the Bucs have right now, so you can probably balance those strengths out.

The "lull" year in the current stretch was 5-11, and you can't really say that team finished strong as it lost five of its last six. Yes, the season-ending win over the Saints was a boost, but there were clearly some glaring issues that needed to be addressed this past offseason. Rebounding from 5-11 is a little bit more of a task than adding a couple wins to an 8-8 team and getting back in the playoffs.

However, here is where I'm going to contradict myself and agree with you to some extent, Phillip. Yeah, the Bucs went 5-11 and lost five of their last six, but their last four losses were all by either three points or in overtime. The 2017 Buccaneers were 1-4 in games decided by three points or less and 2-8 in games decided by seven points or less. Team management felt all those close losses were an indication that the roster was stronger than its 5-11 record would indicate. So far, it seems like they might be right.

The funny thing is, that 1999 bounce-back season under Dungy didn't start all that well. The Bucs lost their opener and stumbled to a 3-4 start to the season. Then they caught fire, winning eight of their last nine regular-season games and advancing all the way to the NFC Championship Game. The 2018 Buccaneers now have the benefit of a very hot start, which certainly increases the chances that Phillip here is right and the team is about to enjoy another slightly-delayed renaissance.

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