The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take the prime-time stage in Week Three and try to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2005. Their opponent for Monday Night Football is the explosive Pittsburgh Steelers, led by Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. The game will feature the top two teams in the NFL's offensive rankings, with only the Buccaneers putting up more passing yards and overall yards than the Steelers.
Pittsburgh is off to an 0-1-1 start, with a tie against Cleveland and a shootout loss to Kansas City, but is coming off a 13-3 finish in 2013. The Steelers haven't finished below .500 since 2003, which means they've never had a losing record since Roethlisberger arrived in 2004. The 15th-year passer has already thrown an NFL-high 101 passes and he's surrounded by dynamic pass-catching weapons, from Brown to JuJu Smith-Schuster to tight end Jesse James. Here is a closer look at some of the challenges the Buccaneers will face against Pittsburgh on Monday night:
Each week during the season, Head Coach Dirk Koetter puts together a specific video package to show to his players called "Game-Wreckers." The clips are meant to identify the three or four players on the opposing team who are likely to make the big plays that most affect the game's outcome. The Buccaneers know they have to limit the damage inflicted by these game-wreckers if they are going to come out on top.
Koetter's cut-up is an internal tool for his team and it is not shared publicly, though he does occasionally note an opposing game-wrecker or two during media sessions. Below are four players who might be on this week's tape.
1. WR Antonio Brown. Brown is annually on the short list for the mantle of best receiver in the NFL, and he hasn't had fewer than 101 catches, 1,284 yards or eight touchdowns in any of the last five seasons. He is extremely good after the catch, ranking eighth in the NFL last year in YAC, but he's also adept at making contested catches downfield at the end of one of Roethlisberger's signature scramble plays. Brown has already been targeted 33 times by Roethlisberger through two games, leading to 18 catches for 160 yards and one score. That's a surprisingly-low 8.9 yards per catch (his career average is 13.4) but that likely just means he's due for an explosion of big plays.
2. QB Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben's best career statistic is probably his win-loss record as a starter: 148-72-1, including 13 postseason games. That said, Roethlisberger also ranks seventh in NFL history with 51,852 passing yards and eighth with 333 touchdowns. He has four touchdown passes through two games this year, though he has also been intercepted three times and sacked five times. That latter statistic is surprising, as the 6-5, 240-pound Roethlisberger is one of the NFL's hardest quarterbacks to bring down; he has not been sacked more than 21 times in each of the last three seasons. More often than not, pressure simply forces Roethlisberger out of the pocket, where he is extremely dangerous on "off-script" plays.
3. LB T.J. Watt. The 6-4, 252-pound Watt isn't quite as big as his older brother, former NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, but he is similarly-skilled as a pass-rusher and a perfect fit for the Steelers' 3-4 defense. The Steelers have a long-standing knack for finding stand-up edge rushers for their front line, and Watt is just the latest success story. The 30th-overall pick in 2017, he had seven sacks as a rookie, along with seven passes defensed and an interception, and he started off his second year with a three-sack outing against the Browns, winning AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors in the process. Watt generally rushes around the right end of the offensive line, matching up against either the right tackle or a tight end, and he can bend around the corner quickly. He also hustles in pursuit of running backs and has the ability to drop into coverage.
4. DT Cameron Heyward. As one of the two down linemen flanking the Steelers' nose tackle, Heyward can end up facing off against a guard, a tackle or a tight end, and when he has the size advantage (6-5, 295) he can often just power right through the blocker to get to the quarterback. Heyward will usually line up over the left tackle in three-man fronts but is more like a three-technique defensive tackle (think Gerald McCoy) in four-man fronts. He is explosive off the ball like a top three-tech, but he mainly relies on his incredible strength and power once engaged with blockers. Last year, Heyward recorded a career-high 12.0 sacks.
As noted, the Steelers can really fling it, racking up 377.5 yards per game through two weeks after ranking third in that category last year. On defense, they've been strong in the critical category of third-down stops, allowing only a 30.43% success rate so far, tied for fourth in the NFL. Some other bright spots for the Steelers, statistically, in the early part of this year:
· Philadelphia's passing attack was absolutely masterful in the red zone last year. Eagles quarterbacks threw 76 passes inside the 20 in 2017 and 28 of them resulted in touchdowns while none were intercepted. That rate of 36.8% of their red zone passes resulting in points was the best in the league.
· When the Steelers offense has gotten into the red zone this year, they have almost always been able to finish the job. Pittsburgh has seven inside-the-20 incursions so far and has scored touchdowns on six of them, for a red zone touchdown percentage of 85.7. That ranks in third in the NFL.
· Pittsburgh's defense can definitely get to the passer. The Steelers have recorded eight sacks already and they rank fourth in the NFL with a sacks-per-pass-attempt rate of 11.76%. Specifically, the Steelers have fared well on blitzes so far this season. Opposing quarterbacks have completed just 40.9% of their passes against a Pittsburgh blitz this season, the third-lowest team total in the league.
So far, the Steelers have had difficulty stopping the run, allowing 152.0 yards per game and 4.83 yards per carry to rank 30th and 26th, respectively, in those two categories. Pittsburgh has also been penalized 12 times in each of its first two games and has overall incurred 43 more yards of penalties than their opponents. In addition:
· The Steelers won 13 games last year despite being decidedly middle-of-the-pack in turnover differential, which is usually a very telling statistic. The Steelers were plus-two for the entire season in that category. This year, they have not yet gotten on the plus side of that ledger, having turned it over six times (three interceptions, three lost fumbles) while taking it away twice. That negative-four differential is tied with Detroit for last in the league.
· Pittsburgh is not off to a good start in the kicking game. Placekicker Chris Boswell has missed his only two field goal attempts so far (from 42 and 49 yards) as well as one of his seven extra point tries. Punter Jordan Berry has a 34.8-yard net average that ranks 29th in the NFL.
· The Steelers' red zone defense has essentially cancelled out its good numbers on offense in that category. Opposing teams have cracked Pittsburgh's 20-yard line seven times this year and come away with six touchdowns, exactly matching the team's TD rate on offense.
NEW FACES IN 2018
Much of Pittsburgh's depth chart is homegrown. That includes the quarterback, the running back, both starting receivers, most of the offensive line, six of the starters in the front seven and five of the primary seven defensive backs. There are only a few new faces on the Steelers' roster this year.
1. WR James Washington. Pittsburgh used its second-round pick on the former big-play man at Oklahoma State and he could essentially soak up the targets that went to Martavis Bryant last year. So far Washington has just one reception, but it went for a touchdown and he has been targeted four other times. Washington also started last week when the Steelers opened in a three-receiver set.
2. S Morgan Burnett/S Terrell Edmunds. The Eagles have cultivated a nice trio of safeties, with their 2018 first-round pick, Edmunds, joining 2016 second-rounder Sean Davis and 2018 unrestricted free agent signee Burnett, the former Packer. The team employs all three safeties, sometimes all on the field together in nickel and dime packages.
3. LB Jon Bostic. Bostic bounced around from Chicago to New England to Indianapolis over his first four NFL seasons but got a chance to start for the Colts last year and produced 97 tackles and a sack. The Steelers needed another inside linebacker to pair with Vince Williams and replace Ryan Shazier for the time being, and Bostic won the job. He has one of the team's eight sacks so far.
1. RB Le'Veon Bell. This is the big one, of course. Bell received the franchise tag again this offseason but has not signed it nor reported to the team as of yet. Perhaps the league's best running back, particularly in terms of being a dual rushing-receiving threat, Bell has been ably replaced to this point by James Conner (159 rushing yards, 10 receptions).
2. CB Joe Haden. Perhaps the Steelers best cover man, Haden suffered a hamstring injury in the season-opener against his former team, the Browns, and sat out last week against the Chiefs. His availability for Monday night's game remains in doubt.
3. G David DeCastro. DeCastro started the Steelers' season opener at right guard, the position he has held down for nearly every game since 2013. However, he sustained a broken hand in that game and was replaced last week by B.J. Finney.