The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost the turnover battle by three on Monday night, and the game by the same margin. That was no coincidence.
Facing the Pittsburgh Steelers in front of a national Monday Night Football audience in Week Three, the Buccaneers suffered their first loss of the season, 30-27, but not because their big-play offense showed any signs of slowing down. Rather, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bucs' top-ranked attack suddenly fell prey to the turnover bug, digging a 20-point first-half hole that withstood Tampa Bay's impressive second-half comeback attempt.
The game turned on a stretch of four Buccaneer drives in the second quarter, the first ending in a Chris Godwin fumble and the next three resulting in Fitzpatrick interceptions. The last of those was returned 10 yards for a touchdown by Pittsburgh linebacker Bud Dupree, marking the first defensive touchdown the Buccaneers have surrendered this year. Tampa Bay shut out the Steelers in the second half and crawled to within a field goal on touchdown catches by Godwin and Mike Evans but Pittsburgh stopped one final Tampa Bay drive with just over three minutes to play and then was able to run out the clock thanks to some impressive improvisation by QB Ben Roethlisberger.
"We dug ourselves a big hole," said Fitzpatrick. "That's tough, turning the ball over four times, three interceptions we can't have, the interception for a touchdown we can't have. But it's just a feeling in that huddle of belief. We know we've got the playmakers and we know we've got the guys that can light up the scoreboard, so we have great belief. For our defense to fight off in the second half and give us an opportunity at the end there with the ball with over two minutes left down three, that's a game that offensively we've got to be able to take it down and score."
With the loss the Buccaneers dropped to 2-1 on the season, putting them into a tie for first place in the NFC South with the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints. Tampa Bay finishes the first quarter of its season next Sunday with a road game against the Chicago Bears. The Buccaneers also saw their all-time record on Monday Night Football fall to an even 11-11.
Fitzpatrick, the first player ever to open a season with two consecutive 400-yard, four-touchdown passing efforts, still piled up the yards and touchdowns against Pittsburgh on Monday night – in fact, he became the first player in league history to post three consecutive 400-yard passing games – but was unable to avoid turnovers as he had in wins over New Orleans and Philadelphia. Fitzpatrick's only interception in those two games was an accurate pass that went through O.J. Howard's hands and was deflected high in the air. His first pick against the Steelers was similar, a tipped ball that deflected high in the air and was intercepted by Mike Hilton deep in Steelers territory. However, his next two interceptions were thrown directly to Pittsburgh defenders, though they might have involved some breakdowns in communication.
"As an offense, we all really believe in one another," said TE Cam Brate, who caught a four-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to give the Bucs a quick 7-0 lead. "Those turnovers aren't all on Ryan. There were a couple of lapses in protection and missed assignments. He's a great quarterback and a great leader, and some of those throws he made in the second half were awesome."
The Buccaneers also struggled in the red zone, a problem from 2017 that hadn't been an issue in the first two games of this season. They had five incursions inside the 20 on Monday night but came away with just two touchdowns and 20 points on those possessions. Tampa Bay's drives right before and right after halftime illustrated the red zone struggles well, as those two possessions chewed a total of nine-and-a-half minutes off the clock and gained a pair of first-and-goal opportunities but resulted in just six points.
In addition, Fitzpatrick did not enjoy nearly the level of protection on Monday night as he had in the first two games of the season. He absorbed three sacks, was hit 13 times and had many of his throws hurried. The Bucs had allowed him to be dropped just twice through the first two games of the season and frequently gave him a clean pocket to find receivers downfield.
The Bucs also got a decent amount of pressure on Roethlisberger, who endured three sacks and nine hits. However, the veteran passer also made a number of plays after escaping near-sacks, including the one that essentially clinched the game. With just over two minutes left, Roethlisberger managed to get off a hurried pass down the middle to JuJu Smith-Schuster that allowed the Steelers to kill the Bucs' last timeout and run out the clock.
The game pitted the top two passing attacks in the NFL through the first two weeks of the season and stayed true to form, with both teams moving the ball through the air consistently but struggling to run the ball. Fitzpatrick completed 30 of 50 passes for 411 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions while Roethlisberger was an efficient 30 of 38 for 353 yards, three touchdowns and one pick.
Fitzpatrick's favorite target was Evans who caught six passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. His scoring grab with just under six minutes left gave the Bucs a chance to complete the comeback and also served as a personal milestone. It was his 35th career touchdown reception, breaking a tie with Jimmie Giles for the most in franchise history. Fitzpatrick's only regret in his 11 targets of Evans was the last one, a deep shot on first down of the Bucs' last drive that just missed. Two more incompletions followed and the Bucs chose to punt with a little less than three minutes left, still possession two timeouts and with the two-minute warning ahead. Unfortunately, the defense didn't get the necessary stop.
"Mike is such a tough competitor and a guy that I love playing with," said Fitzpatrick. "We had a chance there at the end. He got by the corner there on the right and I just underthrew him by a little bit. That would have been a back-breaker, I think, for them. He's always going to stay with the QB. He's a QB's best friend in that he's a playmaker and he's always got your back."
It was a penalty-plagued evening, with the two teams combining to commit 22 infractions for 235 yards. The most damaging one was drawn by the Buccaneers, as a holding call on S Isaiah Johnson erased an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown by Jackson with nine minutes left. Instead, Tampa Bay had to start back at its own eight, still down by 10.
After rushing out to big leads in their wins in Weeks One and Two, the Buccaneers found themselves down by 20, 30-10, at halftime on Monday night. The Buccaneers scored first and were able to rack up 210 first-half yards, but four straight drives in the second quarter ended in turnovers. Even after falling behind 23-7, the Buccaneers earned a first-and-goal at the five-yard line late in the first half. Unfortunately, the Steelers' defense forced a field goal and Roethlisberger used the last 75 seconds of the half to drive the visiting team to another touchdown. Roethlisberger completed 21 of his 25 passes in the first half for 275 yards and three touchdowns.
In the second half, the Buccaneers out-scored the Steelers, 17-0, and out-gained them 245 yards to 129.
"I thought up front we started doing a better job controlling the line of scrimmage, offensively and defensively," said Brate. "A couple guys made some really good plays for us. IT was just a little too little, a little too late. We can't put ourselves in such a big hole in the first half. It made it pretty hard to come back. Most games come down to the last two minutes; we just didn't make enough plays at the end."
The Steelers got the ball to start the game but had to open at their own 10-yard line due to a holding penalty. The Buccaneers' defense started its own night with a three-and-out. McCoy tackled Conner for a one-yard loss on the tailback's first carry of the night, forcing a third-and-eight, and a quick pass underneath to Brown was stopped four yards short by Kwon Alexander.
The Bucs' first drive also lasted just three plays. Fitzpatrick missed an open Evans down the middle on second down before dropping a touch pass in between tacklers to Godwin downfield on third down. Unfortunately, Steelers cornerback Joe Haden reacted quickly and laid a tremendous hit on the receiver just after the ball arrived, jarring it loose for an incompletion.
Pittsburgh got the game's first two first downs on the ensuing drives on short passes to Conner and TE Vance McDonald. However, Tampa Bay reassumed possession near midfield when Roethlisberger escaped what seemed like a sure sack by William Gholston and fired off a pass that Evans intercepted at the Bucs' 47. Roethlisberger was trying to hit JuJu Smith-Schuster on the run near the left sideline but Evans cut in front of the receiver and made a leaping interception.
Fitzpatrick needed one play to get the ball into Steelers territory for the first time, hitting Evans on a 14-yard comebacker on first down. Another 13-yarder two plays later, caught by Howard, made it first down at the Steelers' 22. On the next play, Barber burst through an opening up the middle and dashed down to the four, only tripped up at the last second by CB Coty Sensabaugh. On first-and-goal, the Bucs faked a handoff to Barber and Fitzpatrick threw a touchdown pass to Brate in the back middle of the end zone. A personal foul on Chandler Catanzaro's successful PAT allowed the Bucs to kick off from the 50-yard line.
The Steelers nearly tied the game on their next possession. The Bucs quickly forced Pittsburgh into a third-and-10 but McDonald got wide open near the left sideline and Roethlisberger hit him with only S Chris Conte anywhere nearby. Conte got to McDonald but the tight end was able to shrug him off and continue untouched for a 75-yard touchdown. It wasn't quite enough to tie the game because kicker Chris Boswell bounced his extra point try off the right upright.
Tampa Bay's next drive started at its own 17 but got a quick 20 yards when Fitzpatrick was hit late on a five-yard scramble by LB Jon Bostic. Brate's 21-yard catch in traffic down the middle of the field got the ball to the Steelers' 29, but the drive stalled there and a third-down sack by Anthony Chickillo took the Bucs out of field goal range. Tampa Bay punted and Ryan Smith downed it at the Steelers' eight.
Pittsburgh got out of the shadow of their end zone when Roethlisberger hit Smith-Schuster just over a leaping Brent Grimes for a gain of 43. A roughing-the-passer call on McCoy tacked on 15 more to the Bucs' 34. Roethlisberger then converted a third-and-11 with another pass to McDonald, this one gaining 12 to the Bucs' 23. Tampa Bay's defense held there, however, and the Steelers settled for Chris Boswell's 38-yard field goal and a two-point lead with 12 minutes left in the half.
The Buccaneers committed their first turnover of the night on the next drive to put the Steelers back into scoring range. Godwin caught a crossing route and broke a tackle but had the ball poked out of his grasp by Artie Burns. Mike Hilton recovered for the Steelers at the Bucs' 33. Two plays later, Brown got a one-on-one matchup wide to the right against Grimes, caught a short pass and got around both Grimes and Evans for a 27-yard score.
The Bucs needed one play to get into Steelers territory on the next drive. Evans caught a pass over the middle and ran to the Steelers' 43 absorbing a late hit for another 15 yards to the 28. After a holding penalty cost the Bucs 10 yards, but Fitzpatrick combined to convert a third-and-14 with a remarkable play. Fitzpatrick got a throw off as he was being hit and Godwin somehow caught the ball around Sensabaugh for a gain of 20. Unfortunately, the drive ended on another turnover two plays later. A blitzing Bostic leaped to bat Fitzpatrick's pass in the air and it was intercepted by Hilton at the Pittsburgh six.
A wayward slap of Roethlisberger's helmet by Jason Pierre-Paul gave the Steelers' drive a 15-yard boost but the defense forced a punt when rookie CB Carlton Davis made a third-down stop on Brown at the Steelers' 27. The Bucs got a roughing-the-passer penalty to start the next drive but Fitzpatrick then threw his second interception on an obvious bit of miscommunication. The only player near the end of the pass was rookie safety Terrell Edmunds, who intercepted it and returned it 35 yard to the Bucs' 35.
Two sacks, one by Pierre-Paul and one split by McCoy and Curry, kept Pittsburgh from turning that takeaway into points, but Joshua Berry punted the ball down to the Bucs' two-yard line with 3:37 left in the half. That in turn led to another turnover that directly produced Pittsburgh points. Two plays into the ensuing drive, LB Bud Dupree intercepted a short Fitzpatrick pass and returned it 10 yards for a touchdown.
Fitzpatrick didn't stop slinging it. On the next drive, he went up top and completed a 51-yard pass down the left sideline to Evans, who made a stunning catch with Burns hanging on him. That brought the ball down to the five as the two-minute warning arrived. The Bucs couldn't punch it in from there and Catanzaro came on to hit a 21-yard field goal to make it 23-10.
That score left too much time on the clock for Roethlisberger, who drove his team 75 yards in the last 1:15 to tack on seven late points. Roethlisberger was eight-for nine on the drive, including an 18-yarder to Conner to get it started and two 12-yarders to Smith-Schuster to get the ball down to the Bucs' two. Roethlisberger finished it with a one-yard shallow out to Ryan Switzer just over the line to make it 30-10 with six seconds left in the half.
The Buccaneers got the ball first in the second half, and a sliding Mike Evans catch got the ball to midfield. However, a pair of false-start penalties backed the Bucs up before Godwin made a diving 19-yard catch at the Steelers' 37. A loss of two on a run and a sack of Fitzpatrick by Bostic but a screen pass to Godwin worked to perfection and the second-year receiver picked his way to a first down at the 26. After a 16-yard catch-and-run by Humphries made it first-and-goal at the six, but a penalty and a sack killed that touchdown chance and the Bucs settled for three points on Chandler Catanzaro's 28-yard field goal.
The Steelers marched back into Buccaneers territory on the ensuing drive but came away empty when Boswell banged a 47-yard field goal try off the right upright. Pittsburgh got to the Bucs' 27 but Pierre-Paul halted the drive with a strip sack, although the Steelers were able to fall on the loose ball.
A 17-yard catch by Jackson on the ensuing drive got the ball across midfield, but a subsequent chop-block penalty put the Bucs into a first-and-25 hole. They needed four downs to climb out of it, going for it on fourth-and-six at the Pittsburgh 42 and converting on Fitzpatrick's nine-yard pass to Brate. Fitzpatrick got the Bucs into the red zone when he escaped a near-sack, scrambled left and hit Howard for 11 yards near the left sideline. An 11-yard catch by Jacquizz Rodgers over the middle made it first-and-goal at the six and, on third-and-goal, Fitzpatrick scrambled right and then threw back left to Godwin, who made the leaping touchdown catch with a Steelers defender hanging on him, just coming back down inbounds.
Pittsburgh got one first down on the next drive and ran several minutes off the clock but the Bucs forced a punt when Pierre-Paul nearly sacked Roethlisberger again on third down and forced a throw-away. Jackson exhilaratingly returned the ensuing punt for a touchdown but the play was erased by a holding call on the Buccaneers.
Starting at his own eight, Fitzpatrick completed passes of 21 yards to Howard and 12 to Jackson to get the drive moving. A 17-yard scramble by Fitzpatrick got the ball across midfield. A deep ball into the end zone in Evans' direction was incomplete but Howard took a short pass over the middle and eluded several defenders to get to the 24. Two plays later, Fitzpatrick threw a high lob to the left edge of the end zone and Evans caught it as he fell to his back for a 24-yard touchdown.
The Steelers got the ball back with a three-point lead and just under six minutes to play. They got their drive off to a good start when Conner got around right end for 27 yards and then darted up the middle for nine more to the Bucs' 39. After Roethlisberger burrowed for a first down, Lavonte David shot across the line to drop Conner for a loss of four and the Bucs used their first timeout. The Bucs got the stop two plays later on a deep incompletion in Brown's direction with Carlton Davis in tight coverage. The Steelers punted with a little more than three minutes left and Berry rolled it down to the one but a penalty on the kicking team forced them to do it again. In addition, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey drew an unsportsmanlike penalty before the next kick, forcing Berry to punt again back at the Steelers' 37. The result was a touchback.
Three incompletions followed and the Bucs punted with 2:49 left, still possession two timeouts and with the two-minute warning ahead. Unfortunately, they never got the ball back.