Not much has gone as planned for the Pittsburgh Steelers early in this season. Franchise-tagged tailback Le’Veon Bell has not joined the team, continuing his contract stare-down with the organization and irking teammates in the process. Wide receiver Antonio Brown had a sideline disagreement with the coaching staff last Sunday and then didn’t show up at the Steelers’ facility the following day.
An embarrassing season-opening tie in Cleveland was followed by a Week 2 loss at home to the Kansas City Chiefs. So the Steelers were fairly desperate for a win, at least by Week 3 standards, entering Monday night’s game at Tampa Bay.
And win they did. But even that came in trying, roundabout fashion. A 20-point halftime lead nearly disappeared. Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick followed a three-interception first half with a brilliant second half on his way to becoming the first player in NFL history to have three straight 400-yard passing games. But the Steelers hung on to prevail, 30-27.
“What a crazy game,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said in an on-field postgame interview with ESPN. “We’ll take a win any way we can get one, though. I’m just proud of the way the guys fought all the way until the end. Give this team a lot of credit. The Buccaneers are a good football team. We just found a way today.”
The Steelers, with a record of 1-1-1, haven’t played their way out of playoff contention yet. Not even close. But they certainly haven’t resembled the Super Bowl team that they aspire to be. They host the rival Baltimore Ravens Sunday night in Pittsburgh. They need to pull things together relatively quickly, or it will begin to feel late in the season fairly soon.
Roethlisberger was very productive Monday night, throwing for 353 yards and three touchdowns while completing 30 of 38 pass attempts. But the players who are supposed to be helping him the most weren’t doing so.
Bell remains a no-show. Fill-in tailback James Conner ran for 61 yards on 15 carries against the Buccaneers. The Steelers had two 100-yard receivers Monday, but neither was Brown, who had six catches for 50 yards. Second-year wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster had nine catches for 116 yards, and tight end Vance McDonald had four catches for 112 yards.
Displaying such depth and versatility is nice. Finding a way to add Bell to the mix and getting the offense revved up with its usual mainstays would be even better. The Steelers could use a return to normalcy.
“It’s another week, a new week,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re gonna move on. I’m sure someone will make something else happen, yeah. But, you know what, it doesn’t matter.”
Fitzpatrick’s uneven night came as the three-game suspension of Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston under the NFL’s personal conduct policy concludes. Winston is eligible to return to the team Tuesday. Whether he does so as the starter remains to be seen.
Fitzpatrick was one of the league’s brightest and most surprising stars in the season’s first two weeks as the Buccaneers started 2-0. The “FitzMagic” seemed to end with Monday’s dreadful first half. One of Fitzpatrick’s interceptions was returned for a touchdown by Pittsburgh’s Bud Dupree.
But Fitzpatrick pulled things together after halftime and finished the night with 411 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-for-50 passing night. He has made a strong case to remain the starter on an at-least-temporary basis, and now Coach Dirk Koetter must make his choice.
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