Likes and Dislikes: Buccaneers vs. Steelers

One word can sum up yesterday’s loss against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: disappointment. Disappointing, because again, the opposing team didn’t defeat the Steelers, rather the Steelers beat themselves.

In what could’ve been a 3-1 start, adding some cushion to their record and making last year’s 0-4 start a distant memory, instead the Steelers gave us a painful reminder of what was last season. A leaky secondary and weak pass rush lead to poor punts, ill-fated penalties and poor field positions for both units.

The Steelers out-gained their opponent in yards (390 to 350), first downs (27 to 21) and time of possession (34:15 to 25:45) yet found a way to allow Tampa Bay to stay within striking distance. Just as the game started with sacks and a fumble contributing to an early 10-0 Tampa lead, the game ended on penalties and a 29 yard punt, putting the Buccaneers in favorable positions to win.

Penalties

The loss cannot be attributed to one player or play, rather a multitude of them. As we pointed out in our game preview last Friday, we felt the Steelers could be their own worst enemy, committing 31 enforced penalties in 3 games, or an average of at least 10 per game. This contest would prove no different, as the Steelers were called for 13 flags, for 125 yards.

Several of those penalties were preventable, including Cam Heyward yelling at a referee, Antonio Brown’s unnecessary touchdown dance and Le’Veon Bell’s taunting call. Then there were 3 face mask penalties committed by Cam Thomas, Troy Polamalu and Robert Golden. Every 1 of those 6 calls gave Tampa Bay 15 yards for free.

Tampa had not converted a 3rd down in the first half, but in spite of several conversions they had made in the 2nd half of the game, each of those were accompanied with declined penalties for illegal use of hands or offside. Continuing the trend, Arthur Moats gave the Bucs a first down with a neutral zone infraction on 3rd and 2 with 4:02 remaining in the game.

The Steelers were not helping themselves. The team was penalized 80 times for 677 yards last season. By comparison, Pittsburgh has 44 penalties for 387 yards in four games this season. After yesterday’s debacle of undisciplined football, they have already committed more than half of last season’s total.

Mike Tomlin said it best in his post-game press conference:

We are not going to win close football games being penalized in the manner in which we’ve been penalized over the first month of the season. It’s unacceptable. It’s inexcusable.

Defense

We noted the defense’s growing pains before, however, losing 3 starters to injury is not doing this group any favors. The defense already had 5 new starters in this year’s opening game compared to last, and now that total raises to 7 of those 11 players with the losses of Jarvis Jones and Ike Taylor.

Inexperienced rookie Ryan Shazier was replaced with inexperienced Sean Spence, who is similarly inexperienced, due to any injury which caused him to miss 2 years of football.

Jarvis Jones was replaced by Arthur Moats, who was signed to the Steelers this offseason. Behind Moats is James Harrison, who one week ago was enjoying the fruits of retirement.

And behind Taylor is William Gay, who excelled in a nickel back position, but left his spot to waiver wire additions such as Antwon Blake (Jaguars) Brice McCain (Texans) and B.W. Webb (Cowboys.)

The “next man up” mentality is in full effect, but those same players stepping in are facing the same difficulty of their predecessors in learning the ropes of Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 system. This group is capable, but we all felt the groans of losing key pieces of the defense last week: for all of the wrinkles that were ironed out one week ago in North Carolina, many new wrinkles appeared at home.

Special Teams

The defensive wrinkles were not the only problem in the fabric of the team. The special teams faced their own issues. Robert Golden’s face mask penalty moved Tampa from a compromising start on their own 6 yard line, up to their own 25.

Kicker Shaun Suisham’s 24 straight field goal streak came to an end on a 50 yard miss before halftime.

Finally (and most memorably) when punter Brad Wing needed the biggest play of his young career, he instead sent a wobbling punt a meager 29 yards, allowing Tampa to start their game-winning drive from the Pittsburgh 46.

Offense

The offense had their own woes, turning the ball over on their own 10 yard line, on the game’s third play of the game. However, they responded well to a 10-0 deficit, scoring 17 unanswered points through the 2nd quarter.

The Steelers play-calling was more aggressive than usual, with several long throws made to Antonio Brown. Brown continued his streak of games with 5 or more receptions to 20 games, 1 shy of an NFL record, while also registering 2 touchdowns on the day. However, with several chances to close the game, Ben Roethlisberger and Brown were unable to connect. Roethlisberger, sans his early fumble, would end up with a big day, going 29-of-40 for 314 yards and 3 touchdowns.

It plays like a broken record, but one of Ben’s touchdown passes was nearly lost due to a penalty. Another penalty on the final drive, an illegal snap committed by center Maurkice Pouncey, backed the team up for 5 yards they could not afford. Le’Veon Bell, who had runs of 7 and 16 yards on the right side of the field, was stuffed for a loss of 2 on the following 3rd down play.

Both instances were important, as a first down would’ve ended the game, as Tampa had no remaining timeouts to stop the clock. Instead, the Steelers could not move the chains, which lead to Brad Wing’s aforementioned “punt.”

Conclusion

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but not one player is guilty of this defeat. The team outplayed Tampa Bay, but through a series of killer penalties and ill-timed poor play, they found a way to keep the Bucs in the game to the end. Credit should be given to Tampa for finding holes in the Steelers defense, and securing the game winning touchdown, despite failing to do so minutes earlier.

As for the Steelers, they now sit at 2-2 on the season. A 3-1 record would’ve been ideal, and gave them some breathing room in a tight race with the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals and division rival Baltimore Ravens. Now fans are questioning if the team can weather a stretch against subpar teams such as Jacksonville, Cleveland and Houston, before facing what could be difficult match ups with Indianapolis and Baltimore.

Their opinion is well-formed, as this team will need to become better disciplined in every facet of the game to secure a playoff spot later in the year. If they clean up their act, this stretch will be needed to get younger players more experience while getting healthier on defense coming into the 2nd half of the season.

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