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Good, bad and ugly from Steelers’ win over Tampa Bay

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Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree (48) follows his blockers to the end zone after Dupree intercepted a pass by Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and returned it for a score during the first half Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in Tampa, Fla.

Five things we learned from Steelers 30, Buccaneers 27

1. Nothing comes easy for this bunch.

Thanks to four turnovers, one of which was Bud Dupree’s 10-yard interception return for a touchdown, the Steelers pounced on the Buccaneers in the second quarter and took a 30-10 lead into the locker room.

What had the makings of a statement win for the Steelers after an 0-1-1 start nearly unraveled in the second half. Ryan Fitzpatrick picked apart the defense, getting points on Tampa Bay’s first three drives of the second half. The Steelers, meanwhile, were held scoreless after intermission.

It took one defensive stand and two first downs for the Steelers to run out the clock and preserve the much-needed victory.

In 2017, the Steelers won eight of their 13 games by six points or less. So far this season all three games have been decided by five points or less, including that dreadful tie in Cleveland.

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2. Penalties continue to drag down the special teams.

The tone was set on the opening kickoff when Jordan Dangerfield was called for holding, wiping out a 31-yard return by Ryan Switzer. It was the first of six penalties called against members of the special teams, which accounted for nearly half of the Steelers’ total of 13.

What’s more disturbing than the penalties was the yardage involved. Dan McCullers and Cameron Heyward each were called for unnecessary roughness following an extra point. Nat Berhe was whistled for a facemask on the kick coverage unit, giving the Buccaneers an additional 15 yards.

Not to be outdone, special teams whiz Darrius Heyward-Bey hit the daily double on a Jordan Berry punt that was downed at the Tampa Bay 1 with 3:10 left in the game and the Steelers clinging to a three-point lead.

First, Heyward-Bey was called for an illegal shift, and he had 15 more yards tacked for unsportsmanlike conduct when he argued with the officials.

Forced to punt again, Berry sent the ball 56 yards into the end zone for a touchback. The Steelers overcame this gaffe by getting a three-and-out. Still, the number of penalties (and the nature of the infractions) are alarming – even by the Steelers’ standards.

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3. JuJu Smith-Schuster is benefiting from Antonio Brown’s double coverage.

With Brown warranting so much extra attention, Smith-Schuster is taking advantage of his one-on-one matchups. The second-year receiver led the Steelers with nine catches for 116 yards. While Brown was shut out in the second half, Smith-Schuster was targeted five times and caught all five passes for 45 yards. Three of those second-half catches resulted in first downs, including an 18-yarder that helped the Steelers run out the clock.

Smith-Schuster now ranks third in the NFL with 356 receiving yards on 27 receptions. At this juncture of his rookie season, Smith-Schuster had five catches for 55 yards.

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4. Dan McCullers is becoming a productive member of the defensive line rotation.

It has taken until his fifth season, but the big nose tackle is starting to make plays that were absent earlier in his Steelers career.

McCullers didn’t make it onto the stat sheet, but he warranted a pass defensed on the Ryan Fitzpatrick throw that was intercepted by Bud Dupree and returned 10 yards for a touchdown and 23-7 lead in the second quarter. McCullers admitted he got a piece of the ball.

McCullers also is starting to play more meaningful snaps for the Steelers. He’s making good on the team’s decision to sign him to a one-year deal and give him a chance to work under new position coach Karl Dunbar.

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5. The emphasis on officials calling roughing-the-passer personal fouls isn’t going away.

Whether it’s applying too much body weight or giving the quarterback an extra nudge – or bop on the head in one instance –the NFL is continuing its crackdown on perceived late hits on passers.

Each team was flagged twice for roughing the passer, including Stephon Tuitt and Sean Davis of the Steelers. Jason Pierre-Paul of the Bucs was called for roughing when his hand came down on Ben Roethlisberger’s head after a pass.

Some of the calls were borderline at best, ridiculous at worst. There was some griping about it after the game, but the NFL has shown no signs of relaxing its rules on protecting the quarterback. Until that happens, teams that thrive on rushing the passer – such as the Steelers – will have their efforts undermined by a sea of yellow flags.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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