Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Vance McDonald’s stiff-arm gives Steelers jump start
TAMPA, Fla. — The stars came out for Monday Night Football, as Santonio Holmes reprised his Super Bowl XLIII-winning touchdown catch in the end zone and Hulk Hogan roamed the sidelines before the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But Vance McDonald upstaged everyone.
The Steelers tight end delivered a devastating blow with a super stiff-arm on Bucs safety Chris Conte, turning a short pass into a 75-yard scoring play at 5 minutes, 48 seconds of the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium.
The Steelers were the NFL’s final team to score a touchdown in the first quarter this season, after being outscored, 28-0, by the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs and Bucs.
And they were only getting started.
1. Slow start: The Steelers were penalized on the opening kickoff, as safety Jordan Dangerfield drew a holding flag to force the offense to start from its own 10-yard line.
Then, the Steelers went three-and-out for the fourth consecutive games, dating to the playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
After the defense held, Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted by safety Justin Evans. The Bucs responded with a five-play, 53-yard scoring drive capped by Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Brate for a 7-0 lead.
Just when they started to look like the same, old Steelers, McDonald caught a pass from Big Ben and made a big bang.
2. Redemption songs?: Chris Boswell has struggled since the Steelers rewarded the Pro Bowl kicker with a $20 million contract, and his misfires continued when he hit the upright on an extra-point kick after McDonald’s touchdown.
But after missing field goals in the first two games, Boswell converted his first with a 38-yarder to give the Steelers a 9-7 lead. Artie Burns was benched for the first time after 27 consecutive starts at cornerback, but the former first-round pick redeemed himself on his second series.
Burns popped Bucs receiver Chris Godwin, forcing a fumble that was recovered by nickel corner Mike Hilton. Two plays later, Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a 27-yard touchdown pass along the right sideline for a 16-7 lead at 10:33 of the second.
It was a turning point in the game.
But Boswell later missed on a 47-yarder that hit the right upright, and Burns was later burned deep by Mike Evans for a 51-yard catch that set up a Tampa Bay field goal late in the first half and on a 24-yard touchdown pass to Evans in the fourth quarter.
3. Pick party: Fitzpatrick wasn’t just leading the NFL in passing yards through the first two weeks, he also had one of the best nicknames: FitzMagic.
Three picks later, it disappeared.
On a second-and-10 at the Steelers’ 12, inside linebacker Jon Bostic deflected a Fitzpatrick pass that landed in Hilton’s hands at the Steelers 6 to stop a scoring drive.
On Tampa’s next possession, rookie strong safety Terrell Edmunds got his first career interception. The first-round pick picked off Fitzpatrick at the Steelers 30 and returned it 35 yards.
Where neither of those picks resulted in points, the third one went for six. When defensive tackle Daniel McCullers pressured Fitzpatrick in the end zone, his pass was intercepted by outside linebacker Bud Dupree and returned 10 yards for a 23-7 lead.
No wonder Fitzpatrick was 0-5 career against the Steelers.
4. Big numbers: For the second consecutive game, the Steelers abandoned the running game and relied on Roethlisberger.
Through the first three quarters, James Conner rushed for 13 yards on nine carries and Stevan Ridley 18 yards on three carries while Big Ben had 317 passing yards and three touchdowns.
It marked the first time in his 15-year career that Roethlisberger started a season by throwing for 300 yards or more in the first three games.
If that’s the Steelers’ strategy, it’s one that comes with a risk-reward. Roethlisberger was efficient in completing 26 of his first 31 passes — a 128.1 rating — but also took three sacks for minus-18 yards behind a line that had B.J. Finney starting at right guard for David DeCastro and Matt Feiler at right tackle for Marcus Gilbert.
And passing is no way to protect a double-digit lead.
5. Depending on defense: The Steelers saw a 30-10 halftime lead dwindle to three points after Fitzpatrick found Evans for a 24-yard touchdown pass with 5:43 left in the game.
The Steelers could have pinned the Bucs at their 1-yard line on a Jordan Berry punt, but Darrius Heyward-Bey was penalized for an illegal shift and then drew an unsportsmanlike conduct flag for arguing the call.
Berry’s next attempt went for a touchback, and the 20 yards in penalties cost the Steelers 19 yards in field position. The Bucs instead started at their own 20, and FitzMagic had one more shot.
That forced the Steelers to depend on a defense that allowed 42 points to the Kansas City Chiefs.
And the defense delivered, forcing a three-and-out to put the ball back in Big Ben’s hands.
A game that was jump-started by a stiff-arm shiver ended with the Steelers taking a knee in the victory formation.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.