Steelers’ defense delivers turnovers, late stop in a win that serves as baby step
TAMPA, Fla. –
The Pittsburgh Steelers had forced four second-quarter turnovers by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, only to see FitzMagic almost make a 20-point halftime lead disappear.
Before you could say abracadabra, the Steelers went from being in control to clinging to a three-point lead with 80 yards separating the NFL’s top passing offense from the end zone and 3:02 to play.
Suddenly, their hopes for the first victory of the season came down to depending upon a defense that had allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick to pass for 411 yards and three scores, including 19 completions for 227 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
The Steelers weren’t about to let the Bucs’ backup quarterback pull a rabbit out of his hat before a Monday Night Football audience at Raymond James Stadium.
“You hate for it to happen. You don’t like that,” Steelers inside linebacker Jon Bostic said. “But it’s what you live for. We want to be out there with the game on the line.”
The Bucs had an ace up their sleeve in Mike Evans, who had six catches for 137 yards and a touchdown and caught a 51-yard pass to set up a field goal. Fitzpatrick went deep right to Evans on first down, but cornerback Joe Haden broke up the pass. A pass over the middle to wide receiver Adam Humphries was incomplete. A short pass to Cameron Brate, who scored the game’s first touchdown, also fell short.
The Steelers got the game’s most important turnover, a three-and-out that forced the Bucs to punt and allowed the offense to call a quarterback’s favorite play: Taking a knee in the victory formation to put the finishing touches on a 30-27 victory.
Believe that 1-1-1 never felt so good, if only because of the alternative.
“That’s big,” Haden said. “We want to make sure we can get out of here with a win. That wasn’t a good-looking win at all. They made a lot of plays on us. But, toward the end, when we had to make our stops that was a big stop for us.”
A big stop in a game of big plays, both good and bad, one that served as baby steps for an embattled defense that was the lightning rod for a team that treats distractions like they are a daily dose of medicine.
After 27 consecutive starts at cornerback, former first-rounder Artie Burns was benched in favor of Coty Sensabaugh only to make a momentum-changing hit. Burns hit Chris Godwin to force a fumble that was recovered by nickel corner Mike Hilton at the Tampa Bay 33 to set up a touchdown pass to Antonio Brown for a 16-7 lead.
After struggling to live up to the standard of Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker, Bostic deflected a Fitzpatrick pass that landed in the hands of Hilton at the Steelers 6 to prevent a Bucs touchdown.
After making his share of mistakes in his first NFL start at strong safety, first-rounder Terrell Edmunds got his first career interception and returned it 35 yards to the Tampa Bay 35. The Steelers didn’t score, but pinned the Bucs at the 2.
After bearing the brunt of criticism for failing to live up to his first-round reputation, outside linebacker Bud Dupree picked off Fitzpatrick’s pass out of the end zone and returned it 10 yards for a touchdown.
“We obviously dug ourselves a pretty big hole there,” said Fitzpatrick, who could find himself back on the bench next week when Jameis Winston returns from suspension. “The turnovers I’m disappointed with, but that drive, for our offense to give us that opportunity and to not make anything out of it, that’s what hurts the most for me.”
What hurts the most for the Steelers is that they let the Bucs back in the game, making it too close for comfort. They rotated corners, as Burns and Sensabaugh both were beaten routinely and Hilton suffered a hyper-extended right elbow that forced Cameron Sutton into action.
Fitzpatrick picked the Steelers apart in the fourth quarter, finding Brate to convert a fourth-and-6 to sustain a drive and capping it with a third-down 4-yard touchdown pass to Godwin to make it 30-20. Fitzpatrick followed that by leading the Bucs on a nine-play, 92-yard drive that ended with a 24-yard scoring pass to Evans, who beat Burns.
Mike Tomlin singled out Burns and Sensabaugh in saying he appreciated how his cornerbacks played but the Steelers coach was far from satisfied with the performance at that position.
“Until we find rhythm,” Tomlin said, “we’re going to play them all.”
The Steelers stopped the Bucs’ big-play offense, a reversal in combining how they tied the Cleveland Browns and lost to the Kansas City Chiefs.
“That’s huge. I thought our defense played awesome, creating some turnovers and giving us a short field and making some stops,” Roethlisberger said. “It was fun to get them involved. I told the team afterwards, ‘That was a total team win, all of the phases. That’s what Steelers football is about.’”
The Steelers might have put an end to FitzMagic, but they know their defense has issues to address.
And that isn’t as simple as waving a wand.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.