Steelers hang on late against Buccaneers to secure 1st win
TAMPA, Fla. – A week that began with a headline-grabbing absence looked like it might end the same way for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Only this time, the absence would have pertained not to the star wide receiver, but to the win column.
A 20-point lead was whittled to three points Monday night, and the Steelers looked like they might blow a fourth-quarter advantage on the road for the second time in three weeks.
But the defense made a key stand, the offense ran out the clock and the Steelers held on for a 30-27 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
So much for an 0-2-1 record and another week of drama. The Steelers evened their record at 1-1-1 heading into their AFC North showdown on Sunday night against 2-1 Baltimore.
Antonio Brown, whose absence Monday represented the latest distraction, was one of three players to catch a touchdown pass in the first half as the Steelers scored 23 unanswered points and took a 30-10 lead before the Bucs came storming back in the final 30 minutes to nearly steal a win on their home surface.
“When you don’t win, there are going to be distractions,” Brown said. “We have a bunch of guys who try to quiet out the noise, ride together, fight hard together, and that’s what we’ve got to continue to do.
“When you win, everything is under the rug. When you lose, it’s going to be more distractions, more negativity to divide us.”
The Steelers remain tied with the Cleveland Browns at the bottom of the division and they have a short week to prepare for the Ravens.
“No time to pat ourselves on the back,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
The last time the Steelers played at home, they fell behind by 21 points and then watched the Kansas City Chiefs pull away in the second half for a 42-37 win. A week earlier, they blew a 14-point lead at Cleveland en route to a 21-21 tie.
“We know we are a great team, and we have to start stacking them up,” said tight end Vance McDonald, whose 75-yard touchdown catch – and stunning stiff-arm – helped bring the Steelers back from a 7-0 deficit.
Ben Roethlisberger threw three first-half touchdown passes, including a 27-yarder to Brown and a 1-yarder to Ryan Switzer in the waning seconds of the half. The latter touchdown gave the Steelers a 30-10 lead and proved to be important in the outcome.
“It’s one of those things where you have 20-point lead at halftime and you just hope to get out of the stadium with limited stress and anxiety,” McDonald said.
That didn’t happen. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was intercepted three times in the first half, threw touchdown passes to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans in the fourth quarter, cutting the deficit to three points with 5:43 remaining.
Fitzpatrick, who passed for 411 yards, had one more chance to work FitzMagic when the Buccaneers got the ball back with 3:02 left. But the Steelers forced three consecutive incompletions, forcing Tampa Bay (2-1) to punt.
The Steelers then picked up two first downs and ran out the clock.
The win wasn’t without its share of other familiar problems. Chris Boswell missed another field goal, from 47 yards, and an extra point. The Steelers, the most penalized team in the NFL, had nine penalties in the first half and a season-high 13 for the game.
“We still haven’t put together our best game, but to come in here and get a win against a great opponent feels great,” Brown said. “There’s still room for improvement, and we can get a lot better.”
A defense that gave up six touchdown passes the previous week to Kansas City forced four turnovers in the first half, turning two of the Tampa Bay miscues into touchdowns. A forced fumble by Artie Burns led to Brown’s 27-yard touchdown catch. Bud Dupree intercepted a pass that was deflected partially by nose tackle Dan McCullers and took it 10 yards for a touchdown that provided a 23-7 lead.
“Everything has to be clicking together,” Dupree said. “We have to make sure we keep building.”
Roethlisberger passed for 353 yards by completing 30 of 38 attempts. It marked the first time in his 15-year NFL career that he opened a season with three consecutive 300-yard games.
Entering the game, the Steelers were the only NFL team without any points in the first quarter. It looked like it had the makings of a long night when Roethlisberger was intercepted on the second series, and the Buccaneers turned it into a 7-0 lead.
The Steelers reeled off the next 23 points.
McDonald and Roethlisberger hooked up on a 75-yard completion for a touchdown that made it 7-6. McDonald caught the ball at the 35, then used a vicious stiff-arm to drop safety Chris Conte at midway. McDonald ran the rest of the way untouched.
“Grown-man move,” Conner said about McDonald’s stiff-arm.
Boswell missed the extra point when his kick caromed off the upright.
Roethlisberger’s 43-yard completion to JuJu Smith-Schuster and a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty helped set up Boswell’s 38-yard field goal – his first of the season – for a 9-7 lead.
On the ensuing series, Burns, who was benched to start the game, forced a fumble that Mike Hilton recovered on the Tampa Bay 33. Two plays later, Roethlisberger and Brown hooked up for a 27-yard touchdown.
Dupree’s interception return with 2:50 left in the half pushed the advantage to 23-7. The Buccaneers got a field goal with 1:15 left, but Roethlisberger brought the offense quickly down the field, driving 75 yards in just 1 minute, 9 seconds.
Switzer caught his first career touchdown pass on a 1-yard reception with 0:06 left.
“It turns out we needed (the points),” Switzer said. “Anytime you get scores in the red zone, it’s big in the NFL. We got that one and it gave us a little moment, but we had to hang on there at the end.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.