Yeah. That was the reality check we were expecting and probably needed.
Steelers 30 – Bucs 27
At home on a Monday night before a pumped-up crowd and a national audience, with everyone getting to watch (a truncated portion of) former Tampa coach and generally awesome human being Tony Dungy’s induction into the Bucs’ “Ring of Honor” at Raymond James Stadium, and the team off to its best start in eight years? A backup quarterback who seemed to have tapped into something supernatural as he led the team to a pair of impressive wins while racking up no shortage of stats and accoladed for himself?
Well, if you’re a longtime Bucs fan like I’ve been, literally since the day the team’s creation was announced way back when, then you likely have seen some variation of this story before, and you went into last night’s contest with fingers crossed and managed expectations.
First off, new rule: NO MORE RING OF HONOR INDUCTIONS WHEN THE BUCS ARE ON NATIONAL TV. I mean, sheesh…it seems like every time this happens — Every. Time. — the team finds a way to pop the clutch. It’s a curse, I’m tellin’ ya.
All right, all right. Let’s get on with the game itself, which is really the tale of two teams. In the first half, there was the uncertain, indecisive, and just plain saddled-with-bad-luck Buccaneers, unable to stop the Steelers offense or hold their pass rush off their quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who started the season on fire during the first two games, had a very rough first half, throwing three interceptions on successful passing attempts, including one deep in Tampa territory that allowed the Steelers to score a defensive touchdown.
Two quarters into the game, Pittsburgh was up 30-10 and it was looking like a route. Given the NFL’s recent propensity for changing rules in what many critics call a “softening of the game,” I was half-expecting someone to yell “Mercy!” at the half so everybody could go home.
Good thing they didn’t, as that’s when things started to get exciting.
The Bucs did a pretty good impression of a roaring comeback in the second half, holding the Steelers scoreless and stuffing their run attack while Fitz and the Tampa offense began chipping away at Pittsburgh’s lead. A couple of heart-breaking plays dangled a full-on come-from-behind victory in front of all our faces. One was an incredible punt return by wide receiver DeSean Jackson which was nullified by a penalty back upfield. Later, a pass play from Fitzpatrick to Chris Godwin, who at first looked as though he’d managed to avoid being touched by any Steelers defenders going to the ground to make the catch, resulted in Godwin getting up and scampering untouched to the end zone for a wacky yet still legal score. But, replay showed his foot tapped the shoulder of a Pittsburgh player. Bummer.
FYI? I was totally cheering and then crying at the TV during both of those plays.
Against some seriously stacked odds, Fitz and the Bucs managed to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to just 3 points, with more than 5 minutes left in the game. The recipe for a comeback was almost complete. However, despite their inability to score during the second half, the Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense still managed to keep drives alive and – more importantly – keep the Tampa defense on the field and the clock running in their favor. A couple of late first downs just before the 2-minute warning were all Pittsburgh needed to take a knee and run out the clock. Game over.
Though he had a rough – and I mean rough – first half, Ryan Fitzpatrick can hold his head up high.30 completions on 50 passing attempts for over 400 yards and three touchdowns help to ease the sting of those three interceptions. He helped the Bucs get off to a great start on this still fresh-smelling new season, and dug deep to damn-near pull off a miracle at the end last night. Not too many people gave him or the team any real chance of starting out in any sort of positive fashion, and most were hoping the season didn’t descend into a 0-3 Dumpster fire before any decision was made about bringing starting QB Jameis Winston back to the lineup.
Besides, Winston’s personal issues need to be dealt with, once and for all. Game suspensions don’t really address the underlying issue which, as the news will show anyone willing to listen or read, rampant throughout the worlds of sports, entertainment, and politics. Anything less than a full-throated denouncing and punishment for that sort of inappropriate conduct is a failure of leadership.
It’s a sure bet that even as I write this, the QB decision has been made by Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter, as the team needs to be in short week prep mode for a road game this coming Sunday against the Chicago Bears. I’d like to see Fitz play at least one more game, if for no other reason than to give Winston time to get back into the regular season rhythm of things. I also know that the team has a lot of money invested in Winston, and they’ll want him doing what they’re paying him to do, plus there’s just no denying the energy he brings when he suits up.
(I’m damned glad I’m not the one having to make that call.)
The loss drops Tampa to 2-1, in a three-way tie for top of the NFC South Division, following wins by Carolina and New Orleans over the weekend. Atlanta, having been on the bad end of that Saints victory, falls to 1-2, but we all know the NFC South is a scrappy group and this ain’t over. Not by a long shot.
Next up? I already told you: the Bucs head to Chicago to take on da Bears, who are also 2-1 and will be playing before their always jazzed up home crowd. Here’s hoping Tampa – along with whoever’s taking the snaps – can shake off this loss and keep on keepin’ on.
Bucs life, yo.