Bucs Sputter to 20-18 Loss in Steel City
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought the NFL's seventh-ranked pass defense to Pittsburgh on Sunday to face a rookie quarterback making his second career start, but it was unexpectedly the Buccaneers' passing attack that sputtered against a depleted Steelers secondary. Pittsburgh held Tom Brady and company out of the end zone until the last five minutes of regulation and sent the Bucs home from Acrisure Stadium with a 20-18 defeat.
The loss evened the Buccaneers' record at 3-3 and snapped a franchise-record six-game road winning streak dating back to November of 2021. Tampa Bay also lost sole possession of first down in the NFC South as the Atlanta Falcons won on Sunday to improve to 3-3.
After consecutive outings with 350-plus passing yards, Brady was held to 243 yards on 25 of 40 passing, including just 10 completions in 21 first-half attempts for 110 yards. Pittsburgh's secondary was missing four of its top defensive backs, including safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and cornerback Cameron Sutton, but the Steelers limited the Buccaneers to one touchdown and three field goals in four red zone trips.
"It's just execution," said Brady of the Buccaneers' issues in the red zone. "It's an execution game. Too many plays we are not making. I think we are playing less than what we are capable of and we all have to look in the mirror and ask why."
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh rookie QB Kenny Pickett led the home team on a touchdown drive on its first possession but was limited to 67 passing yards before suffering a concussion in the third quarter that knocked him out of the game. Mitchell Trubisky, who had started the Steelers' first four games during a 1-3 start, came in and completed nine of 12 passes for 144 yards, including a six-yard touchdown pass to WR Chase Claypool with 10 minutes left.
Incredibly, on the Steelers' he converted four third downs of 11 or more yards in his brief time in the game, including two on the final drive that drained the last four-and-a-half minutes off the clock. "We didn't get off the field and make plays," said Todd Bowles. "We've got to make plays. We can't let the quarterback out of the pocket on scrambles. He did a good job of buying time and it turned into a scramble on the back end and he found a guy that was open."
The Buccaneers pulled within one point of the lead on three different occasions but the Steelers made it an eight-point game in the fourth quarter when Trubisky led them on a 71-yard touchdown drive, finishing with a six-yard touchdown pass to Chase Claypool. The big play on the drive was a 45-yard catch and run by TE Connor Heyward. Heyward was wide open due to busted coverage as linebacker Lavonte David tried to call a timeout to avoid an 11-men-on-the-field penalty.
"He tried to," said Bowles. "He saw too many guys on the field and he tried to call timeout. In turn, the guy got left open. It was a bust all the way around. Like I said, we didn't coach it well and we didn't play it well."
A pall fell over the game with three minutes into the third quarter after TE Cam Brate remained flat on his back after a hard hit on a reception over the middle. Brate was strapped to a stabilizing board and removed from the field on a cart, but he raised a hand to the crowd as he left. The Bucs quickly reported from the locker room that Brate had movement in all his extremities and he was taken to a nearby hospital for further examination.
"He has a neck injury, Bowles reported after the game. "He has all his moving parts. Right now, he's still at the hospital being evaluated."
This marks the second this season that the Buccaneers have lost by two points after unsuccessful attempts to tie the game in the fourth quarter with a two-point conversion. The same outcome unfolded in a 14-12 loss to Green Bay in Week Three. This time, RB Leonard Fournette capped an impressive 14-play, 73-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown reception but Brady's attempt to get the ball to WR Chris Godwin just across the goal line was broken up by LB Myles Jack.
Brady and Godwin had a particularly difficult time making a connection, which is unusual. Including the two-point try, Brady targeted Godwin 12 times but only six were completed for a total of 95 yards. The other noticeable struggle for Tampa Bay's offense, and an issue that has been persistent in 2022, was repeated failures to convert short third downs. The Buccaneers were four of 14 on third downs overall and had to convert two fourth downs to keep their final touchdown drive alive.
"We could not get one yard on third and fourth and short," said Bowles. "We stalled in the red zone. I don't think we coached well and I don't think we played well."
Kicker Ryan Succop kept the Buccaneers in the game by going four for four on field goals, including a 54-yarder at the end of the first half that was the team's first successful field goal of 50-plus yards in the last two seasons. However, the Bucs had several negative moments on special teams, as well, including an 89-yard kickoff return by Steven Sims to start the second half, which led to a Pittsburgh field goal. Sims also had a 24-yard punt return in the third quarter.
David led the Buccaneers defense with 13 tackles, one for a loss, while Antoine Winfield Jr. and Carl Nassib added sacks of Pickett. Devin White did not record a sack but had the hit on Pickett that knocked the rookie out of the game and finished with eight stops and a pass defensed.
The Buccaneers got the ball first to start the game but did nothing with it, punting away after a three-and-out that included two incompletions in Godwin's direction. The Steelers' first drive started at their own 34 and had two first downs after just three plays, as Pickett started the game with consecutive completions to George Pickens, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool.
Winfield dropped Harris for a loss of four on an attempted sweep, but the Steelers were saved from a third-down incompletion when ILB Devin White was flagged for roughing the passer. That made it first down at the Bucs' 20, and a scramble up the middle by Pickett on third down made it fourth-and-inches. The Steelers went for it and rookie RB Jaylen Warren powered over the line to make it first-and-goal at the 10. Two plays later, Harris slipped out to the left and was wide open for a six-yard touchdown catch.
Fournette got the Bucs' second drive started with a 13-yard gash over left tackle, and two plays later Brady found Mike Evans down the left sideline for 20 yards to the Steelers' 39. The Buccaneers then faced a third-and-two at the 31 and, after calling a timeout after some apparent pre-snap confusion, got a new set of downs on a three-yard swing pass to RB Rachaad White.
A catch and a run by Fournette moved the chains again. LB Myles Jack leaped high to tip away a likely touchdown pass to TE Cam Brate and an incomplete screen to White made it third-and-10 at the 17. Brady missed Godwin for a third time and the Bucs sent on Ryan Succop to hit what proved to be a 30-yard field goal after the Steelers were flagged for a neutral zone infraction.
The Steelers went nowhere on their second drive, with Winfield Jr. blitzing from the left slot and dropping Pickens for a 12-yard sack back at the four-yard line. The Bucs got the ball back just shy of midfield and Brady hit Godwin down the right seam for a gain of 22. Runs of eight yards by White and four by Fournette, both over right guard, got the ball down to the Steelers' 25 as the first quarter came to an end.
Evans caught one over the middle for another down at the 15, and two plays later Gage ran a slant to make it first-and-goal at the three. Fournette got within inches of the goal line but another run out of a jumbo formation lost three and Brady was sacked at the 10 on third down. Succop doubled the Bucs' scored with a 27-yard kick.
Two plays into the Steelers' next possession, Harris sliced over right tackle for a gain of 14 to the Pittsburgh 39. The Steelers then faced a third-and-four at the 45 and kept the drive alive as WR Chase Claypool held onto a short pass in the left flat with CB Jamel Dean draped all over him. Johnson converted another third down moments later with a toe-tapping grab on the left sideline for a first down at the Bucs' 36. A holding call backed the Steelers up 10 yards and led to a 55-yard field goal try that Chris Boswell made by bouncing it off the crossbar and through.
The Bucs had four minutes left in the half to work with but quickly had to punt it away after Brady missed Godwin on a short pass over the middle. The Steelers got another shot with 2:42 left, starting at their own 26. However, the Bucs' defense followed with its own three-and-out and got the ball back at the 2:02 mark at their own 25. A strip-sack by LB Alex Highsmith killed that drive, even though Godwin was able to fall on the ball.
Jake Camarda's booming punt went 52 yards with massive hangtime and was fair caught at the 14. Tampa Bay used its last two timeouts to get the Steelers to punt again with 32 seconds left and had the ball at midfield with 23 ticks left. One completion to Godwin got Succop into position to try a season-long 54-yard field goal and he banged it through to make it 10-9 going into the intermission.
The second half started out very poorly for the visitors, as Sims took the opening kickoff 89 yards to the Bucs' 12. A hustling Dean saved the touchdown and even forced a fumble but the ball bounced right back to Sims. That proved to be a four-point play by Dean because the defense held and the Steelers settled for Boswell's 25-yard field goal.
After a touchback, a Godwin catch over the middle and a third-and-one run by Fournette started the Bucs' drive off with a first down. Brady lofted a ball down the middle that somehow dropped into Godwin's hands between three defenders for a gain of 28 to the Steelers' 30. Two more Fournette runs plus a defensive holding call led to a second-and-two at the 15 and Brady tried to get the ball to rookie TE Cade Otton on a play-action fake.
Fournette powered over right guard for just enough to move the chains but the Bucs committed a false start before the next snap, pushing the ball back to the 18. A pass down the left hash marks to Gage picked up nine and a defensive holding call drawn by Evans made it first-and-goal at the four. The Bucs lost five yards on an ineligible man downfield penalty and Fournette was stone-walled for a loss of two on a first-down carry. After two more incompletions and a neutral zone infraction, Succop kicked a 24-yard field goal to once again make it a one-point game.
Pickett had to come out of the game after the first play of the Steelers' next drive after taking a hard hit from Devin White, a play that also resulted in a holding penalty on the home team. White followed up with another hard hit on Harris to break up Trubisky's first pass. However, Trubisky was able to find Claypool over the middle on third-and-15 for a gain of 16 to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, Trubisky tried to throw a deep out to Johnson on the left sideline but CB Carlton Davis got there just in time to break it up and force a punt.
Pressley Harvin's punt rolled to a stop at the Bucs' 15 and a holding penalty made it first-and-17. Brate caught a pass over the middle for eight yards but was hurt on the play. After the delay while medical personnel attended to Brate, Brady connected with White over the middle but the play came up a yard short.
A 24-yard punt return by Sims allowed the Steelers to start again near midfield but White sacked Trubisky for a loss of six on first down. On third-and-five, Nassib got into Trubisky's throwing lane and tipped his pass to cause an incompletion. Harvin's next punt went out of bounds at the 17 with 30 seconds left in the third quarter.
A six-yard catch by on Otton on the first play of the fourth quarter made it third-and-one but the Steelers stopped Fournette for a loss of one on the next snap and the Bucs punted it back to the Steelers' 29. After converting a third-and-13 with a sharp out to a well-covered Pickens, Trubisky then found a wide-open Connor Heyward down the left numbers and the rookie TE rumbled for 45 yards to the Bucs' 11. Two plays later, Trubisky fired a six-yard touchdown pass to Claypool to make it 20-12 with 10 minutes left in regulation.
A Godwin 11-yard catch created one first down and Otton kept the drive moving on a subsequent third down with a brilliant diving 17-yard catch down the middle. The Bucs then faced a fourth-and-one at the Pittsburgh 29 and went for it, with Fournette taking a toss-sweep right for seven yards. A false start backed the ball up five yards and the Bucs were facing a third-and-11 moments later.
Brady zipped a pass over the middle to Godwin, who made an impressive catch but went down a yard short of the first down. The Bucs went for it once again and barely got it on a speed out to White. On the next play, Fournette sprinted left out of the backfield, caught a pass behind the line of scrimmage and powered his way all the way to the end zone. The Bucs tried to tie it with a two-point conversion but Brady's pass was broken up by Myles Jack.
There was 4:38 left on the clock when Pittsburgh got the ball back at their 25. Harris broke multiple tackles on first down to get eight yards but an errant snap pushed the Steelers back to the 20. Amazingly, Trubisky converted another long third down, finding Claypool for 17 on the left side. Delaney blew up an attempted QB run making it third-and-11 and the Bucs used their second timeout.
Trubisky did it again, scrambling and then somehow hooking up with Claypool on the sideline for a gain of six. A nine-yard run by Trubisky brought on the two-minute warning and his sneak for a first down allowed Pittsburgh to kneel out the rest of the clock.
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 17 October 2022