By Christina Rivers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are struggling to find a place in the National Football League this season under head coach Lovie Smith. After being beaten by the Carolina Panthers in week one and the St. Louis Rams in week two, their 56-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday has the team searching for a way to respond to a Pittsburgh Steelers team that is coming off of a strong 37-19 win against the Panthers on the road. The Buccaneers are in last place in the NFC South division.
History and statistics are against the Bucs at this point in the season. According to EPSN Stats & Information, there have only been 121 teams to start off a regular season in the NFL at 0-3 since 1990, and of those teams, only three have made it all the way to the playoffs. Despite the odds, Tampa Bay players aren’t ready to throw out their season with the dishwater.
“This football team doesn’t want to see 0-4. It’s going to be a big challenge for us to go out there,” said offensive tackle Demar Dotson on Monday. “Can we beat Pittsburgh? Yeah, we can, but it starts today.” Dotson insists that the team is responsible for their disappointing play, not Coach Smith.
“Everybody has to stay positive, keep believing and just trust in the system and trust the guys around you and the work and effort we’re putting in,” said defensive end Michael Johnson, who has a nagging ankle injury he’s trying to work around. “It’s going to turn in our favor…When we get it rolling it will be like clockwork. I’m excited to get to that point, but it’s a process.”
While the 2014 season has been one of more penalty flags seen on the field, both the Steelers and Buccaneers have watched them fly, but have one other thing in common that they want to correct — turnovers. Pittsburgh’s defense created their first two positive turnovers of the season against the Panthers, helping to convert them into points on the scoreboard. Against the Falcons, quarterback Josh McCown threw an easy interception while standing in his own end zone and two fumbles by Bobby Rainey allowed the game to get away from the Bucs. The team has given away the ball seven times in three games. The Steelers could capitalize on this weakness if they protect the ball on their offensive drives and keep penalties from taking positive gains away from them.
The Tampa Bay defense is still learning Smith’s defensive scheme, which has changed the types of coverage and responsibilities for players. The Buccaneers are allowing big pass plays downfield and have struggled to hold their opponents on key third downs. In their first three games, the Buccaneers have allowed 15 first downs per game via the air — near the bottom of the league in that category. They have also been trying to develop a better pass rush without much success thus far.
The Steelers defense probably understands the frustration. After spending too much time on the field their first two games of the season due to poor play and an ineffectual offense, the Steelers defenders were not getting to quarterbacks, stopping the run or preventing deep balls. That changed against the Panthers. When Jarvis Jones strip-sacked Cam Newton, it seemed to pull the defense out of the haze they were in and motivate them. They went on to pressure Newton, create sacks, create turnovers and get the ball back in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger so the offense could score.
Todd Haley and Mike Munchak have their work cut out for them this week in getting the Steelers offense prepared for Tampa Bay, but should look at the areas where the Buccaneers’ defense is struggling the most to create an effective game plan. With little up-front pressure, Roethlisberger should have more time to get the ground game humming with Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount as well as find one-on-one mismatches between his receivers and the Tampa Bay defensive backs and linebackers.
Although the Buccaneers have been riddled with injuries, Coach Smith refuses to use it as an excuse for his team’s poor performances. “It’s about getting a product good enough to win football games on the field,” he said. Pro Bowl nose tackle Gerald McCoy is dealing with a broken hand. Against the Falcons, the Buccaneers had 11 players on their injury report. Adrian Clayborn and cornerback Mike Jenkins are on injured reserve after being hurt during the Buccaneers’ opening loss to Carolina. Linebacker Mason Foster (shoulder) and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (ankle) both sat out against the Falcons.
For more Steelers news and updates, visit Steelers Central.
Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on