It’s time for PewterReport.com’s 2-Point Conversion post-game column, which features two statements, two questions and two predictions based on the latest Bucs game. Tampa Bay’s hot start to the 2018 season came to a screeching halt when winless Pittsburgh got its first victory of the year at Raymond James Stadium, 30-27, after building a 30-10 halftime lead and hanging on for the win.
TWO BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: From FitzMagic To FitzTragic
There was not enough magic in Tampa Bay quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to lead the Bucs back from a 20-point deficit on Monday Night Football. The Bucs backup-turned-starter due to Jameis Winston’s suspension had a magical start to the 2018 season throwing for over 800 yards and eight touchdowns and winning back-to-back NFC Offensive Player of the Week Awards while leading the Bucs to a 2-0 start.
But FitzMagic turned into FitzTragic in the first half as he threw three first half interceptions on three consecutive passes, including an awful pick-six from the Bucs’ end zone that was returned 10 yards for a touchdown by Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree to give Pittsburgh a 23-7 lead late in the second half. Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said the team’s protection wasn’t as good as it was the first two weeks of the season.
“Yeah, [four] turnovers in the first half,” Koetter said. “We just did so many things in the first half of that game that we haven’t been doing, so many things to beat ourselves. Blown coverage on their first touchdown, [four] turnovers, multiple misses on protection. We’ve been doing a great job in protection and tonight wasn’t as good. Give the Steelers their credit. They got us tonight. I’m really proud of the way we fought. [When] you’re down three touchdowns or three scores at halftime, it’s not easy to come back in this league. We gave ourselves a chance there at the end and just couldn’t pull it off. Unfortunate, but we’ve got to move forward.”
Fitzpatrick rallied the Bucs to within 10 points late in the game, but a holding penalty on safety Isaiah Johnson negated a long punt return for a touchdown by DeSean Jackson that would have brought the Bucs to with three points, 30-27, with just over eight minutes to go. Tampa Bay eventually scored a touchdown on that drive, but had to travel 92 yards to do so. Mike Evans’ 24-yard touchdown came after the Bucs burned three precious minutes off the clock.
The Bucs got the ball back after yet another stop by Tampa Bay’s defense, which held Pittsburgh scoreless in the second half after giving up 23 points. But with 3:02 left and two timeouts, Fitzpatrick went 0-for-3 with incompletions to Evans, Adam Humphries and tight end Cameron Brate. Instead of going for it on fourth down, Koetter opted to punt due to the pair of timeouts and the two-minute warning.
“Obviously, the lower [the yardage to go] gets, the higher your percentage,” Koetter said. “But fourth-and-10, you’re talking about 20 percent or less odds. It would be one thing if you had no timeouts, but with two timeouts plus the two minutes, it’s sixes right now. It doesn’t matter. Either way, we lost.”
In the end it was too little, too late for Fitzpatrick and a Bucs offense that saw its red zone woes from last year return on Monday night. Fitzpatrick’s first interception came on a tipped pass from the Pittsburgh 12-yard line. Then the Bucs had to settle for a 21-yard and a 28-yard field goal in the second and third quarters, respectively, despite being inside the Steelers’ 10-yard line twice on those drives. Ultimately, those red zone issues and four turnovers, including three by Fitzpatrick, were the story of the game.
Fitzpatrick finished the game completing 30-of-50 passing for 411 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He became the first quarterback in Tampa Bay history to throw for 400 yards in three consecutive games, and Fitzpatrick likely get the starting nod this week in Chicago because of how he played in the second half – not how he played in the first.
STATEMENT 2: Bucs’ Tackling At Times Was Awful
While Fitzpatrick’s three first-half interceptions sealed Tampa Bay’s doom early, especially his pick-six in the second quarter, the Bucs defense didn’t do much to help out the offense, 23 of the Steelers’ 30 first-half points. Tackling was a big issue at some of the most inopportune times for Tampa Bay’s defense, which pitched a shutout in the second half.
Bucs S Chris Conte – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR
Bucs strong safety Chris Conte got posterized when he was violently stiff-armed to the ground by Steelers tight end Vance McDonald on a 75-yard catch-and-run. Conte re-injured his knee on the play and could miss some time depending on the severity of the injury. Rookie Jordan Whitehead figures to get his first NFL start next week at Chicago.
Later in the first half, cornerback Brent Grimes, who had an awful training camp and preseason, whiffed on a tackle attempt on wide receiver Antonio Brown on his 27-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Grimes returned to action this week, but looks like a shell of his former self at age 35.
It’s a shame that Ryan Smith didn’t see more action at cornerback this week, especially after having a fantastic game last week against Philadelphia. He’s a much better tackler.
The Bucs defense recorded three sacks and hit Ben Roethlisberger nine times, but the veteran quarterback bounced off of defensive end Vinny Curry twice and escaped a key sack attempt from Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy on second-and-10 to complete an 18-yard catch to JuJu Smith-Schuster to pick up a first down and seal the victory.
Tampa Bay did an okay job tackling in the run game, but wasn’t in position to limit the Steelers receivers’ yards after catch, especially rookie cornerback M.J. Stewart, who was victimized for the second week in a row by opposing quarterbacks. A prime example of this was Roethlisberger targeting Stewart repeatedly on a touchdown drive right before the half with 1:15 remaining. Roethlisberger was 7-of-8 for 75 yards on that scoring drive. Had the Bucs held the Steelers to a field goal right before halftime there is chance Tampa Bay could have won 27-26 with that four-point differential.
After being held for 12 yards on 10 carries through the first three quarters, Steelers running back James Connor broke off three long runs in the fourth quarter, including a 27-yarder, a 9-yarder and a 17-yarder, the last of which came on the final Steelers’ drive to ice the win.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Who Will Start At Quarterback In Chicago?
Koetter was non-committal when asked if Fitzpatrick had done enough to warrant another start at quarterback when the Bucs travel to Chicago to play the Bears on Sunday despite Winston returning from his three-game suspension on Tuesday.
“Yeah, we’ll see,” Koetter said. “Let’s see what the injury report comes back. Any time we have these games, it’s not always obvious how the guys are going to come in the next day and come in on Wednesday. Let’s see what happens. I’d love to get a chance to talk to Jameis face-to-face before I tell the rest of the world. Look, we’ve got a good football team. I’m proud of these guys. We came up short today and everyone now will jump back off the bandwagon [and] rightfully so. We’ve got to go on the road our next two games and it’s hard to win on the road. We’ve got to get back to business on Wednesday.”
The educated guess here is that it’s Fitzpatrick given the fact that he has completed 78-of-111 passes (70.2 percent) for 1,230 yards with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions through the first three games.
When asked if deserved the right to continue on as the starter, Fitzpatrick said: “Well, I’m happy with the way the first two games went. I’m not happy with the way that I turned the ball over today, the way that I didn’t finish that fourth quarter drive. So there are a lot of things that I think I could have done better today.
“You know, I have so much fun playing this game. I have fun playing with these guys. I’m here just ready to do whatever it takes to help the team win and I think that will be my mindset going forward.”
QUESTION 2: Will RoJo Ever Be Active This Season?
Unless there is an injury to starter Peyton Barber, backup Jacquizz Rodgers or rookie Shaun Wilson, who is the team’s kick returner and reserve back, there is a decent chance that running back Ronald Jones II, the team’s second-round pick in 2018, could be inactive all year with the Bucs treating his rookie season like a redshirt year. What’s holding Jones back is that he’s a one-dimensional player right now, only capable of running the ball.
Bucs RB Ronald Jones II – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Bucs don’t have confidence in Jones as a pass protector, and he showed shaky hands during training camp and the preseason. That rules out Jones for third downs. Jones also doesn’t play on special teams in the return game or in coverage, so he doesn’t have any value on fourth downs. It’s just hard to find a role for Jones on game days, and given his production, which was one yard per carry, in four preseason games, he didn’t do enough to warrant building in 10-15 touches per game.
I know that the Bucs have gotten zero production from Jones, and defensive tackle Vita Vea, the team’s first-round pick, thus far in the 2018 campaign, but keep in mind that Tampa Bay is 2-1 without Vea and Jones without them. Jones seems in store for a developmental year behind the scenes, but he would certainly develop quicker if he got some playing time.
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: Fitzpatrick Starts And Loses In Chicago
The Buccaneers do in fact start Fitzpatrick although Koetter might not reveal that until later in the week. Why give Chicago, this week’s opponent, any head’s up or advanced intel? I believe that Fitzpatrick and Tampa Bay’s offensive line struggle against Khalil Mack and a much-improved Bears front four – so much so that Winston may be pressed into duty at one point.
The Bucs will lose in Chicago and fall to 2-2 on the season, and if Fitzpatrick falters like I believe he will, that will open the door to full-blown quarterback controversy during the bye week after the Bears game.
PREDICTION 2: Vea Gets His First NFL Action Next Week
Vea, the Bucs’ first-round pick this year, returned to practice this week I thought he might see his first NFL action against Pittsburgh, especially due to the fact that nose tackle Beau Allen was out with a foot injury. Yet despite Tampa Bay only having two defensive tackles suited up in McCoy and Jerel Worthy, Vea was listed as “out” on Saturday as he continues his comeback from his calf injury.
The Bucs may be inclined to rest him one more week and then give him the bye week to fully recover and play against Atlanta in Week 6. But I think there is a sense of urgency within the organization to play Vea and get him the experience he desperately needs after missing virtually all of training camp and all four preseason games. So you’ll see No. 50 in a white jersey on Sunday for the first time.