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OPPONENT: Pittsburgh Steelers
WHERE: Heinz Field
WHERE THE STEELERS STAND: The Steelers are 4-7 and in third place in the AFC North division.
STEELERS HEAD COACH: Bill Cowher
STEELERS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ken Whisehunt
STEELERS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dick LeBeau
STEELERS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Kevin Spencer
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 30th (254.2 ypg)
RUSHING: 29th (92.1 ypg)
PASSING: 29th (162.1 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 23rd (340.6 ypg)
RUSHING: 21st (122.3 ypg)
PASSING: 22nd (218.4 ypg)
PITTSBURGH STEELERS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 6th (353.7 ypg)
RUSHING: 17th (107.6 ypg)
PASSING: 4th (246.1 ypg)
PITTSBURGH STEELERS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 11th (305.7 ypg)
RUSHING: 10th (99.7 ypg)
PASSING: 17th (206.3 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW …
… Pittsburgh ranks dead last in the NFL with a minus-12 turnover ratio?
SCOUTING THE STEELERS
One of the biggest reasons for Pittsburgh’s fall from glory is the play of QB Ben Roethlisberger. The 6-foot-5, 241-pound Roethlisberger has endured a plethora of adversity since hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. A motorcycle accident nearly claimed his life this summer, and he underwent emergency surgery to remove his appendix before the 2006 regular season opener. Roethlisberger has also been beat up on the football field. He’s been sacked 36 times this season, which has played an integral role in his sub-par numbers. Roethlisberger has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 2,529 yards and tossed 12 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Defenses that have successfully pressured and rattled Roethlisberger have laid out the blueprint on how to halt the potentially high-powered Pittsburgh offense.
Although his best playing days were behind him when the Steelers won the Super Bowl, Jerome Bettis’ presence as an emotional leader has been sorely missed in Pittsburgh’s locker room. The Steelers haven’t forgotten how to run the ball without Bettis, though. Willie Parker has carried the ball 210 times for 915 yards (4.4 avg.) and scored nine touchdowns on the ground this season. The 5-foot-9, 210-pound Parker is an explosive player, evidenced by his record-setting 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL. Najeh Davenport is a bigger back and comes in when Parker needs a breather or the Steelers need him in a short-yardage situation. He has rushed for 109 yards on 25 carries (4.4 avg.) and one touchdown while battling a groin injury. Despite posting those numbers, Pittsburgh’s ground attack, which currently ranks 17th in the NFL, is down from last year when it ranked 5th in the league. The Bucs defense, which has had mixed outings vs. the run this season, can’t afford to allow the Steelers to establish the ground game if they have any chance of limiting the Steelers offense Sunday.
Pittsburgh’s offense features one of the league’s best receivers in Hines Ward. The 6-foot, 205-pound Ward was the MVP of Super Bowl XL and has caught a team-leading 57 passes for 786 yards and six touchdowns. Bucs cornerback Juran Bolden, who is starting in place of Brian Kelly (injured reserve), has struggled at left cornerback and could have trouble containing Ward. But the good news for the Bucs is Ward could miss Sunday's game with a groin injury. Bucs CB Ronde Barber will be on the opposite side, covering WR Cedrick Wilson, who has hauled in 30 passes for 433 yards and one touchdown. Barber likely will spend a significant amount of time playing in the slot when the Steelers feature three-receiver sets with rookie Santonio Holmes. Pittsburgh’s first-round draft pick has caught 32 passes for 486 yards (15.2 avg.) and one touchdown. While Barber has the ability and speed to cover Holmes, Wilson could find himself in a favorable matchup on the outside vs. Bucs CB Torrie Cox. Pittsburgh’s talented trio of receives are a big reason why the Steelers are converting 41. percent of their third down attempts this season.
Despite the fact that Pittsburgh has allowed 39 sacks through 11 games, the Steelers offensive line is one of the league’s best. Its strength is on the left side, where left tackle Marvel Smith, left guard Alan Feneca and center Jeff Hartings are known to dominate. Bucs defensive end Dewayne White and nose tackle Chris Hovan must survive and find a way to dominate this physical matchup as this unit is known to blow defenders off the ball. Steelers right guard Kendall Simmons and right tackle Max Starks are physical as well. Bucs left defensive end Greg Spires could have a tough time getting around the 340-pound Starks, who is at his best in the running game. Simmons will be charged with holding off Bucs under tackle Ellis Wyms, who is hoping to return to action after being sidelined three straight games with an ankle sprain. If Wyms can’t go, Jon Bradley and Julian Jenkins will attempt to fill the void at the three-technique. Pittsburgh’s offensive line has allowed defenders to penetrate the offensive backfield on passing plays, but Tampa Bay has struggled getting to the quarterback, evidenced by its 14 quarterback takedowns through 11 games. If the Bucs can’t get pressure on Roethlisberger, it will be a long day for their defense.
There’s good and bad news regarding Pittsburgh’s defense. The bad news is it ranks 11th in the league and plays a 3-4 scheme. The good news for the Bucs is they are facing the 3-4 scheme for the second straight week. Most 3-4 schemes are set up to have the three-man front engage blockers in order to free up linebackers and defensive backs to get to the quarterback, but the Steelers are fortunate enough to have two defensive ends in Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel that can get to the quarterback on their own. Smith and Keisel have 2.5 and 3.5 sacks, respectively. They also play quite well against the run. Smith will go up against Bucs rookie right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and right guard Davin Joseph. Keisel will be matched up against Bucs left tackle Anthony Davis and left guard Sean Mahan, who is replacing Dan Buenning (injured reserve). Nose tackle Casey Hampton is a two-time Pro Bowler and serves as a great anchor in the middle of Pittsburgh’s defense. Bucs center John Wade and either Joseph or Mahan will be charged with the difficult task of holding off Hampton and his 325-pound frame.
Pittsburgh’s defense has recorded a whopping 29 sacks through 11 games, and its starting linebackers were responsible for 16 of those quarterback takedowns. Outside linebackers Clark Haggans and Joey Porter have 5.5 and 4.5 sacks, respectively. Porter, who plays primarily on the right side, is the bigger playmaker of the two – he’s also recorded three forced fumbles and two interceptions. Inside linebackers Rian Farrior and Larry Foote have combined for 6.5 sacks. However, they’re not as strong against the run as Haggans and Porter are, which means the few running lanes Bucs running back Cadillac Williams finds likely will be in the heart of the Steelers defense. Tampa Bay likely will play plenty of two-tight end sets and leave a backfield blocker in to help account for Pittsburgh’s blitzing linebackers. While they’re only surrendering 99 yards on the ground per game, the Steelers are allowing opposing offenses to convert 40 percent of their third down attempts this season.
The leader of Pittsburgh’s defense, strong safety Troy Polamalu, will miss Sunday’s game with an MCL sprain he suffered last Sunday vs. Baltimore. The All-Pro safety had one sack and three interceptions this season. He’ll be replaced by Mike Logan, a 10th-year player who has some starting experience under his belt. Logan will be asked to help cornerback Deshea Townsend cover Bucs speedy wide receiver Joey Galloway, especially in the deep part of the field, where Galloway has been getting himself open quite often as of late. Look for Bucs head coach Jon Gruden to try and exploit this matchup on Sunday. On the other side of the field, Bucs WR Michael Clayton, who has been a non-factor throughout most of the season, will go up against CB Ike Taylor, who led the league with 25 passes defensed last season. However, Taylor hasn’t shown the same nose for the football this season, which could bode well for Clayton, especially when he finds himself in one-on-one situations with Taylor when the Steelers move free safety Ryan Clark up in the box to help defend the run. Bucs rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who will be playing in front of nearly 100 family members and friends in his hometown of Pittsburgh, will have opportunities to make plays in the passing game because of the fact that the Steelers like to blitz so much. But Tampa Bay’s offensive line will have to pick up those blitzes, and Gradkowski will have to use his mobility to elude them in order to find Galloway and Clayton in the passing game.
This unit isn’t strength of Pittsburgh’s team right now. Steelers kicker Jeff Reed has made just 12-of-17 (70 percent) field goal attempts this season. He’s just 3-of-6 from 40-49 yards out. Punter Chris Gardocki is also struggling. He’s averaging 42.1 yards per attempt, but has a net of just 36. Rookie Santonio Holmes handles kickoff and punt return duties, and he’s doing a decent job. Holmes is averaging a respectable 24.4 yards per kickoff return and 8.1 yards per punt return. Tampa Bay’s special teams coverage units must contain the speedy Holmes as field position will play a big part in this game.
FLYNN’S FORECAST: Steelers 27 Buccaneers 17
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