The Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had much different starts to the 2018 season. Seeing that sentence isn’t much of a surprise, except everyone thought it would be for a very different reason.
The Bucs are off to a perfect 2-0 start after beating the New Orleans Saints and the reigning Super Bowl champs, the Philadelphia Eagles, during the first two weeks. Considering they were expected to finish with one of the worst records in the NFL, that’s as good of a start as one could ask.
On the other hand, the Steelers are winless after two weeks. They tied the Cleveland Browns in Week 1, and then proceeded to lose a 42-37 shootout against the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday.
Now, the Steelers are traveling to Tampa Bay to try to avoid falling into a 0-2-1 hole while quieting some of the off-field noise that has dominated the early headlines.
Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 24 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Tampa Bay -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Ryan Fitzpatrick keep it up?
Fitzpatrick will turn 36 years old in November. He’s been in the NFL for 14 years, but he’s never started a season the way he has in 2018.
In two starts, the Harvard product has thrown for 819 yards and eight touchdowns while completing an eye-popping 78.7 percent (48 of 61) of his passes. Fitzpatrick has been the main reason for Tampa Bay’s 2-0 start, but there are people who wonder if he can keep up this level of play.
Jameis Winston is eligible to return from his three-game suspension following Monday night’s matchup against the Steelers. If Fitzpatrick can remain productive, it may be difficult for Winston to reclaim the starting job.
2. Antonio Brown after his comments last week
The Steelers have already been dealing with the absence of Le’Veon Bell. The star running back is still looking for a massive payday after emerging as one of the top players at his position, and it’s unclear how long his holdout with last.
As if that wasn’t enough, there seems to be growing frustration coming from the team’s other star skill position player Brown due to the 0-1-1 start to the season. That frustration even led to a tweet from Brown requesting a trade after last week’s loss.
Pittsburgh isn’t known for being a dysfunctional franchise, but the off-the-field issues don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
3. James Conner’s emergence as the lead back
Speaking of Bell, his replacement has put up good numbers, while struggling in some other areas. The second-year running back out of Pittsburgh has already exceeded last year’s rushing totals in the first two weeks of this season.
The 6-foot-1, 233-pound bruiser has 257 total yards (152 rushing, 105 receiving) to go along with three rushing touchdowns. But Conner has really struggled as a pass protector. According to Pro Football Focus, he has a 27.5 grade in that area through the first two weeks. That ranks him near the bottom.
There have been reports surfacing that the Steelers are listening to trade offers for Bell, which could mean they’re starting to view Conner as a long-term replacement. He’ll need to continue to prove that against the Buccaneers, though.
The high level of play from Tampa Bay’s offense must come to an end eventually, right? Sure, but it may not be this week after seeing the struggles from Pittsburgh’s defense to start the season. The good news is the Steelers will welcome cornerback Joe Haden back into the starting lineup after he missed last week’s game due to a hamstring injury.
Another factor that could play a significant factor in this game is Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles on the road. The team can’t afford to put him in a position where he has to win a shootout away from Heinz Field. Roethlisberger did well with his 60 pass attempts last week (452 yards and three touchdowns), but will he see similar results on the road? That’s doubtful.
Expecting 79 combined points like last week would be foolish, but the over (54 points) still looks appealing. If Fitzpatrick can continue to play at an MVP-caliber level, Tampa Bay should do enough to pull out a close home victory.
Prediction: Buccaneers 31, Steelers 27
— Written by Clint Lamb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ClintRLamb.