Monday Night Football
Pittsburgh @ Tampa Bay
Team Totals: Steelers 27.5, Buccaneers 26.5
Leading the NFC in points (75), total offense, and passing yards per game (405.0), the Bucs host a Charmin-soft Steelers defense that yielded Week 1’s QB6 finish to Tyrod Taylor and Week 2’s QB1 result to Patrick Mahomes, who sprayed Mike Tomlin’s unit for six touchdown passes and left two more on the field on would-be scores to Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce. Tomlin's defense is prone to coverage busts to the extent that it's fair to directly question Tomlin and DC Keith Butler's coaching. I did not expect Ryan Fitzpatrick to earn locked-in QB1 treatment, and nor did I give him nearly the respect he deserved ahead of last week’s upset of Philadelphia. But OC Todd Monken has put on an early-season playcalling clinic, Tampa Bay’s weapons are among the league’s most explosive, and few defenses are playing as poorly as Pittsburgh’s. The Steelers have permitted a 29.0-point scoring average in seven games since losing ILB Ryan Shazier last Week 13. They allowed a 17.7-point average in Shazier’s final seven games. … Averaging 2.6 yards per carry with one reception for seven yards, Peyton Barber should soon be in danger of losing touches to rookie Ronald Jones, who was a healthy scratch in the first two weeks. Even as they were torched by the pass, the Steelers maintained solid run defense by limiting Browns and Chiefs backs to a 49/178/1 (3.63 YPC) rushing line in Weeks 1-2. Barber is a touchdown-dependent RB2/flex option in this matchup.
Fitzpatrick’s Weeks 1-2 target distribution: Mike Evans 19; Chris Godwin 10; DeSean Jackson 9; Adam Humphries 7; O.J. Howard 6; Jacquizz Rodgers 4; Barber and Cameron Brate 2. … The Steelers are getting back LCB Joe Haden (hamstring), but he’s hardly guaranteed to be 100%. Playing through a toe injury, RCB Artie Burns got torched for 100 yards and two TDs in Week 2. SS Morgan Burnett (groin) is doubtful. As Jarvis Landry (7/106/0), Sammy Watkins (6/100/0), and Tyreek Hill (5/90/1) have already done, expect Evans, Jackson, and Godwin to get theirs against this burnable secondary. … Evans leads the Bucs in targets and Air Yards (215). He is an every-week WR1. .. Jackson is right behind with 204 Air Yards and has caught all nine of his targets for 275 yards with three scores. He is an upside WR2. … Godwin played 50% of the Bucs’ Week 2 snaps and ran only 17 routes, but he leads the team in targets inside the ten (2) and is a touchdown-or-bust WR3/flex option. … Howard delivered in the Week 2 box score with a 75-yard catch-and-run score on which Godwin laid a stellar hustle block. Howard has zero red-zone targets, however, and he ranks 15th among tight ends in Air Yards (83). As Travis Kelce (7/109/2) showed last week, Pittsburgh is quite capable of being exploited by tight ends. Howard’s low-volume usage still renders him a boom-bust play.
By grabbing big leads and stopping the run, the Bucs have been a pass-funnel team, holding Saints and Steelers backs to a combined 32/119/3 (3.72 YPC) rushing line and forcing Drew Brees and Nick Foles into 45 and 48 attempts. If the trends hold, Ben Roethlisberger could capitalize with enhanced volume against Bucs DC Mike Smith’s burnable pass defense. Although Big Ben has a reputation for laying eggs on the road, he has fared well in post-1:00 PM ET games away from Heinz Field, where Roethlisberger’s last three yardage/touchdown/interception totals are 226/2/0 > 290/2/1 > 317/1/1. Ben’s career 96.7 passer rating in primetime games is superior to his clips at 1:00 PM ET (92.4) and in the late afternoon (93.8). … Albeit stout on the ground, Tampa Bay’s defense has been hammered by pass-catching backs Alvin Kamara (9/112/1) and Corey Clement (5/55/0), while James Conner enters Week 3 ranked top eight among running backs in catches (10) and receiving yards (105). Conner’s dip in touches from 36 to 13 in last week’s loss could be directly linked to negative game script. He still played 88% of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps and ran a league-high 57 routes. As the Bucs will be without top-two nose tackles Beau Allen (foot) and Vita Vea (calf), Conner remains locked in as a high-end RB1. Only two running backs have more targets inside the ten (2), and no backs have more carries inside the five (3).
Roethlisberger’s Weeks 1-2 target distribution: Antonio Brown 33; JuJu Smith-Schuster 27; Conner 11; Jesse James 10; James Washington, Vance McDonald, and Justin Hunter 5; Ryan Switzer 3. … Amid locker-room turmoil, it would not be surprising if Big Ben came out force feeding Brown. Brown should have no trouble winning all of his matchups at Tampa Bay, which coughed up receiving lines of 16/180/1 (Michael Thomas), 8/88/1 (Nelson Agholor), and 5/68/1 (Ted Ginn) in the first two weeks. … Both Thomas and Agholor ran over half of their routes in the slot against the Bucs, and Smith-Schuster is lining up inside on 88% of his plays. Leading the NFL in red-zone targets (8), it’s time to begin classifying JuJu as a legit WR1. … After a mistake-filled Week 1, the Steelers benched Hunter for rookie Washington, who played 81% of last week’s offensive snaps. Washington caught just 1-of-5 targets for a 14-yard TD, but he finished second on the team in Week 2 Air Yards (127) behind Brown (192) and is an exciting breakout-game sleeper. … James’ snaps dipped from 82% to 55% with McDonald back from injury. Both tight ends drew five Week 2 targets, but James out-produced (5/138/1) McDonald (3/26/0) by capitalizing on Ben’s play extensions when the Chiefs left James uncovered. McDonald’s best play was a block to spring Smith-Schuster’s screen-pass score. Tampa Bay has been gutted by tight ends, yielding a league-high 20 catches and the NFL’s second-most yards to the position (210). In a timeshare, James and McDonald are dice-roll TE2s.
Score Prediction: Steelers 30, Buccaneers 27