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Offensively challenged Steelers among surprise 2-0 teams


Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris is feeling a lot better now than he did this time last season.

"Last year, when they gave myself and [general manager] Mark Dominik the keys, we knew we wanted to build through the draft for our fundamental core of putting a team together, (a) team that would be built for long-term winning," Morris said. "We weren't into the quick fix of free agency and it wasn't popular. We got criticized a lot for that."

The long-term approach has delivered immediate wins and the Buccaneers are among a handful of surprising 2-0 teams. Their opponent this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers, also are unbeaten. While it might not be a surprise to some because of the Steelers' history, the suspension of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger prompted reason for concern -- so did two early games against Atlanta and Tennessee. Doubts, at least to this point, have been erased.

As we explore the Buccaneers and Steelers further, they aren't the only surprise unbeatens after two weeks.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers started 0-7 last season and wound up winning three games overall. They've gotten past two winless teams (Cleveland, Carolina) but they aren't complaining. Quarterback Josh Freeman has a passer rating of 95 but the key stat is he has just one pick. He's getting rid of balls instead of taking sacks and not forcing things. It won't be easy for him against the Steelers.

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"It will be nice for our young quarterback to see this test early on," Morris said.

Test? Yes. Nice? No. We'll know how good the Buccaneers are by mid-October. After the Steelers, Cincinnati and New Orleans are ahead.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have allowed 20 points in two games -- tying them with Miami for fewest points allowed. In the two other games their opponents, Atlanta and Tennessee, played, the Falcons scored 41 points, the Titans 38. Both won. This defense is dominant. It's forced eight turnovers -- four fumbles -- and applied immense pressure against the run and pass. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley has recorded at least a half-sack in 10 straight games. After Tampa Bay, the upcoming schedule is brutal: Baltimore, Cleveland, Miami, New Orleans, Cincinnati and New England.

Chicago Bears

Nobody knew what to expect of the Bears and beating Detroit in the opener in Chicago might not seem overly impressive. Going to Dallas and dictating all terms in defeating the Cowboys was a respect earner. Sure, Dallas might be struggling, but Chicago has earned its victories. QB Jay Cutler is tops in the NFL in passer rating (121.2) and third in passing yards (649). The defense has been good enough. This momentum gained could make Chicago a potential playoff team and put it, not Minnesota, in contention for the NFC North with Green Bay. Up next: Packers, Giants, Panthers, Seahawks.

Kansas City Chiefs

Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has made an immediate impact. He's gotten a lot out of a unit that was inconsistent and he came up with a game plan to beat the Chargers (double and triple teaming TE Antonio Gates) that was highly effective. There are a lot of gutsy players on this team and Kansas City will be a tough out each week. The rushing game with Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles is working. The passing attack with Matt Cassel isn't. Cassel has to be better for Kansas City to contend. If the Chiefs can get through their next three games vs. San Francisco, Indianapolis and Houston, the schedule softens dramatically.

Revisiting Pittsburgh

With a piping-hot quarterback controversy trying to be quelled in Philadelphia and others simmering in Buffalo, Tennessee and Oakland, the most potentially controversial quarterback dilemma -- in Pittsburgh -- was settled this weekend. Roethlisberger should be the Steelers' starter once he returns from his four-game suspension for violating the player conduct policy.

Pittsburgh is 2-0 because its defense said so. Quarterback Dennis Dixon was ok in his two starts, but he got hurt against the Titans and Charlie Batch -- technically the fourth quarterback -- stepped in. Combined, Batch and Dixon threw for 43 yards against Tennessee and the Steelers still won. In two games, the Steelers have scored one offensive touchdown, the 50-yard gallop by Rashard Mendenhall to beat Atlanta in overtime in Week 1.

So even if Pittsburgh is 4-0 (Tampa Bay and Baltimore are the remaining two games) when Big Ben returns, he's the guy. The Steelers need to generate some type of offense and Roethlisberger can do that much better than his replacements. Tomlin has been non-committal about the quarterback situation three games from now, as he should be, but why wouldn't he go to Roethlisberger?

Things might get somewhat interesting if Byron Leftwich, who was cut last week and re-signed, takes over and leads the team to two tough victories. Let's even slip Batch into those scenarios.

Even if that is the case, Pittsburgh's defense will be the reason the Steelers will win. Pittsburgh held Falcons running back Michael Turner to 42 yards, and stopped Chris Johnson's streak of 100-yard rushing games at 12 in a victory over the Titans.

I spoke to a Falcons' front office member and players who said that Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau had Atlanta schemed so well that it was tough to move players who were in the right place -- and who were overly determined. Safety Troy Polamalu was singled out for not only being typically effective, but also for being the most-cerebral player on the field.

Polamalu's interception of Matt Ryan late in the fourth quarterback came because he showed a certain deep-drop look but once the play unfolded, read the QB's progression and jumped a route to the sideline, where he figured Atlanta would go anyway in an attempt to make a play and get out of bounds to stop the clock.

A new view of the Cardinals

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said quarterback Derek Anderson wasn't the only player to under-perform in their 41-7 loss at Atlanta -- and he's dead on with that. However, the way the Falcons defended the Cardinals showed just how much things have changed since Kurt Warner and Anquan Boldin have left.

Atlanta opted not to have standout cornerback Dunta Robinson follow Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald all over the field. Robinson remained on the right side, often leaving Fitzgerald (6-foot-3, 218) facing 5-10, 180-pound Brent Grimes.


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"It's the confidence they have in Brent Grimes," Robinson said of Atlanta's strategy. "Besides Aaron Glenn, he's the best corner I've lined up beside. When you have another corner like that it makes my job a lot easier. That means I don't have to trail the best receiver every game."

While Robinson was showing love to his under-sized but super-athletic teammate, the Cardinals previously attacked Grimes with Boldin and Fitzgerald and it worked well. The fear of facing Arizona clearly has diminished.

Youth movement in NFC South

With Jimmy Clausen replacing Matt Moore in Carolina, the NFC South's starting quarterbacks feature a rookie in Clausen, a second-year player in Freeman and Atlanta's Matt Ryan, who is in his third season. New Orleans' Drew Brees, in his 10th season, is the senior citizen by far. No other division features three starting quarterbacks so fresh into the league.

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