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Big Ben, Steelers withstand Fitz's rally to beat Bucs

Whew, that was close. The Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1-1) escaped disaster on Monday night, withstanding a furious second-half comeback from Ryan Fitzpatrick to defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1), 30-27.

  1. Two years to the week that Ryan Fitzpatrick tossed a sextet of interceptions in a career-defining debacle, the boom-or-bust journeyman went full bust yet again in the second quarter Monday night. In a six-minute span before halftime, the Buccaneers quarterback threw three interceptions on three consecutive drives, the last of which was an unforgivable pick-six that put Pittsburgh up two scores. It looked like at the time that the gunslinger's Fitzmagic had run out yet again.

But Fitzpatrick responded in the second half with three lengthy scoring drives of 14, 12 and nine plays to pull within three of the Steelers with less than six minutes to go. After Pittsburgh's next drive sputtered, the Bucs got the ball back at their own 20 with three minutes to go, more than enough time for Fitzpatrick to march Tampa Bay down the field as he had done all half for a game-tying field goal. But Fitz's next three passes fell incomplete, forcing the Bucs, saddled with two timeouts to punt back to the Steelers. Pittsburgh subsequently iced the game with two first downs, ending Tampa Bay's bid for its own Monday night miracle.

  1. Ben Roethlisberger bounced back from a shaky September start to show off in prime time. After throwing a careless interception on Pittsburgh's second drive, Roethlisberger responded by leading three straight scoring drives and piloting a masterful end-of-half touchdown drive to put the Steelers up 20 points at halftime, a lead they would not relinquish. The Steelers were slowed in the second half by Tampa Bay's improved pass rush, but when Pittsburgh needed a pick-me-up, Big Ben was there. His gutsy second-down conversion, an 18-yard rope to a tightly covered JuJu Smith-Schuster, on Pittsburgh's final drive essentially closed the game and showed that Roethlisberger still has it.

Swarmed by Cleveland's defense in Week 1 and overshadowed by Patrick Mahomes in Week 2, Big Ben's early-season production had flown under the radar before Monday night's quintessential performance (30 for 38, 353 yards, 3 TDs, INT). For the first time in his career, the 36-year-old Roethlisberger has opened a season with three consecutive 300-passing yard games.

  1. Despite the defeat, Fitz's flaming-hot start to the 2018 season continued. By tossing for 411 yards against Pittsburgh, the 35-year old became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 400 yards in three consecutive games. His three picks were a season-high, but Fitz enters Week 4 second in the league in touchdown passes (11). With Jameis Winston set to rejoin the club from suspension Tuesday, the Bucs still have a difficult decision on their hands. Start Fitzpatrick, the maverick signal-caller coming off his most topsy-turvy turn of the season? Or start Winston, the problematic franchise quarterback who hasn't been to the facility in three weeks? Bucs coach Dirk Koetter wouldn't say who will get the job, but my feeling is Fitzpatrick earned himself another week in the saddle with his second-half comeback. His first-half meltdown, though, won't soon be forgotten.
  1. With reports circulating that Pittsburgh is fielding trade offers for Le'Veon Bell, his replacement James Conner was having his worst start as a pro for the bulk of the evening. That is until the fourth quarter. The second-year back finished with 61 rushing yards on 15 carries -- a solid 4.1 YPC clip -- but 49 of those yards came on Pittsburgh's final two marches. It should be noted that Pittsburgh chose not to commit to the ground game before the final frame, choosing instead to take advantage of Tampa's overwhelmed secondary.

And take advantage the Steelers did. Vance McDonald made Chris Conte a meme on his first-quarter 75-yard catch-stiff-arm-and-run-to-the-end-zone. Smith-Schuster remained Roethlisberger's top target and go-to receiver, tallying another nine catches for 116 yards. Big Ben even got rookie James Washington and Cowboys/Raiders castoff Ryan Switzer involved. Washington (two catches for 25 yards) is developing into a reliable intermediate threat, and Switzer a Swiss Army knife in the backfield. Oh, and there's still Antonio Brown.

  1. Not to be outlauded, Tampa Bay's skill players continued their knack of getting open, breaking tackles and scoring big gains. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin each tallied impressive touchdowns during the Bucs' second-half comeback, and O.J. Howard stayed unguardable. DeSean Jackson, Fitz's most dangerous target through two weeks, was less a factor. Tampa Bay doesn't even need to establish a steady running game with the likes of Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers to keep the ball moving. In a division populated by offensive juggernauts in New Orleans and Atlanta, Tampa Bay boasts, at least with Fitz at the helm, the most dangerous aerial attack.
  1. The Steelers handed kicker Chris Boswella four-year extension this offseason with the expectation that he would continue his Pro Bowl proficiency in Pittsburgh into the next decade. Boswell has since rewarded the organization by missing three out of four field goal attempts and two extra points to start the season. That's not what you want from one of the highest-paid kickers in the league.
  1. The roughing the passer penalty is broken. Pete Morelli's crew called four roughing the passer penalties Monday night, including two that came as a result of pass rushers landing on opposing quarterbacks with their body weight -- a la Clay Matthews, and just as egregious.  The four roughing calls were the most such penalties called in a single game since 2001, according to the ESPN broadcast.

"I don't want to criticize officiating especially when you're talking about a penalty that's helping the quarterback out," Roethlisberger said laughing after the game. "But there sure are a lot of them. I can't imagine the fans at home are enjoying it too much." Damn right.

Related: Pittsburgh did little Monday evening to quash the notion that it is the most undisciplined team in the league, east of Oakland. The Steelers committed 13 penalties for 155 yards, handing Tampa Bay four first downs via fouls. Through three games, the Steelers are the most penalized club in the NFL by far with 44 flags.

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