What to watch for in Steelers-Buccaneers on 'MNF'

It's September and everything we thought we knew has been blown into a thousand pieces and scattered to the autumn wind.

The Steelers are the class of the AFC.

The Buccaneers are a ghost-ship veering toward the void.

These offseason presumptions check out as ultra-garbage as we inch closer to Week 3's edition of Monday Night Football.

Fans of unpredictable tumult have a thousand reasons to love what we've seen so far from the regular season. Especially if you reside in sun-splashed Tampa, where the home team is undefeated, untied and utterly fun to watch.

The feel-good vibes don't extend to Pittsburgh, where Steelers fans darkly ponder an outfit that fell into a tie with the typically dismissed Browns before surrendering 42 points to the electric Chiefs.

Backed into a corner and looking for signs of life, Pittsburgh is tasked with hitting the road and playing the role of spoiler to Tampa's early season fairy tale.

With the tilt just hours away, here's what we'll be watching for:

  1. It all begins with one of the more fascinating stories of this young campaign. Thirty-five-year-old journeyman passer Ryan Fitzpatrick has spun intense voodoo out of the gate, becoming the first player in league history to record 400-plus passing yards and four-plus touchdowns in back-to-back games to start the season. His nine total touchdowns are tied for second-most in the Super Bowl era over the first two games of a campaign -- and he'd be tied at the top if it weren't for Patrick Mahomes (with 10) emerging as a newbie-superhero in Kansas City.

If there's still a debate whether FitzMagic will be benched once Jameis Winston returns from suspension, there's little argument over the Bearded One's juicy fit inside the offense of Bucs play-caller Todd Monken. With an emphasis on explosive plays through the air, Fitzpatrick has delivered in full, tossing more touchdowns of 30-plus air yards in two weeks (4) than Winston threw all last season (2).

My colleague Kevin Patra has authored roughly 21 news items over the past 18 months about Winston and deep threat DeSean Jackson "getting on the same page," but the two never complied -- not like Fitzpatrick. The veteran has fallen into a mind meld with his favorite wideout, helping Jackson to an eighth-best 275 yards (he ranked atop the league heading into Week 3) with two scores of 50-plus yards.

History tells us the other shoe will drop for Fitzpatrick, but his late-career antics echo the brilliant burst we saw from Randall Cunningham with the Vikings in 1998. Fitzy's plugged in and feeling no pain. It's up to Pittsburgh to flip the script.

  1. Amid whispers that lost-in-the-wilderness Le'Veon Bell rests on the trading block, the Steelers are angling for another big outing from backfield stand-in James Conner. "Stand-in" is unfair, with the second-year man looking like the full-fledged starter going forward.

Conner dazzled in the opener, torching the Browns for 135 yards and two scores on the ground with another 57 yards through the air. With lines of that nature, who needs Bell? Conner saw just 13 touches against the Chiefs, but that loss to Kansas City saw Pittsburgh trying to climb back in with an unwieldy 60 pass attempts and 452 yards through the air from Ben Roethlisberger.

Pittsburgh would like to have Conner involved throughout, a hope requiring the team's leaky defense to suppress a Tampa offense averaging an outrageous 37-plus points per tilt over two weeks.

  1. Beyond the off-field haggling with Bell, the Steelers have endured in-house drama in the form of Antonio Brown. The ultra-talented wideout claims reporters simply don't understand him. The media can't see his intense desire to compete and win amid a missed practice and Brown's fireball tweet to an ex-P.R. staffer -- "Trade me let's find out" -- who suggested the receiver wouldn't be the same player without Big Ben.

I don't doubt Brown's fire. He brings it every game, every week. Still, it's hard to argue that a player who skips a team session overtly wants to win more than everyone who showed up to work. This is part and parcel of the Brown experience, and he's worth the ups and downs. Especially when paired with JuJu Smith-Schuster, who currently sits tied with Brown in catches (18) and outranks the veteran with 240 yards through the air to 180 for Brown.

It's likely an early season aberration, but Big Ben is simply not having the same success with Brown out of the gate. Their shared 37.5 completion percentage is a sharp drop from the 53.4 over the past two campaigns, while their yards per completion have dived from 9.5 to 4.3. Tampa's relatively inviting pass defense should help.

  1. Pittsburgh's defense, meanwhile, hasn't been the same since star linebacker Ryan Shazier went down with a serious spinal injury last December. My boy Evan Silva from the Rotoworld Compound breaks it down:

The Steelers were exposed against a Kansas City attack boasting a bounty of talent in Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt and Sammy Watkins. The Bucs offer a handful of weaponized dangers of their own in Mike Evans, Adam Humphries and Jackson alongside starry second-year target Chris Godwin. Toss in playmaking, monstrous tight end O.J. Howard and this Tampa outfit has the goods to make life tough for one of the league's shakier defenses.

  1. Today's NFL is so vastly different than the league we knew one or two decades ago. Staring at past records is something of a farce, but here's a bit of hope for Tampa fans: Since 2013, four of the five teams that started 2-0 and beat a conference champion in the process went on to make the playoffs. Two of those teams made the Super Bowl.

That said, we need to see this Bucs defense step up after allowing 30-plus points per game over the first two outings. All-Pro lineman Gerald McCoy is off to a fast start along with linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. The team was hoping to see first-round tackle Vita Vea make his debut, but a calf injury will keep him out once again.

This is a monster game for the Bucs, a team that rarely finds itself on prime time -- especially with an undefeated mark. They won't catch the Steelers by surprise, but it's up to Pittsburgh to clamp down on an offense ready to fly.

Grab your favorite six-pack of dangerously pretentious craft beer and settle in for a gridiron escapade of the mind.

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