Home Game Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers look to break slide this weekend against Tampa Bay

Game Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers look to break slide this weekend against Tampa Bay

Scott Ratcliffe
Pittsburgh Steelers
(© dean bertoncelj – Shutterstock)

Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season across his 15-year tenure with the Steelers. The chances of continuing that impressive streak are in serious jeopardy, as Tomlin’s bunch (1-4) has dropped four in a row, and are underdogs this week — and will very likely be the following two weeks — going into the midway point of the season.

“One thing that I want our team to know, and I stated to them, is that we’re not going to cure our ills in one or a couple of good days, or a good plan, or a good performance for that matter,” Tomlin said at his weekly press conference.

“The state that we’re in, man, we’ve got to put our heads down and work hard and diligently and stay together for an extended period of time as we grind our way back to respectability, if you will.”

The last time the Steelers finished with a sub-.500 record was 2003 (6-10), when a guy named Ben Roethlisberger was in his final collegiate season at Miami-Ohio.

NFC South-leading Tampa Bay (3-2) comes to Acrisure Stadium Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) with an offense that hasn’t really put up eye-popping numbers through five games, but certainly has the capability to give the banged-up Pittsburgh defense fits, starting with future Hall of Famer Tom Brady calling the signals.

The Buccaneers avoided a 3-game losing streak with a controversial victory over Atlanta last week, as a late roughing-the-passer penalty gave Tampa a first down, allowing Brady to run out the clock and escape.

Brady, who Tomlin referred to as an “ageless wonder,” has thrown for 1,409 yards and 7 touchdowns (1 interception) this season. While it may not be the kind of numbers he’s been putting up over the years, the 45-year-old is still averaging 281.8 yards per game, and completing 68 percent of his passes. He’s been sacked seven times this season, but still has enough mobility in most cases to avoid big losses.

Mike Evans leads Tampa’s receiving corps with team highs of 316 yards and three touchdowns, despite missing a contest. Fellow star wideout Chris Godwin, who was out early in the season, has been back in the lineup for two weeks (120 yards on 13 catches over that span).

A pair of former Falcons receivers, veteran Julio Jones and Russell Gage, have also been reliable targets, while Leonard Fournette leads the Buccaneers in rushing with 280 yards, but has also been a weapon in the pass game with 194 yards (second-most on the team) and a pair of touchdown grabs.

With a severely depleted Pittsburgh secondary (see injury report below), it could be another long day if Brady and his receivers are able to exploit opportunities.

Meanwhile, Tampa’s 6th-ranked defense, led by linebacker Devin White, is giving up 16.6 points and 332 yards  per game. They’ve held four of their first five opponents under 16 points.

Tomlin said there were a few positives that came out of the embarrassing 38-3 loss last week in Buffalo, but that the Steelers didn’t really capitalize on any of them. He said his team was “a disaster” in all three phases, and did not play complimentary football.

Giving up a 98-yard touchdown on the third play from scrimmage was “catastrophic,” according to the coach, who was also critical of the offense for continuing to produce multiple three-and-outs, as well as coming up empty in the red zone against the stingy Bills defense.

Tomlin went on to admit that, starting with himself, the Steelers must own their mistakes, learn from them, make the proper adjustments and continue to push forward.

“I just think it’s a mindset that we all need to have, understanding where we are. They’re not quick fixes,” he said.

Tomlin added that he remains confident in offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s play-calling abilities. Canada’s job security has been a hot topic in the Steel City for quite some time, and there were hints at possible significant changes after the Buffalo loss, but it appears he will continue to serve as OC for the time being.

While rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett won’t be making his first NFL start Sunday, it will be his first in front of his hometown crowd, on the same field he excelled for the past few seasons for the Pitt Panthers. There’s no doubt that Steeler fans will be extremely loud, rowdy and hungry for a Pittsburgh win in Pickett’s first home start.

With Najee Harris struggling out of the gate (222 rushing yards on 69 carries, 3.2 per carry, 44.4 per game after finishing fourth in the league in rushing in his first season), current Steeler rookie Jaylen Warren will get more touches this week and beyond, according to Tomlin.

Warren, who’s getting about 5.4 yards per touch thus far, has been impressive catching the ball out of the backfield in addition to gaining yards on the ground, and he could offer more of a change of pace to the offense.

Another rookie that could see his role expand is tight end Connor Heyward (little brother of DE Cameron), as he’ll be helping to fill the shoes of starter Pat Freiermuth (concussion protocol), who will not suit up Sunday.

Yet another first-year Steeler, WR Calvin Austin III (foot), is getting closer to returning to the roster from the injured reserve list as well.

Perhaps Pittsburgh fans — if they haven’t already — should go ahead and accept the fact that it’ll take a miraculous turnaround to get to 9-8 or better, and it’s time to suffer through the aches and pains of a young team going through a rebuilding mode.

Tomlin said the team just needs to continue to “work our tails off,” and wants them to especially “lean in” for this week’s big game. A win — while it might not necessarily be season-defining — would go a long way in terms of momentum and morale, with a couple more tough road tests in the weeks ahead (at Miami, at Philadelphia).

Las Vegas doesn’t give Tomlin’s bunch much of a chance. Pittsburgh, which was a 13.5-point underdog last week (its largest negative spread since the 1996 Super Bowl) is again predicted to fall by more than a touchdown. Tampa is a 9-point favorite, making it the largest home underdog the Steelers have been since 1989.

Injury Report

Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (knee), along with Pittsburgh’s top three cornerbacks — Cam Sutton (hamstring), Ahkello Witherspoon (hamstring) and Levi Wallace (concussion) — have all been ruled out for Sunday. Rookie DE DeMarvin Leal is out as well, as Isaiahh Loudermilk will make his season debut. With Freiermuth (concussion) also unavailable, Zach Gentry will get the start at tight end.

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe has worked as a freelance writer for several publications over the past decade-plus, with a concentration on local and college sports. He is also a writer and editor for his father’s website, JerryRatcliffe.com, dedicated to the coverage of University of Virginia athletics.