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Tomlin Report - Week 3 at Tampa Bay

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The Steelers, possibly down to their fourth quarterback, lay their undefeated record on the line in the sweltering heat of Tampa against the surprising Buccaneers.

Steelers (2-0) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0)
at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL
Sunday, September 26 – 1:00 PM on CBS

Steelers: first place AFC North
Favorite: Steelers by 3

Buccaneers: Beat the Panthers 20-7 in Carolina
• Tampa Bay used a combination of great defense and smart, safe play from second-year QB Josh Freeman to earn a convincing win, giving the team two early victories after a season that saw them go 3-13.
• After a three-and-out from each team, Tampa Bay capitalized. One play after a 17-yard scramble to erase a third-and-long, Freeman hit RB Earnest Graham for a 14-yard touchdown.
• Carolina tied the game early in the second quarter as WR Steve Smith slipped through the defense, catching a 37-yard touchdown to even things up at 7-7.
• Freeman and the Buccaneers offense took over on the following drive and began moving backwards, eventually ending up with a third-and-17 situation. Freeman found TE Kellen Winslow for a 40-yard gain and then followed it up with a touchdown strike to rookie WR Mike Williams. Winslow, a former Cleveland Brown, led all receivers with 4 catches for 83 yards and a TD.
• After halftime, Tampa Bay’s defense made life miserable for Panthers QB Matt Moore on third down. Here are the results of Moore’s third-down attempts in the half: sack, interception, conversion, sack, conversion sack-fumble. After the lost fumble, Moore was pulled from the game and was replaced by rookie Jimmy Clausen, who will start in Week 3.
• While the defense controlled the third-down battle, the offense managed to chip in two field goals by Connor Barth to put up an extra 6 points and create the 20-7 margin of victory.
• Josh Freeman finished the day 12-of-24 for 178 yards and 2 TDs in addition to 4 runs for 43 yards.
• The cornerback tandem of Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib pulled down an interception each and DE Tim Crowder registered 2 of the team’s 4 sacks as well as forced fumble.

Steelers: Beat the Titans 19-11 in Tennessee
• Pittsburgh used a championship-worthy defense and some opportunistic special teams to carry a struggling, injury-depleted offense to a win on the hottest day in the history of LP Field.
• The Steelers special teams wasted no time, scoring on an 89-yard reverse handoff to Antonio Brown on the opening kickoff and then forcing and recovering a fumble on the Titans’ own attempt, giving Pittsburgh an early 7-0 lead and the ball.
• However, on third down of the ensuing drive, QB Dennis Dixon was sacked and lost a fumble, giving the Titans a chance in Pittsburgh territory. Vince Young and the Tennessee offense managed to move the ball to the 3-yard line but were forced to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown.
• A three-and-out by Pittsburgh followed by a great punt return by Tennessee gave the Titans offense another crack at the red zone. This time, they came away empty thanks to a Troy Polamalu interception in the endzone.
• Pittsburgh’s offense used two big runs to power a drive following the takeaway, setting up Jeff Reed for a 36-yard field goal and a 10-3 lead, but the team lost Dennis Dixon to a knee injury on the drive. Charlie Batch replaced him at quarterback. Dixon finished the day 4-of-6 for 18 yards and another 28 yards on 3 rushes.
• After three-and-outs by each team, Pittsburgh forced turnovers on two of Tennessee’s next three drives and eventually capitalized with a 34-yard field goal by Reed before halftime.
• Yet another takeaway, this time on a sack-fumble by James Harrison, set up a third field goal by Reed early in the fourth quarter, giving Pittsburgh a 16-3 lead. It also ended the day for Vince Young, who was responsible for four of Tennessee’s five turnovers to that point and was pulled in favor of Kerry Collins.
• Collins didn’t fare much better initially, turning the ball over on two of his first three drives. The second turnover set Pittsburgh’s offense up in the redzone but they, once again, settled for a short field goal and a 19-3 lead.
• Collins did find some rhythm late and led the team to a touchdown on a pass to former-Steeler Nate Washington. The Titans recovered an onside kick, but ultimately fell short of the tie.
• Pittsburgh’s offense struggled all day, gaining only 127 yards with 21 yards through the air (after sacks). The team was also an abysmal 2-of-15 on third down and failed to score a touchdown in any of their red zone appearances.
• The defense, though, was outstanding, registering 6 turnovers total, 3 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries and 4 sacks. James Harrison forced 2 fumbles on his 2 sacks. Troy Polamalu contributed a sack and an interception. LaMarr Woodley and Brett Kiesel both registered sack-fumbles with Woodley adding an interception. Bryant McFadden had an interception of his own. Lawrence Timmons forced a fumble on a sack and also led the team with 15 total tackles. In addition, the defense held last year’s rushing leader, Chris Johnson, to just 34 yards on 16 attempts.
• The special teams chipped in, too. In addition to Antonio Brown’s return touchdown, the unit reeled in a forced fumble by rookie LB Stevenson Sylvester. Reed was perfect on his four field goals. Daniel Sepulveda had a busy night as well, registering a 43.5-yard average on 8 punts.

A Look Around the AFC North
Cleveland (0-2) remains winless on the season thanks to a 16-14 loss at home against Kansas City. Seneca Wallace got the start in place of the injured Jake Delhomme and put up a mediocre performance; one touchdown, one interception, a 51.6 completion rate, and a 229-yard day in which 101 of those yards came on two plays. In Cleveland's doghouse watch, Jerome Harrison had an awful day, averaging only 2.1 yards per carry and losing a fumble, and Eric Mangini may hide him so deep in the roster than he’ll never be seen again.

One thing is for sure, Cleveland will keep losing unless they can figure out how to keep the offense on the field. The Browns currently are tied for the fifth-worst time of possession in the league at just over 27 minutes per game. Cleveland will get its first taste of division action next week as they travel to Baltimore to face the Ravens.

Baltimore (1-1) suffered a loss to division rival Cincinnati by a score of 15-10, and came out with some major questions. Namely, where is the high-powered offense everyone was expected with the additions of Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh? Boldin has been keeping his end of the bargain, but Housh has just one catch in two games and was shut out against the Bengals. Some of the blame falls on QB Joe Flacco, who is struggling with his accuracy and looked absolutely awful on Sunday, throwing 4 interceptions. Flacco’s passes are sailing on him and he’s developing a bad habit of overthrowing his receivers.

Baltimore’s defense remains solid--not spectacular--but it is holding the team together. The Ravens have a good chance of righting the ship on Sunday though. A game against Cleveland could be just what the doctor ordered.

Cincinnati (1-1) joins Baltimore in one of the most confusing four-team mashups in the league. Cincinnati scraped by Baltimore and was absolutely man-handled by New England. New England followed a convincing win against the Bengals with a thoroughly uninspiring loss against the New York Jets, who were edged out by Baltimore just a week ago, who, once again, the Bengals just beat. Wrap your mind around that.

Cincinnati’s defense looked much better this week, but how much of that can be attributed to Ravens QB Joe Flacco’s struggles throwing the ball regardless of the defense? The offense might be playing at a lower level than last year. Carson Palmer completed less than half his passes for 167 yards. Remember, Palmer had a good day statistically in Week 1, but a majority of his production came in “garbage time” with the Bengals down 31-3 after the half. Cincinnati should get a shot in the arm this week as they hit the road to face a Carolina team that is playing some of the worst football in the league after two weeks and is starting a rookie QB.

Seeing contributions from some of his younger players.

“Antonio Brown made some plays; Stevenson Sylvester made some plays,” offered Tomlin. “When you get young guys making plays for you, it is encouraging.”

Brown, of course, had the 89-yard kickoff return touchdown to start the game. Sylvester continued his excellent special teams work by forcing a fumble on the very next kickoff. And, of course, rookie Maurkice Pouncey continued to be a force at center despite some issues with snapping the ball.

QB Dennis Dixon injured the meniscus in his left knee on Sunday and will likely have surgery Wednesday morning. There is no set timetable for his return at this point. However, Tomlin did confirm that he will be OUT for the game in Tampa Bay.

RG Trai Essex suffered an ankle sprain in Sunday’s game and is DOUBTFUL for this week. If he sits, Doug Legursky will start in his place.

DT Casey Hampton (hamstring) and WR Emmanuel Sanders (quad) both were looking good in terms of preparing for a return, according to Tomlin. They’ll likely both be listed as PROBABLE to QUESTIONABLE this week.

LB Jason Worilds should be a full participant in practice and, as such, is PROBABLE, for Sunday.

OT Max Starks is also set to be a full participant this week as he recovers from a low-ankle sprain. Tomlin sounded positive about his status and it is PROBABLE that he returns to the left tackle spot against Tampa Bay.

TE Kellen Winslow, who was dealing with "knee pain" leading up to Week 2's game against the Panthers, vows to be ready to go every week regardless of what he does (or doesn't do) on the practice field, the Tampa Tribune reports. "The only thing that matters is what you do on Sunday," Winslow said. "Nobody cares about practice. When that game is on the line, you're going to make the play or not. So it doesn't matter what you do during the week...I'll be ready every Sunday." He is listed as PROBABLE for Sunday’s game.

Can the Steelers continue to win based on the strength of their defense or will the offense finally need to chip in to keep the team undefeated going into Week 4?

QB Josh Freeman; WR Mike Williams; RB Carnell Williams; RB/FB Earnest Graham; TE Kellen Winslow; OTs Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood; DT Gerald McCoy; MLB Barrett Ruud; OLB Geno Hayes; CBs Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib; FS Tanard Jackson

• OG Keydrick Vincent was originally signed by Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie free agent and played with the team from 2001-04.
• TE John Gilmore played at Penn State.
• Defensive assistant Chris Mosley played at W&J (1999-2001)
• Quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt played at Pitt (1989-92), and was drafted by the Steelers in 1993.

“When you look at Tampa, there are a lot of reasons they are 2-0. I’ve just finished watching the games again this morning, just looking at how they flow and bring the three phases together. They’re playing off themselves, they really are. They create turnovers; they’re +4 in two games. When they create those turnovers the offense scores with them; they’re responding in that way. They’re playing really good in special teams, their coverage units.”
– Discussing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, surprisingly 2-0 just a year after a disappointing 3-13 season.

“But [quarterback Josh Freeman] is also using his known commodities, guys such as Kellen Winslow, who is the No. 1 third-down receiver in the NFL. The guy has got 8 catches on third-downs. We know about him; we’ve competed against him. We know he’s a tough, physical matchup; a very athletic and physical matchup for linebackers and a big, powerful matchup from a coverage standpoint for safeties.” – On TE Kellen Winslow, who was drafted 6th overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2004 before a trade sent him to Tampa Bay before last season. Winslow’s eight third-down catches actually represent his entire workload. He hasn’t caught a pass on any other down.

“Nobody scored on them in the second half of football games this season. They shut Cleveland out in the second half; they shut Carolina out in the second half. So nobody scored a point on them, not even a field goal in the second half, so that speaks to how their game evolves over the course of the game and the necessary halftime adjustments and things that they make.” – On Tampa Bay’s defense, which has allowed just 21 points in two games and 0 points in the second half of games. Those 21 points are the third fewest allowed in the NFL after two games, behind Pittsburgh and Miami, who both have allowed 20 points.

“You got to say that Charlie is in pole position because he’s got a clean bill of health at this point. We don’t anticipate Byron’s health being an issue, but you at least, at this point of the week, have to acknowledge that could be a factor in terms of how the reps get sorted out and who ultimately plays.” – When asked how his quarterback situation will play out with Charlie Batch healthy and with Byron Leftwich returning from an injury that sidelined him for the first two weeks. Tomlin confirmed that he will not bring in a third quarterback.

“No, it’s a unique thing. We have to play in it. It’s going to be hot on their sideline as well. I’ve coached football down there. This time of year when you coach football down there you like to feel good about the climate in that it’s a winning edge. But the reality is that if you don’t get off the field and make the necessary plays you need to make it could hurt you. I’ve been a part of that. We’re not going to get too caught up in it.” ¬– Answering whether playing in the heat of Nashville last week will prepare him for what will likely be a hot day in Tampa, Florida.

“It is probably an issue with Maurkice [Pouncey]; probably an issue with the cadence, the fact that we were having to use silent counts, probably an issue that we were playing multiple quarterbacks, some of which that he hadn’t taken a bunch of snaps with. We've got limited exposure of exchanges between Pouncey and Batch, especially considering the limited amount of 11-on-11 snaps that Charlie got in Latrobe. Not making excuses, they are what they are. We have to snap the ball, because that generally gets plays started.” – On the snapping issues against the Tennessee Titans. Both Dixon and Batch fumbled snaps, but both were recovered. The crowd noise, as Tomlin speculated last week, became an issue at LP Field.

Some familiarity between Mike Tomlin and the Tampa Bay defense. Tomlin served as the team’s defensive backs coach between 2001 and 2005 under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Though Kiffin is gone, his defensive schemes are still intact under the guidance of head coach and Kiffin-disciple Raheem Morris.

“We don’t care about the shuffling. Whoever is in has to play to our standard. The guys are going to do the best they can to help them. We understand that we are going down there on a business trip and our business is winning.” – On the team and the situation at quarterback, which has lost a quarterback to suspension and two more to injuries so far.

“He made a pretty good case for himself, but I can be a tough guy to work with sometimes so we will see how the week unfolds.” – When asked if the kickoff return touchdown would guarantee rookie WR Antonio Brown an active spot on the roster next week. Brown was inactive in Week 1 but made an appearance thanks to an injury to fellow rookie Emmanuel Sanders.

“We just felt that is was a calculated risk that we needed to take in an effort to maybe change field position or give a shot in the arm to get things started. Antonio is a talented guy, he has initial quicks, we thought that if he could get around a guy or two that he could give us a charge and get a chunk of real estate for us. He provided more than we anticipated.” – Discussing Brown’s kickoff return and the talents that could keep him active in the coming weeks.

Let’s keep it simple this week. Here’s a good illustration of just how well the defense has played to this point: Pittsburgh held Atlanta and Tennessee to just 20 points combined. In their other games, those two teams combined for 79 total points (41 by Atlanta this week; 38 by Tennessee last week).

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