Pittsburgh Steelers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Start-time: Tuesday, 01:15
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
Time for an out-of-sync Big Ben to strike
At the season's outset, if you'd been asked to predict which of these two teams would be winless and which would be sweeping the boards with its powerhouse offense, you might have replied: too easy. However, here we are just a brace of games into the regular season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have sets new standards in underwhelming, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have continued to raise the bar under back-up QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and his Duke of Downfield, DeSean Jackson, a perennial MVP under the Monday Night lights.
That said, sample sizes of two encounters across a 16-game regular season remind us that it's unwise to draw any definitive conclusions too early. There's plenty of time for Tampa to implode, or for Pittsburgh to get their challenge back on the rails. However, even away from their home stronghold of Heinz Field, the onus is on the Steelers to find their edge here, lest things start to get away from them.
Of course, the wheels were already coming loose at the start of the campaign when stud running man, Le'Veon Bell, stalled over his contract renegotiation. It appears a $19m minimum guarantee (low-bar for the best in the NFL) came as a slap in the face to Bell, when he looked around the league at his peers and pondered the possibilities of free agency to come. Who knows when he'll return to the field but, according to his confidant and ex-fellow rusher Maurice Jones-Drew, it may not be until Week 11. That said, it's not as if the Steelers have struggled to move the chains thus far, despite their defensive woes. So factoring in the emerging NFL trend for largely ineffectual running backs, perhaps that $19m MG was generous.
Of more concern to head coach Mike Tomlin is the "trade me" threats and training ground no-shows of superstar receiver Antonio Brown. Couple Brown's stroppy attitude to the general unrest surrounding Bell, and we have a wider locker room of big personalities, bruised egos and warring factions. Tomlin needs to get a handle on the situation fast, and make his squad see sense.
There's still a great chance of them making the play-offs, so now is the time for them to put their infighting behind them, and let Ben Roethlisberger get back to doing what he does best. The Steelers hail from a poor division (albeit comprised of a fiercely quarrelling quartet of competitors) where some key head-to-heads can yet be established in their favour. Roethlisberger looked back in rude health (although the way Big Ben scrambles, it may never be for long) against Kansas, completing 66% of his passes for 452 yards and three TDs. Even accounting for the frustrations surrounding Brown and Bell, Roethlisberger pulls the reins on one of the most potent offenses in the game, so light the JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner touch paper and stand well back.
Bucs will get their chances against poor Steelers D
On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh's challenge will be shutting down the white-hot dynamic duo of Fitzpatrick and Jackson. As previously discussed, the storied Steel Curtain more closely resembles a forgettable string rope these days, but there are reasons to be optimistic. The Bucs are 2-0 for the first time since 2010, so we can safely say that any collective belief is fragile among this new cult of Fitzpatrick disciples.
The quarterback leads the league in all the stats that matter under center, completing approximately 80% of his passes for a racy 819 yards and eight touchdowns, and another rushing TD to boot. Fitzpatrick's 151.5 passer rating is also higher than any other signal-caller in the game. A closer look at his play, however, demonstrates that Fitzy is demonstrating a devil-may-care attitude, taking numerous shots into defensive crowds - narrowly avoiding interceptions. The Steelers' D will have opportunities for picks and could exploit some misplaced Tampa self-confidence here, especially in front of a raucous home crowd baying for deep strikes.
For all the Bucs are talking up riding Fitzpatrick's hot hand over original starter Jameis Winston, it is well to remember that the "hot hand" fallacy is called a fallacy for a reason. It simply doesn't stand up to any reliable statistical scrutiny. Big Ben's numbers, though, are much more resilient. Back his Steelers with conviction to prevail on a number of generous handicap marks, as the Vegas line moves in their favour in the run up to tonight's primetime kick-off.