Whenever the Bucs allow a rusher to top the century mark, defeat is almost assured as the team is now 1-15 under head coach Tony Dungy when they surrender 100 yards rushing to an opposing ballcarrier.
Bettis also threw the second touchdown pass of his career when he caught the Tampa Bay defense off-guard on a halfback option to tight end Mark Bruener. The win moved the Steelers to 4-1 and dropped Tampa Bay to 2-3.
After a scoreless first period, the Bucs were the first to make a mark on the scoreboard. With 10:20 left in the second quarter, kicker Martin Gramatica booted a 31-yard field goal from the right hash to cap a 14-play, 81-yard drive that took 7:45 of clock time putting Tampa Bay up 3-0.
Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who had 10 catches for 159 yards to became the first Buccaneer to record back-to-back 100-yard receiving games since 1989 when Mark Carrier chalked up 131 yards at Detroit followed by 101 against the Steelers, contributed three catches for 75 yards on the drive.
Johnson's final reception converted a third-and-9 from the Bucs 39. With one of the best-conceived plays that the Bucs ran all game, No. 19 and the other three wide outs all ran fly patterns to occupy the safeties, who were playing deep in cover 2.
Quarterback Brad Johnson, who went 24-of-40 for 283 yards with a touchdown and an interception to go along with 18 yards on three scrambles, threaded the needle to the former University of Southern California star for 26 yards as he turned his route into a skinny post when the safety to his side chased the deeper receiver.
The Steelers answered the Bucs' score on their next drive. Starting on their own 20, Pittsburgh took 4:13 off the clock to march 80 yards in eight plays to take a 7-3 lead at 6:07 of the second quarter after the successful point after touchdown boot by kicker Kris Brown.
Pittsburgh's touchdown came with some trickery. Facing a third-and-2 at the Pewter Pirates' 32-yard line, quarterback Kordell Stewart, who rushed seven times for 32 yards and completed 10-of-16 passes for 100 yards with two interceptions, tossed the ball to Bettis on a sweep to the right. At the last minute Bettis launched a semi-spiral to a wide-open backup tight end Jerame Tuman for a touchdown as rookie free safety John Howell watched helplessly.
Howell was starting for the injured Dexter Jackson, who had not sufficiently recovered from a deep thigh bruise that forced the Bucs to deactivate him before the game.
Other than the touchdown pass, the Steelers converted another huge third down situation. On third-and-8, Stewart hit wide receiver Hines Ward, who led the Steelers in receiving yards with 42, and tied fellow wide out Plaxico Burress for the reception lead with three, for 16 yards to give the Pittsburgh offense a new set of downs.
It was a very fast first half with only seven total possessions, four by Pittsburgh and three by the Bucs. Neither defense forced a three-and-out in the entire first half, but neither offense was able to sustain more than one scoring drive.
The big difference was, as it has been in the past four games for the Buccaneers, the ability of the Steelers offense to make plays on third down and the inability of the Bucs to move the sticks when they faced third down situations. Pittsburgh was a whooping 4-of-6 for 67 percent and Tampa Bay was an average 2-for-5 for a 40 percent success rate.
The Steelers extended their lead to 14-3 on their first possession of the second half. After the Bucs experienced their first three-and-out of the game on the opening possession of the third quarter, the Steelers took over after punter Mark Royals deposited a 42-yarder on the Steelers sideline at their own 43-yard line.
Three plays and one first down later, Bettis ran a counter trey over the right side and cut it back against the grain to rumble in from 46 yards out at 12:43 of the third quarter.
Middle linebacker Jamie Duncan was blocked out of the play and outside linebacker Derrick Brooks overran Bettis, who cut back right behind him. It took the Steelers three plays to cover 57 yards while eating up only 1:17 off the game clock and Brown tacked on the PAT.
Pittsburgh extended its lead to 17-3 at the 4:49 mark of the third quarter. After the Bucs were forced to punt on their next possession, the Steelers moved 68 yards in 10 plays to set up Brown on the right hash for a 35-yarder that split the uprights. The drive consumed 4:47 and forced the Bucs to abandon any idea of a running game and go strictly with the pass in an attempt to make up a 14-point deficit.
The Bucs did score a final touchdown with 28 seconds left in the game to cut the lead to 17-10. Johnson found reserve wide receiver Frank Murphy, who caught three passes for 17 yards and was in the game due to a leg injury to wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and a groin injury to wideout Jacquez Green, in the right corner of the end zone from 5 yards out for his first career touchdown to put the Bucs within seven points.
The 16-play, 80-yard drive took 3:47 to accomplish and the kick by Gramatica set the stage for the strangest play and call of the game.
The Bucs successfully attempted an onsides kick with cornerback Brian Kelly spearing a high bouncer off the foot of Gramatica.
Or did he? After first ruling that Kelly was down by contact and in control of the football, controversial referee Ed Hochuli was contacted by replay official Bill Richardson to inform him that he needed to take another look.
After what seemed like an eternity under the replay camera hood, Hochuli emerged to reverse his decision and award the football to the Steelers who celebrated to seal the victory.
But television replays showed that side judge Laird Hayes had whistled the play dead immediately after it seemed like Kelly gained possession. If that was the case, the play should not have been reviewable. But in the end, Hochuli said that Bruener recovered for Pittsburgh, and all Buccaneer hopes for a Hail Mary to tie the ballgame ended with a thud.
The Steelers defense did its best imitation of the old Steel Curtain of the 1970s. Pittsburgh recorded 10 sacks of Johnson and had, at least, had a like amount of hurries and knockdowns. The Bucs pass protectors, which included the tight ends and backs plus the offensive line, had a difficult time with the Steelers' 3-4 scheme and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis did a great job of flooding one side of the line with more rushers than Tampa Bay had blockers or bringing blitzers from every conceivable angle to confuse the blocking schemes.
To say that it did confuse the Bucs pass protectors would be an understatement of the nth degree. The Steelers also shut down the Bucs running game holding running backs Warrick Dunn, who finished with 31 yards on 13 carries, and Mike Alstott, who had 3 carries for 15 yards, in check all afternoon.
The Bucs defense, again, could not get themselves off the field with a stop on third down. The Steelers were successful on 60 percent of their third downs and converted their only fourth down try. Most of them were of the short yardage variety because Pittsburgh amassed an astounding 222 yards rushing.
This led to the Steelers keeping the Bucs pinned in their own territory when they had to punt with the average starting position their own 22-yard line. Plus it allowed Pittsburgh to even up the time of possession to a reasonable 29:02 for the Steelers to 30:58 for the Bucs even though they only ran off 54 plays to 69 by the Buccaneers.
The bottom line is that Tampa Bay is playing just well enough to lose. They are consistently getting behind and having to dig themselves out of fourth quarter holes trying to get miracle comebacks with an offense that's not equipped to perform that feat.
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