WHERE: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida
SPREAD: Bucs by 4.5
WHERE THE STEELERS STAND: Pittsburgh is 8-5-1 and in first place in the AFC North Division.
STEELERS HEAD COACH: Bill Cowher
STEELERS OFFENSIVE COORINATOR: Mike Mularkey
STEELERS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Tim Lewis
STEELERS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Kevin Spencer
HOW THE BUCS RANK IN THE NFL (2002):
OFFENSE: OVERALL: 21st(T) RUSHING: 28th PASSING: 14th
DEFENSE: OVERALL: 1st RUSHING: 6th PASSING: 1st
HOW THE STEELERS RANK IN THE NFL (2002):
OFFENSE: OVERALL: 5th RUSHING: 10th PASSING: 5th
DEFENSE: OVERALL: 3rd RUSHING: 1st PASSING: 16th
MATCH-UP TO WATCH Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis vs. Tampa Bay middle linebacker Shelton Quarles: Tampa Bay allowed Bettis to rush for 143 yards on 17 carries last season, but that was with Jamie Duncan anchoring the middle of the Bucs' defense. Bettis, who hasn't really been very durable as of late, has rushed for 600 yards, nine touchdowns and he's averaging 3.7 yards per carry this season.
Quarles leads the Bucs' defense in tackles and he will play a critical role in stopping Pittsburgh's running attack, which is averaging 132 yards per game. It should be interesting to see how the undersized Quarles fares against the oversized "Bus".
DID YOU KNOW…
…Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson was sacked 10 times by Pittsburgh's defense when these teams met last season?
RUNNING BACK MY COMMITTEE:
If you thought Tampa Bay's offense was the only one in the league that had a running back by committee, you were wrong.
Pittsburgh has taken a similar approach over the last several seasons. Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue are two of the most dangerous backs in the league. Bettis (5-foo-1, 256-pounds) is a power-type back while Zereoue is more of a speed threat. Both backs are averaging less than 4.0 yards per carry, but the team is rushing for an average for 132 yards per game and Bettis and Zereoue have combined for 10 touchdowns this season. Zereoue is also a receiving threat out of the backfield, where he has caught 36 passes for 310 yards this season.
Tampa Bay's defense is ranked No. 6 against the run and if this unit can't stop Pittsburgh's running game, the Steelers will have success with play-action on Monday night.
Pittsburgh's offense features two of the best wide receivers in the NFL in Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. Ward has hauled in 101 receptions for 1,205 yards and he's scored 11 touchdowns this season. While Ward is a tough and speedy receiver, Burress is a big threat. The 6-foo-5, 226-pound receiver has caught 70 passes for 1,146 yards and he's scored seven touchdowns.
Bucs cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly each felt they were denied an invitation they earned to the Pro Bowl. They'll have a chance to show voters they were wrong if they can contain both Ward and Burress on Monday night.
THOSE TRICKY STEELERS:
Pittsburgh's offense is known to run a trick play or two during games. For example, Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El has caught 43 passes for 444 yards, but he's also rushed 17 times for 128 yards, which means Pittsburgh will likely run a reverse and/or an end-around on Monday night. By the way, Randle El has also thrown seven passes and completed six of them for 37 yards this season, so Tampa Bay's defense must stay disciplined against Pittsburgh's tricky offense.
BUCS MUST ATTACK STEELERS' DEFENSE THROUGH THE AIR:
Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense has been solid against the run this season. This unit is only allowing an average of 84.8 yards rushing per games and with the Bucs' offense only producing 94.4 yards rushing per game this season, the Pewter Pirates won't likely have success moving the ball via the ground game on Monday night.
But Tampa Bay should still pound the ball, even if it isn't having success. Jon Gruden's offense is, after all, based on play-action, so the Bucs have to at least try to run the ball. The Bucs' best chance of moving the chains on Monday night will be through the air.
Pittsburgh's defense is allowing an average of 210 yards passing and 22 points per game this season. The Steelers will blitz the Bucs' quarterback – whoever it might be – relentlessly on Monday night. Pittsburgh sacked Tampa Bay QB Brad Johnson 10 times last season. They're led by linebacker Joey Porter, who has recorded eight of the team's 41 sacks this season. If Shaun King starts in place of the injured Johnson, his mobility might enable him to elude some of those blitzes.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS:
Visit the Pittsburgh Steelers' web site and TheInsiders Pittsburgh Steelers web site for more information on Tampa Bay's next opponent – the Pittsburgh Steelers.
BUCS SOUND OFF:
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden on Pittsburgh being the most physical team in the NFL:
"I'd say so. They've had continuity. Bill Cowher has been there a long time. They understand the 3-4 defense. They've been drafting within that philosophy for some time. They were on the brink of going to the Super Bowl last year. They hit a couple bumps in the road early, but they've been playing a real steady brand of football, in my opinion, from the six or seven games I've seen."
Gruden on Pittsburgh S Lee Flowers referring to the Bucs as "Paper Champions" last season:
"We're not going to get into…Hopefully this does not become a media war of words. We're going to put that to rest, I know we are here. I can't speak for everyone, you know, people are entitled to their opinion. I hope our players use good judgment and let their play speak for itself."
Gruden on what worries him about Pittsburgh:
"Well, we worry more about ourselves. We know what they can do. We have all the film. We have sideline and end zone copy. They have a physical running game, a very unique offensive scheme, and they have a collection of athletes on defense that know what they're doing in the 3-4 defense. They're going to apply pressure, unorthodox pressure at times, that's going to take some film study and understanding. We've got to do what we do. We have to play better. We have to block more physically. We have to play better defensively than we played in Detroit, that's for sure. We're more worried about ourselves and how we can improve and play our best football than we are about anybody else."
Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks on this season's Pittsburgh team compared to previous ones:
"They get a lot more big plays downfield at their receiver position. And obviously a lot of that is set off because of their running game. With Bettis sitting out, being hurt a little, (Amos) Zereoue has gotten a lot more carries and he's been a very productive back. (Plaxico) Burress has come into his own this season and is making some plays, giving the Steelers a downfield threat. Hines (Ward) is still Hines, catching the ball, running after the catch. This is going to be a big challenge for us going against an offense of this caliber. Like I said, I think we play at a high level on defense and we look forward to stepping up to the challenge."
Bucs SS John Lynch on stopping Steelers RB Jerome Bettis :
"Well you tackle him. You have to get a lot of guys to the ball. We have to stay in our gaps and you have to be physical. You have to counter their physical style with our physical style of play and we need to be on top of them."
Tampa Bay's defense proclaims itself as the best in the league and they'll certainly have a chance to show a national audience how good they are when they try to stop Pittsburgh's potent offense, which at times looks like the best in the league.
It's no secret that the Bucs' defense must stop the Steelers' running game in order to win on Monday night, but this won't be an easy task. Tampa Bay's defense couldn't do it last season. The Bucs' defense is athletic, but undersized, which hurts them in match-ups like this one. Bettis is a huge back and the Steelers will likely pound him up the middle all night long. Pittsburgh's offensive line is one of the biggest in the league while Tampa Bay's entire defensive line is undersized. The Steelers' O-line dominated in the trenches last season and they'll try to do it again on Monday night.
Even if Tampa Bay's defense stop Pittsburgh's running game, they'll have to contain Steelers wide receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, who have been very productive in the passing game this season. But Tampa Bay's defense would be more than happy to rest Pittsburgh's offense on the shoulder of QB Tommy Maddox, who will make some bad decisions with the football if you put pressure on him. Maddox has thrown 16 interceptions and he's been sacked 20 times this season.
While Bucs QB Brad Johnson isn't mobile and Shaun King has those intangibles that make him such a good playmaker, asking King to start and win this game would be a tall order. But "Smoothie King" has delivered on in this type of situation before.
Tampa Bay's offensive line must do a better job of protecting the quarterback than it did last Sunday against Detroit. The Steelers defense is so good because they get pressure on the quarterback with blitzes, but if the Bucs can make them pay for blitzing with draw-plays and via the passing game, the Steelers will have to back off.
Both teams need to win this game badly. The fact that Tampa Bay is playing at home bodes well for the Pewter Pirates in this one, but I just can't help but get that Bucs-Steelers game from last season out of my head. You know, the one in which Pittsburgh dragged Tampa Bay up and down the field at will en route to its 17-10 win?
Do the Bucs need to win this game? Absolutely. Can the Bucs win this game? You bet. But after revisiting the Bucs-Steelers game from last season, I can't help but make a pretty strong case for Pittsburgh winning on Monday night. Let's just hope that I'm wrong.
FLYNN'S PICK Steelers 20 Buccaneers 16
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