TAMPA - When the Bucs made Josh Freeman the starter in Week 9 last season a new era of Buccaneer football was ushered in. Closed was the book on washed-up veteran QBs, that brought more panic than poise. Bucs fans thought they had seen the last of the Garcias, Johnsons and Leftwiches. It was a new day in Tampa Bay, and if Bucs fans never had to see Byron Leftwich again, they knew they would be better for it.
But like a bug that refuses to die, Byron Leftwich has somehow found new life and will crawl his way back onto the field at Raymond James Stadium this Sunday. At least this time it's for the opposing team: The 2-0 Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers must have upset a witch doctor. The AFC North powerhouse has been so stricken at quarterback that the current battle for starting time is between Leftwich and Charlie Batch. Franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger continued his trend of tumultuous offseasons by adding rape allegations to his already dubious off-field resume right alongside civil suit charges of sexual assault and a motorcycle accident. Though no criminal charges were filed the damage was dealt in the form of a Rodger Goodell-issued four-game suspension. Leftwich won the starting job out of camp but was cut after sustaining a knee injury in the final preseason game. Second year man out of Oregon Dennis Dixon was then named the starter for Week 1.
Dixon fared well in the opener against the Falcons, tallying 236 yards of passing on 18 of 28 attempts. However, he tore his lateral meniscus in the first half of the Week 2 game against Tennessee and will miss three to five weeks following surgery to repair the ligament. He was relieved by Charlie Batch and the offense sputtered to a victory based entirely on the merits of seven turnovers on defense.
Leftwich was re-signed this week after being cut at the end of camp, but Charlie Batch may still end up being the starter on Sunday, as Leftwich is also recovering from a sprained knee. With all this turmoil under center it is almost guaranteed that Raheem's good buddy, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, will lean heavily on his running game and vaunted defense to win this game.
Rashard Mendenhall has taken the reins of the starting running back job following the release of veteran Willie Parker. Through two games Mendenhall has racked up 189 yards on 45 carries, the most dramatic of which a 50-yard overtime touchdown scamper in Week 1 versus Atlanta. Expect the Steelers to run early and often, and expect the Bucs defense to game plan heavily to bottle up Mendenhall, often loading up eight men in the box to stop the run. The Bucs will surely challenge Charlie Batch into beating us with his arm and if that happens then the Bucs probably don't deserve to win this one.
Having spent all this time discussing the offense is certainly a disservice to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. The outstanding unit is without a doubt the sole reason this team comes in undefeated. They lead the league in takeaway differential at +6 and rank 4th in rushing defense. They bottled up Michael Turner and Chris Johnson in back-to-back weeks and cause fits for opposing offensive coordinators.
Buccaneers offensive coordinator Greg Olson is going to have his work cut out for him game planning for the Pittsburgh 3-4 defense. The hope is that having faced Miami, who runs a very similar scheme, and Cleveland already (both use 3-4 defenses) that the Bucs will have some experience operating against it. However, neither of those teams have James Harrison or Troy Polamalu roaming the defensive backfield. Expect to see lots of running early from Cadillac Williams but don't be surprised if its ineffective. Josh Freeman will need to continue being careful with the football and not force the ball into coverage.
This game has all the makings of a slug fest, a defensive battle that will be won with takeaways and field position. Special teams and turnovers will be critical. If the Buccaneers defense can continue their stellar defensive play, including a two-game streak of not allowing any points in the second half, and continue to make impact plays on offense they may have enough to finish Sunday an improbable 3-0.