Up to six teams can remain undefeated through Week 3 of the 2010 NFL season, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren’t likely to be one of them.
The Buccaneers have been one of football’s most surprising teams to this point in the young NFL season, getting out to a quick 2-0 start with victories against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 and division-rival Carolina Panthers in Week 2.
They’ll face a whole new caliber of competition this weekend, though, as they travel to Pittsburgh to take on the vaunted Steelers defense.
After a dismal 2009 season that saw them go 3-13 and finish 28th in total offense and 27th in total defense, the Bucs wisely chose to go into rebuilding mode, and feature the second-youngest roster in the NFL.
Key players such as quarterback Josh Freeman, receiver Mike Williams, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and cornerback Aqib Talib are all under 25 years of age, and form a promising young nucleus of Tampa Bay players.
But with youth comes inexperience, and the Steelers’ blitzes are capable of confusing even the most seasoned veterans.
Two games is a small sample size, but thanks to the return of Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith, the Steelers’ defense once again looks like the league’s elite unit.
Planning on relying on Freeman’s arm on Sunday? The Steelers have four interceptions and six sacks through two games and have allowed just four passing plays of 20 or more yards. Outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are relentless pass-rushers, and Polamalu and Ryan Smith form one of the league’s most intimidating safety tandems.
Want to run instead? That may be an even worse idea, as the Steelers are averaging just 52 rushing yards allowed per game, have forced two fumbles and haven’t surrendered a run of longer than 11 yards this season. Smith and Casey Hampton seem immovable on the D-line, and Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior are renowned for putting big hits on opposing running backs.
Luckily for the Bucs, as good as the Steelers defense has been so far, their offense has been equally inept. Playing without embattled quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers have scored just one offensive touchdown in their first two games, and have managed just 34 total points.
Adding injury to insult, Dennis Dixon, who began 2010 as the Steelers’ starting quarterback, suffered a knee injury last Sunday against the Titans, meaning the Steelers will start 35-year-old Charlie Batch this week.
But the way the Steelers defense has been playing, their offense simply needs to stay out of the way. Unless Cadillac Williams breaks a few tackles or Sammie Stroughter gets behind one of the Steelers’ cornerbacks, it could be a long day for the Buccaneers’ young offensive unit.
The Buccaneers have done a lot right through their first two games. It’s true that the Browns and Panthers are two of the worst teams in football, but they count as victories just the same. Freeman boasts a quarterback rating of 95, and the Bucs have the league’s fourth-best turnover ratio at +4.
That being said, the Buccaneers face an uphill battle if they want to be in the playoff race come November. After Sunday’s game against the Steelers, Tampa Bay still has to face the Ravens, Bengals and 49ers, plus the Falcons and defending-champion Saints twice each as well.
The NFL has more parity than any of the other four major sports and it’s feasible that the Bucs could be yet another “worst-to-first” story in the making.
If they want to be considered legitimate contenders, though, they’ll need to at least put in a competitive effort against the Steelers on Sunday.