It was only a matter of time before Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick stopped playing like an MVP and the Pittsburgh Steelers stopped playing like a last-place team, and both early-season trends ended Monday.
Pittsburgh won Monday's interconference clash at Raymond James Stadium, 30-27, and improved to 1-1-1, while Tampa Bay fell to 2-1.
Ben Roethlisberger (30-of-38 for 353 yards, three touchdowns and one interception) outplayed Fitzpatrick (30-of-50 for 411 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions), and a Steelers defense that allowed 42 points to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2 bounced back by forcing four turnovers.
Big Ben, Steelers Offense Still Talented Enough to Overcome Drama
The Steelers have been defined by their off-field headlines instead of on-field ones this season.
Running back Le'Veon Bell is yet to sign his franchise tender and report to the team during a holdout after the two sides failed to come to terms on a contract extension in the offseason. Adam Schefter of ESPN reported Pittsburgh is entertaining trade offers for the dynamic playmaker.
As if that wasn't enough, wide receiver Antonio Brown has been the center of controversy at times.
Terez Paylor of Yahoo Sports recapped the drama with No. 84, noting he was reportedly fined for missing practice last Monday and tweeted "trade me let's find out" when former team publicist Ryan Scarpino suggested Roethlisberger was the reason Brown is so successful.
Roethlisberger rose above the noise and seized control in the first half with touchdown passes to Brown, Ryan Switzer and Vance McDonald—who unleashed a vicious stiff arm. Big Ben also displayed his trademark escapability in the pocket, when he somehow evaded defenders and turned a potential sack into a positive gain for a monster first down in the final minutes after Tampa Bay pulled within three.
His touch, along with hard running from James Conner (15 carries for 61 yards) and 116 receiving yards from the dangerous JuJu Smith-Schuster, was enough to overcome the comeback attempt.
It was a reminder of how talented the six-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion can be. On Monday, he elevated the Steelers above the concerns and distractions.
FitzMagic Expiration Date Rapidly Approaching
Nobody outside of perhaps Patrick Mahomes II played better than Fitzpatrick in the season's first two weeks.
He captured back-to-back NFC Offensive Player of the Week awards with a combined 819 passing yards and eight touchdowns and looked like more than a temporary replacement for the suspended Jameis Winston.
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk noted Jay Glazer of Fox said Tampa Bay would stay with Fitzpatrick unless he does "something drastically bad."
Throwing three interceptions in Monday's first half, including one that Bud Dupree returned for a touchdown, would qualify as drastically bad. Pittsburgh parlayed Fitzpatrick's mistakes into a commanding 30-10 halftime lead, and attention naturally turned to who will play Week 4 against the Chicago Bears.
To the veteran's credit, he led the Buccaneers to within three in the second half after touchdown passes to Chris Goodwin and Mike Evans, and he racked up record yardage by throwing so much in comeback mode. But he threw three straight incompletions when he got the ball back with under four minutes remaining and a chance to win.
The long-term answer is Winston, who is just 24 years old and the franchise quarterback after the Buccaneers selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft. Fitzpatrick is a 35-year-old journeyman who has never been consistent enough to serve as the franchise cornerstone for any of the seven teams he's played for, which was on full display against Pittsburgh.
Tampa Bay should give Fitzpatrick one more start before turning the reins back over to Winston, but only because of the schedule. It faces a Bears team that leads the league with 14 sacks on a short week but has a bye after Sunday's game, which gives Winston more time to re-familiarize himself with the offense.
Roughing-The-Passer Controversy Takes Center Stage Again
The Steelers and Buccaneers made dubious history Monday and continued an early theme in the 2018 NFL season.
Gerald McCoy and Jason Pierre-Paul of Tampa Bay and Stephon Tuitt and Sean Davis of Pittsburgh were all flagged for roughing the passer in the first half. The ones on the Buccaneers were particularly notable because Roethlisberger did his best to sell one, while McCoy didn't even fall on the quarterback in the other.
According to Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, it marked the first time in 18 seasons both teams were penalized for roughing the passer multiple times in a game, and it happened before halftime.
Roughing the passer has been a significant talking point this year with officials penalizing defenders who land on signal-callers with all or most of their body weight. Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has been victimized by questionable calls in back-to-back weeks, and even Aaron Rodgers—a quarterback who has benefitted from plenty of roughing calls—criticized the newfound focus.
The issue reached a tipping point Monday when Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase revealed defensive end William Hayes tore his ACL while trying to avoid putting his entire body weight on Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr during a sack, per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.
Viewers will continue to complain about the penalties throughout the 2018 season, and Monday's contest was no different.
The Steelers will host the rival Baltimore Ravens in Week 4, while the Buccaneers will travel to Chicago to face the first-place Bears.