Through the first two weeks of the NFL season, there is no doubt that the most surprising team in the league is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bucs are 2-0 with wins over two inner-circle NFC contenders -- the New Orleans Saints and the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles -- despite the fact that starting quarterback Jameis Winston is suspended and has been replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitz has tapped back into the FitzMagic and made the Bucs one of the highest-flying offenses in football, as Tampa dented the scoreboard with 47 points against the Saints and 27 against the Eagles.
Meanwhile, one of the most disappointing teams in the league through two weeks is Tampa's opponent on this week's edition of 'Monday Night Football' -- the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers played to a draw with the Browns in Week 1 and then simply could not keep up with Patrick Mahomes and the explosive Chiefs offense in Week 2. Pittsburgh is lagging behind in the AFC North as the only team in the division without a win.
Can Tampa continue its hot start? Can Pittsburgh bounce back and get into the race? We'll find out Monday night (8:15 p.m., ESPN). Let's break things down.
When the Bucs have the ball
OK, so let's talk about Fitzpatrick. The dude has been amazing. He's 48 of 61 for 819 yards, eight touchdowns and an interception. He's thrown not one, not two, not three, but FOUR touchdown passes of 50 yards or more already. He's the only player in NFL history to throw for at least 400 yards and four touchdowns in each of his team's first two games of the season.
Fitzpatrick has been the best at downfield passes in the NFL so far this season -- even better than Patrick Mahomes. On throws that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, Fitzpatrick completed 13 of 18 attempts for 443 yards and four scores. He's had particular success finding DeSean Jackson deep down the field, connecting with him on all six such attempts for a league-high 249 yards -- 90 more than any other player had on 15-plus yard passes through the first two weeks of the year. Jackson turned three of those six passes into scores, and those three long touchdowns are also more than any other player in the league.
But those catches account for almost all of Jackson's production through the air, and Fitzpatrick has been just as good if not better when throwing to Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and O.J. Howard. Evans, unsurprisingly, has been his most-targeted receiver. He's caught 17 of 19 passes in his direction, racking up 230 yards and two scores through the air. He's been successful on short, intermediate, and deep patterns. Here's a look at Evans' 2018 production so far:
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Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, has had the benefit of being pressured only very rarely. According to Sports Info Solutions, Fitzpatrick has been under pressure on only 13 of his 61 pass attempts. On his 48 unpressured attempts, he's completed 41 passes for 638 yards and six scores. That's completely ridiculous. It seems likely he'll be relatively unhurried in the pocket on Monday night as well. The Steelers have eight sacks in two games but they've gotten pressure on the opposing quarterback on only 16 of 101 pass attempts.
Pittsburgh may not even be able to comfort itself with the knowledge that it can stop the run, because, well, the Bucs have had precisely zero success running the ball so far this season and it just has not mattered at all. Peyton Barber's 35 carries have gone for a laughable 91 yards, while Jacquizz Rodgers has gained 14 yards on his seven totes. Fitzpatrick has legitimately been their most successful runner, accumulating 35 rushing yards on 13 attempts. And again, it hasn't mattered at all because Jackson, Evans, Howard, and company just keep getting open and Fitzpatrick just keeps finding them.
Pittsburgh's pass defenders have been -- to be kind -- not good. Artie Burns has yielded a perfect 158.3 passer rating on throws in his direction. Cameron Sutton has given up a 109.7 rating. Safety Terrell Edmunds has given up a 97.9 rating. Slot corner Mike Hilton is at 89.6. Only Joe Haden has really put up any resistance against passes. He seems likely to lock horns with Evans on the outside for much of the night, meaning Jackson, Howard, and slot man Adam Humphries could have a field day over the middle of the field.
When the Steelers have the ball
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Bucs' 2-0 start is that the offense has had to overcome a pair of pretty bad defensive performances. The Saints hung 40 points on them in Week 1 and the Nick Foles-led Eagles scored 21 in Week 2. Much of the damage, in each game, was done through the air.
Drew Brees completed 37 of 45 passes for 439 yards and three touchdowns. Foles went 35 of 48 for 334 yards and a score. Combined, that's a passer rating of 115.6, damn near worst in the NFL. The Bucs are also, as of this writing, one of just three teams in the league that have yet to record an interception. (The others are the Cowboys and 49ers.)
Obviously, all of this damage gives the Steelers offense an opportunity to rack up both yards and points. And perhaps no Steelers player has a better opportunity than JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster lines up in the slot more often than not, and the Bucs (M.J. Stewart has been the biggest culprit) have been absolutely dreadful against players lined up inside. In two games, Tampa has yielded an incredible 43 completions for 511 yards and three touchdowns to players lined up in the slot, according to data from Sports Info Solutions. That's 11 more completions than any other team through the first two weeks of the year, and 143 more yards. Smith-Schuster, meanwhile, has 12 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown out of the slot thus far. Only Brandin Cooks and Adam Thielen had more slot yards through the first two weeks of the season.
Though slot men have inflicted the most dangerous wounds, it's not as though Tampa has done a good job against receivers at any other position, so players like Antonio Brown, tight end Jesse James, and even running back James Conner should be able to find opportunities to make the Buccaneers pay through the air.
To wit: Tampa has yielded 20 catches for 200 yards to tight ends thus far this season. James has eight catches for 198 yards and a score, and was excellent against a poor-against-tight-ends Chiefs defense just last week. The Bucs have also given up 16 catches for 173 yards and a touchdown to running backs, with Alvin Kamara in particular leading the way. Conner has five catches in each of Pittsburgh's games this season, totaling 105 yards through the air.
Perimeter cornerback Carlton Davis has been hit up for 98 receiving yards and a touchdown already. The 144.8 passer rating he's allowed on throws in his direction is 13th worst among 158 defensive players who have been targeted on at least five passes. It'll be interesting to see whether cornerback Brent Grimes can get on the field, as he is clearly Tampa's best defensive back -- and also their best chance of shutting down any chance of connection between Brown and Ben Roethlisberger. That duo has connected on just 18 of 33 pass attempts so far this season, for 180 yards. Considering Brown over the past five years has caught 67.8 percent of the throws in his direction and averaged 101.9 receiving yards per game, he's off to what one might call a slow start. Here's a look at Brown's production:
Roethlisberger was considerably better against Kansas City at home than he was against the Browns on the road. It's possible that Cleveland's pass defense is just good, as they held down both the Saints and the Jets through the air as well. But Ben's struggles against the Browns were a continuation of a long-term trend of down performance in road games over the past several seasons. (Among 31 quarterbacks who have thrown at least 500 passes on the road since 2014, Roethlisberger ranks 24th in passer rating.) The Steelers are on the road tonight as well, and whether or not he can shake that road rust off will likely go a long way toward determining whether the Steelers can rack up the points. Considering how long these struggles have plagued Roethlisberger, whether or not he'll be able to do so has to be considered an open question -- even against a Tampa defense that is just about as friendly as possible.
Pick: Buccaneers 30, Steelers 27