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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (2-0) at Tampa Bay (2-0)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Go ahead and check.
In all the previews written for all the media outlets by all the football analysts in the world, not one will use the following phrase when describing this Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium:
Super Bowl preview.
But you know what? Maybe they should.
After all, out of the 16 NFL games to be played in 13 states at new and old venues built for billions of dollars, only one - the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - will have the ingredients usually combined this time of year to create that breathlessly hyperbolic pre-February delicacy.
A pair of undefeated teams ... one from each conference.
No other matchup - not Jets-Dolphins, not Bears-Packers, not Falcons-Saints, not Texans-Cowboys - includes such a tasty contrast, in spite of the fact that it'll be buried beneath Bengals-Panthers, Browns-Ravens, Titans-Giants and Bills-Patriots on the 1 p.m. CBS schedule.
In fact, it's Gus Johnson and Steve Tasker getting the call for the network.
Which begs the question ... where's the justice, Cadillac Williams?
"We've come a long way as a team just knowing we're 2-0, but nobody is yelling in the locker room," the Bucs running back said. "It is a sweet start, but the thing I love is that I remember us losing to Dallas last year in the first week and everyone was excited like we won the game because we had more than 400 yards of offense. Stats don't mean nothing in this league.
"Now we're 2-0 and everyone is telling each other, �Don't get carried away - it's a long season.'"
In all seriousness, and in spite of the 2-0 record, it may be only the inhabitants of that Tampa Bay fraternity who believe the Bucs truly have the horses to make a run at recent NFC South tradition - which has seen the division's last-place team rebound to win it in six of seven seasons, with the only exception being the 2008 Atlanta Falcons.
Atlanta did make those playoffs, however, bouncing back to 11-5 after a 4-12 mark in 2007.
The Bucs haven't been 2-0 since winning the division in 2005, after going 5-11 a year earlier.
Coach Raheem Morris and his Buccaneers were 3-13 last season.
"It's no secret, we've been a lot better since Raheem's taken over and I think we're going to keep getting better," middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said of the defense. "We were far from where we wanted to play (Sunday, in a 20-7 defeat of Carolina) and that's kind of refreshing. We're not playing our best football and we're still getting wins."
Meanwhile, the Steelers enter the week as the more pedigreed unbeaten.
Just two years removed from a sixth Super Bowl title, Pittsburgh missed the playoffs with a respectable 9-7 record last season and survived to this September amid an offseason filled with strife courtesy of quarterback-in- exile Ben Roethlisberger - who'll not rejoin the team until Week 5.
In his place until then is the QB trident of Dennis Dixon, Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch, a crowd reduced to two when Dixon sustained a knee injury against Tennessee Sunday that will keep him out against the Bucs.
Leftwich was re-signed Monday after being released last week in a procedural move while he waited for an injury of his own to heal, and Batch finished the Titans game after Dixon left and was 5-of-11 for 25 yards in a Steelers' 19-11 win that featured four field goals and a kick return TD.
Batch will start Sunday, when a win will get Pittsburgh to 3-0 for the first time since 2007.
"Those are the kinds of plays that need to be made," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Competitive plays, yes. Combative plays, yes. But those are the plays you have to make for a quarterback, particularly one that hadn't played a bunch or is in the backup situation. We weren't able to do that (against Tennessee) and that is why we weren't able to ring the scoreboard up by sevens."
The Steelers hold a 7-1 edge in their all-time series with the Buccaneers, including three straight victories. Pittsburgh was a 20-3 home winner when the clubs last met, in 2006, and took a 17-7 decision when the teams last did battle in Tampa in 2002. The Steelers also won Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, defeating the Cardinals at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 1st, 2009. Tampa Bay's only win over the Steelers came in 1998, a 16-3 home triumph.
The Steelers' Tomlin and Buccaneers' Morris will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches. Tomlin was a Bucs assistant from 2001 through 2005, with the final four of those seasons spent working on the same defensive staff as Morris.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
It'll be a happy homecoming of sorts for Pittsburgh, which won its fifth Super Bowl in Tampa; and for Tomlin, who as mentioned was a Bucs' assistant coach for five seasons before heading to Minnesota for one year, then Pennsylvania. The well-traveled Leftwich, too, was in Tampa Bay last season and amassed a 71.2 passer rating on 107 attempts. As for Batch, he's 4-2 in his career as a starter against the Bucs. He'll rely heavily in this one on horse running back Rashard Mendenhall, who's averaged 88.2 yards per game in road starts. He's third in the conference with 189 yards on 45 carries - a 4.2-yard average - through two games. On the outside, veteran Hines Ward can continue a streak that's seen him catch a pass in 180 straight games - fifth-best in NFL history. Ward needs two TDs to surpass Jerome Bettis (80) for second in franchise history. He's caught seven passes for 117 yards through two games.
From the back to the front, ageless cornerback Ronde Barber is playing like a man 10 years younger, having picked off a pass in each of the first two games to join the tie for the NFL lead. He is one of two players in league history with 25-plus sacks (25) and 30-plus interceptions (39) and had a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery against Pittsburgh in October 2001. Linebacker Quincy Black had a sack against Carolina last week, while end Tim Crowder had a career-best two sacks and also forced a fumble. Tampa Bay was dealt an off-the-field blow when safety Tanard Jackson was suspended indefinitely for a repeat violation of the league's substance abuse policy. The 25-year-old missed the first four games of 2009 while serving a four-game suspension. He is eligible for reinstatement on Sept. 22, 2011.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Second-year quarterback Josh Freeman hasn't been spectacular but has been successful, winning four of his last five starts overall and completing 29 of 52 passes for 360 yards and four touchdowns with a 95.0 passer rating. He threw for two scores last week with a 102.4 rating against Carolina and has five two- TD games in his career, two so far in 2010. The aforementioned Williams has re- emerged, too, carrying the ball at least 22 times in both games this season. The Bucs are 13-0 when his workload reaches 22 of more. On the outside, rookie receiver Mike Williams aims for a third straight game with a TD after scoring on a 35-yarder last week. Meanwhile, veteran tight end Kellen Winslow is back to All-Pro performance as well with an NFL-best eight catches for 115 yards on third down. He caught four balls for 83 yards when last playing the Steelers - while with Cleveland in 2007.
The Steelers woke up their traditional defensive echoes in the meeting with the Titans, holding the hosts to just a fourth-quarter touchdown and 238 total yards while creating a menacing seven turnovers - three interceptions, four forced fumbles. Linebacker James Harrison had two sacks in that game and now has three for the season, tied for third in the league. Pittsburgh is 9-0 when the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week records at least two sacks in a game. And speaking of streaks, linebacker LaMarr Woodley has had at least a half-sack in 10 consecutive games. In the backfield, cornerback Bryant McFadden had an interception in his last game against the Bucs and safety Troy Polamalu looks for a third game this season with a pick. His two interceptions so far are tied for first in the league.
The Bucs' defense is improved, but Pittsburgh's Mendenhall should see a lot of work and provide a lot of production, while tight end Heath Miller and the Steelers' defense seem to be prudent plays as well. For Tampa Bay, Freeman is a useful option given his ability to pick up yards on the ground. Williams and Winslow are the other most-viable options.
OK, let's get back to reality. Though they're 2-0 and a nice little worst-to- first candidate to begin the season, the Bucs have still only beaten Cleveland and Carolina while avoiding the league's truly heavy hitters. That changes this week and the standings should as well. Pittsburgh is a battle-tested grinding team designed specifically to smother the life out of upstart opponents like Tampa Bay. Expect exactly that ... effectively, if not prettily.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 17, Buccaneers 9
09/26 03:00:19 ET