Steelers give Bucs a rough wake-up call

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St. Petersburg Times (Florida)

St. Petersburg Times Writer

Good thing that Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin is such good friends with Raheem Morris, don’t you think? Good thing that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still under league suspension for being a sleaze. Good thing the Bucs had all of that homefield advantage working for them.

Otherwise, this game might have really looked ugly.

As it was, it was unsightly enough. Think of it as three hours of ocular torture. The Steelers, one of the legitimate teams of the NFL, came into town Sunday, and it was like watching a big kid take the lunch money from a smaller one. It was brutal, and it was mean, and it was nasty.

Good thing the Bucs are so much better than last year, isn’t it? Good thing the Steelers’ backup to the backup quarterback Charlie Batch, at 106 years old, hadn’t started a game since the ’07 (1907, one assumes) season. Good thing the ticket sales were bad enough that this game was blacked out locally.

Otherwise, you might have been tempted to watch and perhaps risk never sleeping again.

For most of Sunday afternoon, the Steelers pushed the Bucs backward across the field at Raymond James Stadium. Think of it as a favor. Play after play, the Steelers helped point out all the things the Bucs are not. Bruising, for one. Powerful, for another. Relentless, for a third.

For the Bucs, it was as if the Steelers turned on a light to show the Bucs what a real 2-0 team looks like. You know, one that runs the ball, and one that rushes the passer, and one that wins the big plays at the line of scrimmage. Also, one that wins 38-13 despite backing off the throttle in the second half.

This was brutal. This was punishing. This was Ohio State playing Bowling Green or, perhaps, the Bowling of a Lesser Color.

For two weeks, the Bucs had given you a reason to believe they could fare better than this. True enough, they don’t give trophies for beating Cleveland or Carolina, two teams that Mel Kiper is going to talk about a lotwhen he talks about where high draft picks might wind up in the spring. Still, the Bucs had played well enough against the run to make you think they had a chance to keep the score at least reasonable.

But, no, they didn’t.

The Bucs were walloped. They gave up 6.3 yards per rush. They gave up 15.5 yards per completion. They gave up a 106.5 rating to Batch, who might be the NFL’s first quarterback ever to score his age.

Okay, okay. I’m kidding about Batch, who is merely 35. On Sunday, he turned back the clock 10 years, which, considering the age of the defense he was facing, left a lot of the Bucs as 13-year-olds.

Still, if a team is to have a defense, it cannot allow two should-have-been interceptions turn into 46- and 41-yard touchdowns. It cannot surrender 143 yards rushing to Rashard Mendenhall.

Do you want to know the truth? This game felt a lot worse than a 25-point margin. Maybe that’s because the Bucs finally slowed down the Steelers. Then again, maybe it was because Tomlin did. Batch threw only three passes the second half. The Steelers’ only touchdown came on an interception return.

Perhaps that is why the Bucs sounded so darned plucky in the postgame. Morris kept repeating the Bucs were 2-1 heading into the break, and every player in the locker room sang along, until it sounded as if Sunday was a fine day instead of a day that should have ticked off a few players.

And guess what? It’s hard to blame Morris. Why not grab onto whatever optimism he can? The Bucs aren’t going to get any better by being yelled at.

“You have to take that burn in your belly and use it,” is the way cornerback Ronde Barber put it.

True, the tendency is to compare it to last year’s Giants game, or last year’s Jets game, or any of the games in which the Bucs suffered a lopsided loss. And no, it wasn’t quite that bad. The Bucs did turn a few good plays into a few bad ones, such as Aqib Talib’s ball-through-his-hands touchdown pass, and Sammie Stroughter’s ball-through-his-hands interception, and the touchdown pass where Cody Grimm forgot the part about turning around.

“This was about us, not the other team,” linebacker Barrett Ruud said.

“At least it wasn’t like last year, where we were banging our heads against the wall because we didn’t know what was going on,” Barber said.

Good for the improvement, then. Good for a late score that trimmed the margin to only 25. Good for the knowledge that on the Bucs’ worst plays, opportunities were at least there.

Oh, and good for the Bucs.

They don’t have to play the Steelers again.

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