Unfortunately for him and the Buccaneers (2-1), three costly first-half interceptions proved too much to overcome, as the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1-1) hung on for a 30-27 victory on Monday night at Raymond James Stadium.
“All 53 in there fought through the week and came into a stadium, primetime on the road, and got a necessary win,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said after the game.
Ben Roethlisberger was 30-for-38 for 353 yards and three touchdowns, JuJu Smith-Schuster had nine receptions for 116 yards, and tight end Vance McDonald had a back-breaking 75-yard touchdown grab, one of his four receptions for 112 yards.
“What a crazy game,” Roethlisberger said. “We will take a win any way we can get it. I am proud of the way the guys fought all the way until the end.”
Smith-Schuster went over 100 yards receiving for third game in a row to start the season. Antonio Brown and Ryan Switzer also had first-half touchdown receptions for Pittsburgh, which led 30-10 at halftime.
The 35-year-old Fitzpatrick, who threw for 819 yards and eight touchdowns in the first two games this season, went 30-for-50 for 411 yards with three touchdowns, leading his team back with 17 fourth-quarter points to make it close in the end.
“I’m happy with the way the first two games went, I’m not happy with the way I turned the ball over today,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick threw fourth-quarter touchdowns to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans to bring the Bucs within three just less than six minutes remaining, but that was as close as the home side could get.
“We just did so many things in the first half of that game that we haven’t been doing,” Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter said. “We beat ourselves with blown coverage on their first touchdown, three turnovers, multiple misses on protection. Give the Steelers their credit, the got us tonight.”
Fitzpatrick threw interceptions on three consecutive pass attempts in the second quarter, which proved too much to overcome, however. The Steelers’ defense forced four turnovers.
“Tough spot to turn it over four times, and really three interceptions can’t have them,” Fitzpatrick said. “Hard to win a game that way. We obviously dug ourselves a pretty big hole there.”
The Bucs got on the board first, taking a 7-0 lead on Fitzpatrick’s four-yard play-action pass to tight end Cameron Brate.
The Steelers answered when McDonald took a Roethlisberger pass on the left side before delivering a bone-crushing stiff arm to safety Chris Conte and scampered 75 yards into the endzone. Conte left the game with an injured knee. Chris Boswell’s extra point was no good, so the score was 7-6 Bucs.
The Steelers took control after that, thanks to the costly turnovers by Fitzpatrick.
After a Boswell field goal from 38 yards, Roethlisberger threw a 24-yard touchdown to Brown, and Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree returned a Fitzpatrick pass 10 yards for a touchdown and a 23-7 lead.
A Chandler Catanzaro field goal made it 23-10, but Roethlisberger threw another touchdown pass to Switzer just before halftime to make it 30-10.
The third quarter just featured a Catanzaro field goal before the Bucs began their furious comeback attempt.
Next, the Steelers host the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night, while the Buccaneers visit the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
“No time to pat ourselves on the back,” Tomlin said. “We have AFC North football at Heinz (Field), and we respect and understand what that’s about. We didn’t give a good accounting of ourselves the last time we were at home, so we are excited to get back into Heinz Field and performing for our fans.”