TAMPA, Fla. -- Winning overshadows all drama. The Steelers said it all week, then proved it to be true -- barely -- with a performance that, at least temporarily, quells swirling concern in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers (1-1-1) have played their first three games without running back Le'Veon Bell, who didn't report after the franchise tag was placed on him and is now the subject of trade rumors. Then, Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown became upset with the coaching staff during Sunday's Week 2 defeat and failed to show up for meetings on Monday. He then tweeted "trade me" when criticized by a former Steelers employee on social media.
In spite of it all, Ben Roethlisberger was brilliant in a 30-27 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football. The quarterback's best road performance in years was buoyed by a defense that forced four turnovers, including a pick-six.
Drama handled, with a shrug.
"We're used to it," Roethlisberger said with a laugh after the game.
Instead of panicking about their winless start, the Steelers -- winners of six straight on Monday Night Football -- hunkered down and stuck to their plan.
Roethlisberger said during the week he would try to set a tone, and 353 yards later, the Steelers' offense can imagine the possibilities. Decisive and aggressive, Roethlisberger completed 26 of his first 31 passes and 30-of-38 overall, including a sidearm, falling-down dime to JuJu Smith-Schuster in the final minutes to seal the game.
Roethlisberger starts a season with back-to-back-to-back games of 300 or more yards for the first time in his career, thanks in part to a masterful two-minute drill to end the first half. With 1 minute, 17 seconds left, Roethlisberger smoothly completed 8 of 9 passes for 75 yards and a 1-yard touchdown to Ryan Switzer.
The Steelers knew only playmaking could redirect the storyline from chaos in Pittsburgh to winning in Tampa.
"The biggest issue was outside the locker room, people perceiving different things," Roethlisberger said. "Not saying we don't have issues -- all teams have issues, different things going on -- but I think it was a little bigger than it really is."
Without much of a running game, Roethlisberger and the passing offense has more than 800 yards over two weeks.
The offensive lineup is coming into focus with Vance McDonald as the lead tight end and a four-receiver lineup of Antonio Brown, Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Switzer. The running game was averaging 2.3 yards per carry before James Conner broke off runs of 27 and 9 yards to set up a winning score.
Imagine if Bell was in the mix.
The offense wanted to utilize McDonald's speed to offset Tampa's speedy linebackers. McDonald used that speed after he trucked safety Chris Conte with an open-field stiff arm on his way to a 75-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
"Punish him," said McDonald about his plan when squaring up Conte. "Inflict as much force on him as possible."
On defense, cornerbacks wanted to keep Tampa Bay playmakers in front of them, avoiding the chunk gains and reducing mental errors. The defense is at its best when rushing the passer and creating turnovers. Sacking Fitzpatrick three times and creating four turnovers (three interceptions, one fumble) offset Fitzpatrick's big yardage day.
"It wasn't a good-looking win at all, they made a lot of plays on us," cornerback Joe Haden said. "But toward the end, when we had to make our stops, that was a big stop for us."
Poor discipline led to 115 penalty yards in the first half, the franchise's most in a half over the past 15 years. Too many Bucs were running free late, including Mike Evans going untouched for a 24-yard touchdown with 4:23 left. And Darrius Heyward-Bey's illegal shift on a punt that the Steelers downed at the Bucs' 1 was inexcusable.
But the resiliency that won the Steelers 13 games last season was on display Monday on the road. It's a start.
"We just pull each other closer," said Smith-Schuster, who led the team with 116 yards on nine catches. "When stuff gets hard and it gets tough, we take losses and we come together closer, we play better."