PITTSBURGH — Lavonte David tried to call timeout. He knew the Bucs had 12 men on the field but couldn’t get the referee’s attention.
By the time the ball was snapped, tight end Connor Heyward had run past David and hauled in a pass from Mitch Trubisky for a 45-yard completion.
Two plays later the Steelers expanded their one-point lead to 20-12 with just under 10 minutes remaining in the game.
“I tried to call a timeout and the ref didn’t see me and I got caught off-guard,” David said. “I was able to run (Heyward) down and get him down, but we’ve got to get off the field right there.”
That’s been the plight of the Bucs defense this season. Distracted. Dismaying. Disappointing.
The Bucs’ 20-18 loss to the Steelers was a team effort. You don’t win many games by scoring one offensive touchdown in the NFL.
But there are a lot of new players on the offensive side of the football.
The defense is a different story. It was supposed to be dominant and it is still being run by head coach Todd Bowles.
Yet in the most critical moments — the NFC division playoff loss last season to the Rams still comes to mind — the Bucs defenders are guilty of huge gaffes like the ones on Sunday.
After starting the game 3-of-11 on third down, the Steelers went 4-for-4, including conversions on third and 13, third and 15 (twice) and third and 11.
That included Trubisky completing passes of 17 and 26 yards to receiver Chase Claypool to ice the game.
“It’s so frustrating,” linebacker Shaquil Barrett said. “We can’t be doing this to ourselves. We’re supposed to be a good team, but good teams don’t do this. We’ve got to figure it out.”
It’s one thing to allow the Packers with Aaron Rodgers and the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes to beat you.
But the Steelers had lost four in a row and rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett was making his second NFL start.
Pickett led the Steelers to a touchdown on his first drive Sunday, throwing a 6-yard scoring pass to running back Najee Harris, who was left alone and walked into the end zone. Linebacker Devin White extended that drive on third down by pushing Pickett and drawing a roughing-the-passer penalty.
The Bucs defense had two sacks but allowed both Pickett and Trubisky to flee the pocket.
“It probably starts with not getting pressure up front,” Barrett said. “We need to get him off his spot. Or sometimes we are getting pressure and letting him get out of the pocket and run for yards. We’ve got to do that and make sure our coverage is tight and we’ve got everybody in the right position. I guess that’s who we are right now. We don’t play a complete four quarters. We’ve never played a complete game.
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“Until we change, that’s the team we are.”
Credit the Steelers receivers for staying alive in their routes when the pocket collapsed. Pickett and Trubisky combined to complete 20 of 30 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns.
While the Bucs have allowed 20 or fewer points in five of six games this season, the defense hasn’t owned the critical moments.
Unlike the offense, which is getting big minutes from rookies such as Luke Goedeke, Cade Otton, Rachaad White and Ko Kieft, the defense is largely intact from the Super Bowl 55 team.
The picture of 355-pound Vita Vea, the 12th man, trying to get off the field before the ball was snapped on a critical play is one that Bowles and the defense will have to be accountable for.
“Every loss is wake-up call,” David said. “When you’ve got a standard like we’ve got and the type of team that we have, every game you lose in this type of magnitude, the mistakes we made and they’re executing more than us, it’s definitely a wake-up call. It’s something we’ve got to get fixed and leaders have got to lead.”
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