This was supposed to be so simple. Ryan Fitzpatrick, a career journeyman playing for his seventh NFL team, would oversee the Bucs’ offense during Jameis Winston’s three-game suspension, then revert to clipboard duty upon the star quarterback’s return. Pretty straightforward, right?
With a brutal opening slate against the Saints, Eagles and Steelers, the idea of Fitzpatrick overtaking Winston, a former Heisman Trophy winner and first overall pick, seemed laughable. But here we are. Ryan, why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?
There was a point during Monday night’s game, which ended with the Steelers winning by a narrow 30-27 margin, when it appeared Fitzpatrick’s improbable string of dominance had finally run its course. ESPN announcer Joe Tessitore felt it too, remarking, “It doesn’t feel magical tonight, does it?” After seeing everything he touched turn to gold in Weeks 1 and 2, Fitzpatrick shed his Superman cape with a dismal first half on Monday night, gifting the Steelers with a trio of interceptions including one returned for a pick-six. On the strength of Fitzpatrick’s turnover-palooza, the Steelers went to the break with a decisive 30-10 advantage. After a thrilling first two weeks, it looked like the Harvard alum had finally exhausted his supply of magic fairy dust, rendering him a mere mortal again and paving the way for Winston to reclaim his starting job.
The boo birds came out for Fitzpatrick on the heels of his mistake-riddled first half, but it didn’t take long for the 35-year-old to get the crowd back on his side. Fitzpatrick seemed frazzled by the Steelers’ relentless pass rush during the first two quarters but for whatever reason, the pressure didn’t bother him as much after halftime. The veteran cruised to 227 yards after the break while completing over 65 percent of his second-half passes. More importantly, his heroics led to 17 unanswered points as Tampa Bay trimmed Pittsburgh’s lead to three with 5:43 to go in the fourth quarter. When all was said and done, Fitzpatrick finished with 411 yards, marking his third straight 400-yard passing performance. The list of players in NFL history to accomplish that feat is extremely short. In fact, FitzMagic is the only one on it.
Fitzpatrick’s inconsistency can be frustrating at times, especially for those employing him in fantasy. But give the man credit—on the gridiron, he’s as daring as they come. And when you’re down 20 points at halftime, you need a little maverick in you. Some of the passes Fitzpatrick attempted and, by the grace of God, completed on Monday night were downright Favre-ian. He went for the home run on a pass to Mike Evans late in the second quarter, fitting a deep bomb between two defenders for a 51-yard pickup. Evans, who finished the evening with a game-high 136 yards, was also the recipient of a 24-yard touchdown heave from Fitzpatrick, who slung two of his three scores in the second half. He also distributed a touchdown to Chris Godwin, who went up and snagged a jump ball over Steelers corner Artie Burns. It was a night of peaks and valleys for Godwin, who had a 56-yard touchdown overturned on review (replay showed he was down by contact at the 37-yard-line) while committing a fumble and a pair of costly drops including one inside the end zone.
DeSean Jackson, the NFL’s leading receiver through Week 2, had a similarly odd game. The 31-year-old put up a goose egg in the first half but redeemed himself somewhat by nabbing three catches for 37 yards after the intermission. Jackson displayed his signature speed on a thrilling, 83-yard punt return for a touchdown but unfortunately for D-Jax and his many fantasy owners (myself included), his efforts were largely wasted as the play was negated by a holding penalty. Had it counted, the touchdown would have been Jackson’s first punt return score since 2010.
On the Pittsburgh side, the Steelers were led by wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, who delivered 116 yards on nine catches including a game-sealing 18-yarder with time running down in the fourth quarter. The second-year wideout is one of just two players, the other being Adam Thielen, to register at least 100 yards receiving in all three games this season. Vance McDonald also went over the 100-yard hump for Pittsburgh while providing the game’s biggest highlight on a savage stiff arm of Bucs safety Chris Conte (may he rest in peace).
Antonio Brown didn’t get the squeaky wheel treatment as I predicted in Saturday's Narrative Street, seeing a season-low nine targets from Ben Roethlisberger, though he was able to salvage the night for fantasy owners by beating Brent Grimes for a 27-yard touchdown. Grimes sat out the first two games of the year with a strained groin and looked rusty in his return, allowing five catches for 101 yards on six targets. With Grimes showing his age and Vernon Hargreaves (shoulder) on injured reserve, Tampa Bay’s beat-up secondary will have a target on its back all season.
Though he wasn’t able to steer the Bucs to victory, Fitzpatrick impressed with his resiliency on Monday night, overcoming a slew of first-half mistakes while nearly erasing a 20-point deficit. Abandoning a 24-year-old franchise quarterback would be a drastic measure, but with Tampa Bay’s offense firing on all cylinders, benching Fitzpatrick seems just as rash. Choosing between Fitzpatrick and Winston won’t be an easy decision for coach Dirk Koetter. Winston is coming off a career-best season and tore it up during preseason play, though he’s never had a hot streak like the one Fitzpatrick is on right now.
Perhaps we’ll see a compromise with Fitzpatrick remaining the starter for one more game (next up are the Bears, led by newly-acquired Khalil Mack) and Winston eventually getting his job back after Tampa Bay’s bye week. Even if the choice is Winston, his leash will be shorter than ever with Fitzpatrick on deck.
Quick Hits: The Jets are making a play for Le’Veon Bell, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. New York has reportedly “reached out” to Pittsburgh about a trade, though it’s unclear what the Steelers’ asking price is. The star running back remains absent while continuing his contract holdout … Browns coach Hue Jackson announced Monday that No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield will start Week 4 against the Raiders. Filling in for an injured Tyrod Taylor, the rookie led Cleveland to a come-from-behind victory in his NFL debut Thursday against the Jets … The Browns aren’t the only team turning to a first-year signal-caller this week. Josh Rosen will get the nod for Arizona Sunday against Seattle. The UCLA product played the final minutes of Week 3, completing 4-of-7 passes for 36 yards and an interception in a loss to Chicago … Jimmy Garoppolo has been diagnosed with a torn ACL, an injury that will sideline him for the remainder of 2018. C.J. Beathard is next up on the Niners’ QB depth chart, though San Francisco could look to add a veteran via free agency (Jay Cutler anyone?) … Richard Sherman will miss “a few weeks” with a mild calf strain. He suffered the injury in Sunday’s loss to Kansas City … The Rams haven’t had much to complain about in the early going, though they’ll be without both of their starting corners Thursday against Minnesota. A high-ankle sprain will sideline Aqib Talib for at least the next month while a strained calf is expected to keep Marcus Peters on the shelf for 2-4 weeks. That’s good news for the Vikings, who are hoping to rebound following Sunday’s head-scratching loss to Buffalo … Evan Engram is considered week-to-week with a sprained MCL. With Engram out of commission, the Giants will turn to Rhett Ellison at tight end … Sean Lee is expected to miss a few weeks with a hamstring injury. His absence could open up snaps for first-round rookie Leighton Vander Esch at linebacker … Eagles coach Doug Pederson expects running backs Jay Ajayi (back) and Darren Sproles (hamstring) to practice this week. Both players were held out against the Colts in Week 3 … Ricardo Allen suffered a season-ending torn Achilles in Week 3. That leaves the Falcons without both of their starting safeties. Pro Bowler Keanu Neal tore his ACL in Atlanta’s season-opening loss to Philadelphia … Everson Griffen reportedly threatened to shoot someone at a Minneapolis hotel on Saturday, though no gun was found when police arrived on the scene. The Vikings defensive end avoided arrest but could still face discipline from the NFL … Muhammad Wilkerson underwent season-ending ankle surgery after being carted off against the Redskins in Week 3. The two-time All-Pro selection will hit the free agent market this offseason … Adrian Peterson came away from Sunday’s game with a sprained right ankle but will have the bye week to heal up. AD rushed for a season-high 120 yards while adding a pair of touchdowns in a Week 3 victory over Green Bay … Redskins left tackle Trent Williams is slated to undergo minor knee surgery on Tuesday. A six-time Pro Bowler, Williams is aiming to return against the Saints in Week 5 … William Hayes is done for the year with a torn ACL. The Dolphins defensive end suffered the injury in part because he was trying to avoid having his bodyweight land on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, which could have resulted in a personal foul for roughing the passer … Anthony Miller dislocated his shoulder against the Cardinals in Week 3. The Bears rookie has totaled eight catches for 60 yards and a touchdown this season … The Colts released Christine Michael on Monday. That would suggest Marlon Mack, who sat out Week 3 with a hamstring injury, is on track to play against the Texans in Week 4 … Colts coach Frank Reich insists the team has no concern over Andrew Luck’s arm strength. The question was posed after Luck was removed on a Hail Mary attempt at the end of Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia.