Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

September 20, 2018 at 12:52 am.

Fitzmagic has Bucs off to blazing start

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not who we thought they were.

Neither is quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has enjoyed a remarkable rebirth in his 14th NFL season.

Taking over for suspended quarterback Jameis Winston, Fitzpatrick became the first player to produce back-to-back 400-yard, four-touchdown passing games to start the season.

Fitzpatrick has twice been named the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Week. He’s not only completing 78.7 percent of his passes, his average per attempt is a whopping 13.43 yards.

It’s Fitzmagic on steroids and the Bucs plan to ride the wave even after Winston returns following Monday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Raymond James Stadium.

Bucs fans have embraced Fitzpatrick in a big way, with some wearing faux beards to the game.

“His numbers are off the charts,” head coach Dirk Koetter said. “So how would you expect everybody to respond? Of course, our team is playing well. They’re doing something not many thought they could. We have a good locker room of guys believing each other right now. So any player that’s playing well and backing it up with his play.”

What happens when Winston returns following the Steelers game?

“We’ll worry about that when the time comes,” Koetter said.

It’s hard to imagine the Buccaneers or Fitzpatrick being able to maintain this pace on offense.

The passing game has been incredibly efficient. In the last two years under Koetter, the Bucs had two pass plays over 50 yards. Already this season, they have four.

There are plenty of reasons for the early success.

Fitzpatrick took all the first-team reps in training camp and the preseason, establishing chemistry with his receivers. His experience allows him to make quick decisions. He has established stars at receiver in Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. He also has emerging stars in tight end O.J. Howard and receiver Chris Godwin.

Finally, the offensive line has been fortified with the addition of center Ryan Jensen, which has allowed Ali Marpet to move to left guard. Fitzpatrick has only been sacked twice in 61 pass attempts.

Defensively, the Bucs are very inexperienced in the secondary. They may be forced to start three rookies Monday night against Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But the Steelers are reeling and seem to be a bit in turmoil. In addition to the holdout by running back Le’Veon Bell, receiver Antonio Brown missed a day of work earlier this week.

The question is whether both teams will continue on their current paths. When Winston was suspended, a 3-0 start seemed unimaginable with games at New Orleans and home against defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia and the Steelers.

But here we are. Fitzpatrick is on fire. So are his receivers. The defense is doing just enough to win. The only question now is whether they can keep this going on the national stage of Monday Night Football.

SERIES HISTORY: 11th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 8-2. Bucs beat the Steelers 27-24 in their last meeting at Heinz Field in 2014 on a last-second touchdown pass from Mike Glennon to Vincent Jackson.