TAMPA, Fla. -- In an area of the country famous for its large population of retirees, Charlie Batch demonstrated that he's not yet ready to hang them up.
Batch, at 35, is a senior citizen in football years and his coaches on the Steelers tried to present him with a gold watch and send him on his way all summer long.
But when summer officially turned to fall, coach Mike Tomlin turned to his most mature and only healthy quarterback and he delivered in a big way.
Batch tossed three touchdown passes, including two long ones to Mike Wallace, and he had the longest run of his career as the Steelers' offense finally awakened and they burst the bubble of the upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 38-13, Sunday before a Raymond James Stadium crowd half-packed with fans waving Terrible Towels in the 90-degree heat.
"This guy hasn't had a lot of opportunity, not only in recent years, but recent days, weeks or months," said Tomlin, who acknowledged he had shoved Batch to the rear of his quarterback four-pack because of his durability issues. "He didn't blink. He has been a consummate professional and team player. Good things usually happen to those kinds of people."
The victory raised their record to 3-0 in the Ben Roethlisberger suspension era.
"Charlie was playing like he was 25 years old again," said Wallace, who became the first Steelers receiver in 22 years to catch two touchdown passes longer than 40 yards, finishing with 3 for 100. "I told him he got rejuvenated. Maybe we can squeeze five or six more years out of him."
Batch's first and last passes were intercepted but he was masterful in the pocket otherwise. He completed 11 of 14 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Steelers to a 28-6 halftime lead and then spent most of the second half handing off to Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed for 143 yards, a 7.5-yard average, and added another touchdown run. Batch finished 12 of 17 for 186 yards.
"No matter how things played out, I just wanted an opportunity," said Batch, who was going to be the odd-quarterback out until injuries sidelined Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon and thrust him into his first starting role since Dec. 30, 2007.
"The last man standing was Charlie," proclaimed Hines Ward, who snagged Batch's other touchdown pass of 9 yards, the 80th touchdown of his career. "His number was called and we never doubted Charlie's capability."
Ward's touchdown with 16 seconds left in the first half left little mystery as to its outcome the way the Steelers have played defense this season.
They allowed a second touchdown against them in three games, again near the end of the game. Even with that, the Buccaneers (2-1) needed two runs from the 1 before rookie LeGarrette Blount punched into the end zone on fourth down with 1:54 left.
"We're kind of upset we let them score at the end," said defensive end Keisel, who provided the déjà vu moment of the game in the fourth quarter.
OK, it was not quite as dramatic nor timely as James Harrison's 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII, but it looked a little similar.
Keisel intercepted a Josh Freeman pass, which was deflected by receiver Sammie Stroughter, and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth. He returned it down the same sideline and into the same end zone as Harrison, and stood upright at the end. Like Harrison, he even had an escort.
"We had plays like that before in this stadium," said Keisel, who scored his first touchdown since high school. "It was just a great feeling."
It was the first touchdown of the season for the defense, and also the only touchdowns the offense scored in regulation this season.
Both of Wallace's catches came in the end zone after a Tampa Bay defender misplayed the ball. His first came in the first quarter when Batch heaved a long one into the end zone. Safety Cody Grimm, son of Russ Grimm and starting because of a suspension to Tanard Jackson, had position on the play in the middle of the end zone but never saw the ball and Wallace came down with a 46-yard scoring catch.
"I don't think he looked back, he put his hands up," Wallace said. "He never turned around."
Batch's 24-yard scramble up the middle on third-and-6 kept their next scoring drive going and Mendenhall ran through safety Sean Jones for a 3-yard touchdown and a 14-6 Steelers lead in the second.
It became 21-6 three minutes later when Batch threw another deep ball into the end zone to Wallace and another Buccaneers defensive back misplayed it. Cornerback Aqib Talib had position to make the interception; instead, the ball clanged off his hands and into those of Wallace in the back of the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown.
"I kept my feet in and everything," Wallace said. "I've been working hard on that in practice."
Jeff Reed extended their lead to 31-6 with a 24-yard field goal in the third quarter before Keisel and the Buccaneers traded touchdowns.
The Steelers rolled up 201 yards rushing and held the Buccaneers to just 75 on the ground. Freeman, sacked three times, was the one quarterback retired Sunday, pulled from the game at age 22 by his coach, Raheem Morris, in the fourth in favor of mop-up man Josh Johnson.
Old age was served Sunday at quarterback.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published September 27, 2010 4:00 AM