In week eight the Pittsburgh Steelers hit the road to play the Detroit Lions on Sunday Night Football. The Steelers are coming off of their best game of the season where they dominated the Cincinnati Bengals 29-14. The Lions, like the Bengals will be coming off of a bye week. They will be looking to rebound from a 52-38 loss against the New Orleans Saints where the Saints scored three defensive touchdowns. Here’s the week eight Pittsburgh Steelers what to watch for.
Pittsburgh Steelers What to Watch for Week Eight
While the Lions are only 3-3, they are only two and a half games back of the NFC North leading Minnesota Vikings. The Lions beat the Vikings 14-7 in week four at Minnesota. The only other team to beat the Vikings this year? The Steelers. Green Bay Packers all-pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers is out for the season with a broken collar bone. This has caused an increased sense of urgency amongst NFC North teams. With Rodgers out, the Lions have a renewed chance to win their division.
Right now, all three of the Lions losses have come against NFC South teams. Besides the 14 point loss to the Saints, the Lions have managed to hold their own against two very good teams. They lost to the 2016 NFC champion Atlanta Falcons 30-26 in week three. Similarly, in week five they lost to the 2015 NFC champion Carolina Panthers 27-24. Both teams are playing solid football this season with a combined record of 7-5 in one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions. If nothing else the Lions have proved they can hang with some of the best teams in the NFL.
Big Ben, Big Numbers
The Steelers and especially Ben Roethlisberger’s numbers have been extraordinary in primetime games and in domes. This game happens to be in both. In his last five starts in domes, Roethlisberger is 4-1 with a 72.8 percent completion percentage, 1,517 passing yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. His primetime game stats are even more impressive. Roethlisberger has won five straight prime-time games with a staggering 15 touchdowns and a lone interception.
Big Contract, Little Success
In contrast, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who signed an NFL record $135 million deal in the off season, has a .267 winning percentage in primetime games. The lowest winning percentage of any quarterback dating back to 2009. Granted the Lions have been in rebuilding mode for much of Stafford’s career in Detroit. When you look at history the numbers are definitely on the Steelers side. But this version of the Lions is different than in years past. For example, their offense has outscored the Steelers 161 points to 147 even though they’ve played one less game.
Strength Versus Strength
The Lions defense has been very disruptive on the season as well. They are tied for third in the NFL with nine interceptions. They are also tied for fifth in the NFL in forced fumbles and third in fumbles recovered. Remember, the Lions defense has tallied all of this disruption while playing one less game than the Steelers. Will Roethlisberger’s success in domes and on primetime continue, or will the new look Lions defense cause enough disruption to keep this game close?
Questions Without Bryant
One of the biggest questions going into this game is what will the Steelers 11 personnel, or three wide receiver sets, look like with Martavis Bryant inactive for the game. Obviously, Antonio Brown will be the centerpiece of the passing game, but who will line up with him?
Some people speculate that it will be JuJu Smith-Schuster moving to Bryant’s position and Eli Rogers manning the slot position. Others think that the activation of Justin Hunter in Bryant’s stead means he’ll be on the field. Especially in the red zone given that he’s almost 6’4”. But Hunter barely made the team and hasn’t gotten many reps with the first team offense.
However, the Steelers may revert to their pre-Bryant reinstatement depth chart. That means Darrius Heyward-Bey will man Bryant’s position in week eight while Smith-Schuster and Rogers rotate in the slot. After all, Heyward-Bey is one of the fastest players on the team and the best deep threat that’s active for week eight. Also, expect to see Le’Veon Bell implemented into the passing game more often as well.
Warning: Heavy Load
Watch for Bell’s work load. If he has more than 30 rushes against the Lions he will be on pace for a 400-carry season, a feat that’s only been accomplished five time in the history of the NFL. If the Steelers want Bell to have fresh legs come playoff time, they need to work James Conner into the game plan more consistently. There’s a happy medium between Bell being the star of the offense, and Conner being used to keep Bell fresh. The Steelers coaching staff needs to find that sweet spot.
Next Man Up
Look for injuries to play a big part in this week eight matchup. Both Marcus Gilbert and Stephon Tuitt will be inactive again this week. Their respective backups Chris Hubbard and Tyson Alualu have played well as replacements. Hubbard didn’t give up a sack last week while playing against the Bengals Carlos Dunlap. Alualu dominated the line of scrimmage, finishing the game with four tackles and a sack.
Tight end Vance McDonald will not be suiting up this week either due to a knee injury. McDonald has been a huge asset in the running game and has been worked into the passing game as well. Jesse James has not caught a pass in the last two weeks mainly due to McDonald’s progress. It will be interesting to see if James makes the most of his second chance at being the Steelers premier tight end.
All in all, don’t be surprised if the offense goes through Bell for large chunks of this game even with Roethlisberger’s extraordinary numbers under these conditions. With three offensive injuries and Bryant deactivated the offense will be fielding four backups in week eight. Watch for the Steelers offense to play for field position and ball-control against the Lions.
Next Man Up Detroit Lions Edition
As banged up as the Steelers are, the Lions are facing their own injury issues. Starting left tackle Greg Robinson has been ruled out, so has his back up Emmett Cleary. That leaves third stringer Brian Mihalik to start his first NFL game. That name might sound familiar as Mihalik was once a Steeler. Both he and Alejandro Villanueva were 6’9” defensive ends that Steelers coach Mike Munchak attempted to convert to offensive linemen. Mihalik suffered a knee injury while playing for the Steelers, ironically against the Lions, and was released after an injury settlement.
The Lions will also be without wide receiver Kenny Golladay and while their star wide out Golden Tate is listed as questionable, it’s hard to believe that he’ll be 100 percent healthy for Sunday night’s matchup. He is recovering from a shoulder injury and was seen in a sling earlier this week.
What To Expect
With a banged up offensive line and receiver corps the Lions will have to lean on their defense to take over the game. Something they’ve been able to do at times in 2017. But they haven’t played an offense quite like the Steelers. The Lions have played some solid quarter backs in Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Drew Brees. They lost to three out of four of those quarterbacks.
In contrast, the best running back that the Lions defense has played against is the Falcons Devonta Freeman. He’s ranked 10th in rushing yards going into week eight. Freeman ran for 106 yards and one touchdown on 21 carries against the Lions. In comparison, Bell ranks second with 684 yards on the year. Expect Bell to have similar success.
But the secret to the Steelers winning this game again lies with their red hot defense. The Lions offense has only averaged 84 rushing yards a game thus far this year, seventh worst in the NFL. If the Lions have no semblance of a rushing attack look for the Steelers front four to pin their ears back and constantly put pressure on Stafford. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has dialed up very effective blitzes over the last two weeks. The Steelers have tallied sixteen quarterback hits over that period. With no running game to keep the Steelers defense honest, look for similar pressure to be implemented against the Lions.