The Pittsburgh Steelers played a hard-fought game, on the road against the Detroit Lions. When time ran out, the Steelers walked out of Ford Field with a hard fought 20-15 win and will enter their bye week at a AFC North and conference best 6-2. While the two teams only managed a combined 35 points there was no shortage of offensive output. The two offenses combined for 874 yards. That includes 423 yards passing by Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Here are gut reactions to the victory.
Week Eight Pittsburgh Steelers Gut Reactions
The Lay of the Land in the AFC
The Steelers have a lot to look forward to in the second half of the season. They are 3-0 in the AFC North, and hold a two, essentially three game lead, (if factor tie-breakers) over their divisional rival Baltimore Ravens. Not to mention Ravens quarterback, Joe Flacco, is in the concussion protocol after taking a vicious hit from Kiko Alonso of the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night. The other teams that are undefeated within their divisions are the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots, who are both only 1-0 and both play in the AFC East, so that won’t last. The Steelers are tied with the Patriots for the best record in the AFC at six and two, with the Patriots scheduled pay a visit to Heinz Field in week 14.
The Kansas City Chiefs are close behind with a five and two record but do not play until Monday night. Come playoff time, if the Chiefs and Steelers are tied, the Steelers would win that tie-breaker via their victory against Kansas City in week six. They have to like their second half schedule as well. Five of their last seven games will be at Heinz Field. Lastly, there’s the Steelers AFC leading 4-1 record against the conference. The scariest part (shout out to Halloween) is that the Steelers haven’t even played their best ball.
The Steelers defense finally got to face a strong-armed, comfortable, quarterback who had a plethora of weapons, and it showed. Stafford was sacked twice and didn’t score a touchdown. But much like Steelers fans see when the Steelers play the Tom Brady or other accurate, strong-armed quarterbacks. Stafford was able to exploit the Steelers zone defenses for 423 passing yards and a plethora of big plays.
The Lions receivers numbers seem like something out of a video game. Marvin Jones Jr. had 128 receiving yards and a long of 43. T.J. Jones had a 34-yard reception. Golden Tate also had a 34-yard catch to got with seven receptions on eight targets. Much maligned Lions tight end Eric Ebron had a 44-yard catch, the longest play the Lions had all game. Even back up running back Theo Riddick had a 23-yard catch. This game was proof positive that even though the Steelers defense is ranked highly against the passing game, not all of those problems are solved. The back four or five have a lot to work on to be considered elite.
Old Habits Die Hard
One thing that was obvious against the Lions is that the Steelers defense began to exhibit some old, bad habits, especially when it comes to tackling. Almost every drive that led the Lions into the red zone involved a big missed tackle by the Steelers defense. Lions running back Ameer Abdullah shook Joe Haden out of his limited-edition cleats in the first half. He did the same to Sean Davis and Bud Dupree on separate plays in the second quarter. Later in the game, Davis again got juked by Ebron, a tight end that’s almost twice his size.
T.J. Watt was held in check by Lions third string left tackle Brian Mihalik. Mike Mitchell reverted to his old ways as well, attempting to shoulder tackle receivers instead of wrapping them up to bring them down. This poor tackling surfaced last year against the Philadelphia Eagles which led to a mid-season losing streak in 2016. Hopefully, the defense gets back to its 2017 ways coming out of the week nine bye.
Bell’s Output Limited, But Here’s Why.
Le’Veon Bell turned in a relatively pedestrian effort (for him), rushing for 76 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown. This was to be expected somewhat as Bell’s increase in production directly coincided with the emergence of Vance McDonald at tight end. Per Pro Football Focus, McDonald’s run blocking metric is an impressive 84.7 out of 100.
In comparison, Jesse James’ run blocking grade is a humiliating 42.2. A perfect example of James “blocking” occurred on Bell’s touchdown run. James pulled and was the lead blocker on the play, his defender was in the hole and James inexplicably stopped. Ironically, Bell paused as well, and burst into the end zone carrying the defender James was supposed to be blocking on his back. The bye week couldn’t be coming at a better time for the Steelers running game. McDonald can get healthy, Bell can get rest and hopefully, injured offensive tackle, Marcus Gilbert will be healthy enough to return to the field.
Drops In The End Zone Equal The Bench
With Martavis Bryant inactive for week eight there were major questions about what receivers would step up in Bryant’s place. While Antonio Brown had his workmanlike ten targets, he only came down with five receptions. Eli Rogers didn’t have a catch and was benched after dropping a wide-open catch in the end zone. A similar situation transpired later in the game with Darrius Heyward-Bey. Neither of which finished the game with a reception. Justin Hunter was targeted once and converted a third and six.
Answers? Or Questions?
The standout receiver was rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster. He finished the game with 193 yards receiving on ten targets. It included a 97-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger that gave the Steelers a lead that they never rescinded. The interesting part about Smith-Schuster’s performance is revealed when you analyze his stats. He did drop an easy pass, just like Rogers and Heyward-Bey (although it wasn’t in the end zone). Smith-Schuster is only the third Steelers player all season to receive three targets. The other two? Brown and Bell.
I bet Bryant would be satisfied if he had ten targets going his way. Also, Smith-Schuster was the second receiver not named Antonio Brown to not lead the Steelers in receiving yards in a 2017 regular season game. The other Steelers receiver to compile more yards than Brown this season in a single game? Bryant. Hopefully Mike Tomlin has this issue addressed. Or did Smith-Schuster’s break out performance just throw gas on a fire that’s already flared up twice?
Big Stops Lead To A Big Win
When this game is boiled down, it was the Steelers defense’s ability to keep the Lions offense at 2/12 on third down efficiency and 0/5 in the red zone, not to mention 0/2 on fourth down from inside the Steelers five-yard line. The first fourth down stop took place in the third quarter with the Steelers clinging to a 13-12 lead. After Lions running back Dwayne Washington was stopped at the one yard line by Javon Hargrave, the Lions decided to go for it on fourth and one. Tyson Alualu, a former first round pick, signed in the off-season from the Jacksonville Jaguars shed his block and sacked Stafford for a one yard loss.
The second fourth down stop took place with less than two minutes left in the game. The Steelers lead and possibly the win was on the line with the Steelers leading 20-15. On third and five the Lions Riddick bounced a run outside and was tackled by Mike Hilton for a loss of two yards. This set up a fourth and goal from the seven for the Lions offense. The Steelers rushed three and were still able to get pressure on Stafford, who threw an incomplete pass intended for Ebron that essentially ended the game.
The Last Word
All in all, the Steelers couldn’t ask to be in a better position entering their bye week. They have a comfortable lead in the division, are among the best teams in the AFC and have the record to prove it. Also, they play five of their last seven games at Heinz Field and have a week to fix their on and off-the-field issues. Whether it’s the team’s overall health, Bryant’s touch count, or the offense’s red zone efficiency, this is the perfect time to address any issues before going on a late season run, locking up the one seed in the AFC, and making sure the road to the Super Bowl goes through Heinz Field in 2017.