8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Steelers -3, Over/Under: 45.5
A pair of teams traveling in opposite directions clash tonight in the Motor City, as the struggling Detroit Lions host the rolling Pittsburgh Steelers at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. As we near the midway point of the campaign, the contenders have begun to reveal themselves, and in the AFC, the Steelers (5-2, 1st in AFC NOrth) are creeping to the forefront with an opportunity to enter their Bye Week with the best record in the conference. As maddeningly frustrating as this team has been at times, Mike Tomlin’s charges have proven to be one of the most formidable sides in either conference when they’re playing to their potential. After an embarrassing 30-9 loss at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars three weeks ago, Pittsburgh has performed a complete about-face in the subsequent weeks, going into Kansas City and knocking the Chiefs from the ranks of the undefeated in a 19-13 slugfest, before dumping bitter rival Cincinnati in a 29-14 route at Heinz Field last weekend. Though the final scores would indicate otherwise, the Offense returned to it’s prolific roots, with Ben Roethlisberger and Co. averaging 429.5 Total Yards in those two outings, marking the only two occasions in 2017 in which they’ve reached that particular threshold. Balance is the key here, folks, and the operative ingredient that makes this unit so damn scary to face; in their previous five games, the Steelers averaged 331.8 Total Yards of Offense, with 90.0 Yards of that figure coming via the Run, while in their most recent two contests they’ve churned out a whopping 173.0 Yards on the ground. Of course, Pro Bowl Tailback Le’Veon Bell (169 CAR, 684 YDS, 4 TD, 33 REC, 214 YDS) has had a sizeable role in this recent turn, allowing his side to control possession with 383 All-Purpose Yards on seventy-three Touches in the two wins. Reestablishing the run was certainly one of Tomlin’s objectives after his team’s uneven start, and the next will undoubtedly be cleaning up their inconsistencies in the Red Zone, which continue to persist despite the success they’ve had rushing the ball; on the term, Pittsburgh ranks a dreadful 30th Overall in Red Zone Touchdown Percentage, punching it in on only 42.3% of their opportunities. This was certainly evident in the victory over the Bengals, with the hosts at one point settling for Field Goals on four consecutive Drives which featured the Offense marching inside their opponent’s 20-Yard Line on three of them. On the whole, Tomlin’s side kicked five Field Goals after scoring Touchdowns on their first two possessions, which when coupled with Cincinnati’s own struggles, made this game much closer than it could have been. However, you shouldn’t expect a shift in playcalling in the Red Zone anytime soon, where Roethlisberger (61.9%, 249.3 Y/G, 6.61 NY/A, 9 TD, 8 INT) becomes the focus to varying degrees of success; inside the 20-Yard Line where the field of play shrinks considerably (along with the margin for error), Big Ben has completed 13-of-30 Attempts (43.33%) for seventy-eight Yards, and most importantly six Touchdowns in comparison to zero Interceptions. Interestingly enough, the 35-year old Quarterback has posted a Red Zone Passer Rating (90.3) nearly identical to that on the opposite side of the field inside his own 20-Yard Line (90.0). Either way, the best thing for the 14-year veteran, and by extension the Offense as a whole, is to allow Roethlisberger to build the passing attack off of Bell and the running game, for when this group is playing more complementary football, they’re so much more effective. In arguably his lowest point in years, No. 7 was picked off five times while attempting a staggering fifty-five passes in the aforementioned loss to the Jaguars, but in the two games following that debacle has connected on 31-of-49 Passes (63.3%) for 476 Yards, three Touchdowns and an Interception. Furthermore, he threw just twenty-five and twenty-four passes in those contests, which mark the only two times this season in which he’s attempted less than thirty balls. So there’s the recipe for success for the Steelers: rush for over 150 Yards and limit Roethlisberger’s passing attempts below thirty, in which he’s won ten consecutive games including the Playoffs since 2013.
Meanwhile, after a strong 3-1 start, that could’ve been 4-0 if not for a controversial goal-line call that overturned a go-ahead Touchdown as time expired in a 30-26 loss at home to the Atlanta Falcons, things have taken a turn for the worse for the Lions (3-3, 3rd in NFC North), who limped into their Bye Week dropping back-to-back games. The last time we saw Jim Caldwell’s charges, they found themselves on the wrong end of an embarrassing 52-38 track meet with the New Orleans Saints, which featured a whopping eight Turnovers (with four returned for Touchdowns), five of which were committed by Detroit. Needless to say, it’s incredibly difficult to win games when you give the ball away that many times, though the visiting side certainly had every opportunity to storm into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and steal a victory. Improbable would have to be the most appropriate way of describing the affair, with the visitors nearly erasing a staggering 45-10 deficit with just over twenty minutes of time left on the clock. Down thirty-five Points with 5:56 left in the Third Quarter, Matthew Stafford (60.4%, 238.0 Y/G, 5.18 NY/A, 12 TD, 4 INT) found Wideout Marvin Jones for a Twenty-Two Yard Touchdown, followed by another score of equal yardage to Tight End Darren Fells on the subsequent Drive to cut the lead to 45-24 heading into the final stanza. From there things got kind of crazy, as Jamal Agnew returned a Punt Seventy-Four Yards for a Touchdown, cutting the deficit to Fourteen, while Defensive Lineman A’Shawn Robinson picked off Saints’ Quarterback Drew Brees at the Two-Yard Line, and promptly barreled into the End Zone to make it a Seven-Point Game with 6:41 left to play. However, despite getting four more opportunities to tie the game, the Lions faltered, with a pair of Stafford Interceptions killing consecutive Drives, the latter of which was returned by Defensive Lineman Cameron Jordan in Detroit’s own End Zone to virtually end the game. In the end, it was yet another thrillingly close contest, which has become this team’s hallmark in recent years, yet one that they couldn’t see through due to the litany of crippling mistakes. Despite playing a Sprained Ankle and sore Hamstring, Stafford gutted out 25-of-52 Passes for 312 Yards, with three Touchdowns and three Interceptions, while taking five Sacks for a loss of thirty-one Yards, and losing a pair of Fumbles, accounting for all five of the Lions’ Turnovers, leading to twenty-one points for the home side, which in a game decided by fourteen points is enough to make a fan vomit. It’s safe to say that the Bye came at the perfect time for a team that has sustained a plethora of injuries of late, and is also in dire need of some self examination; we spoke of the importance of balance in regards to Pittsburgh earlier, with that holding true for Detroit as well, for in their past two outings they’ve rushed for an average of 58.0 Yards, which represents a steep decline to the 97.0 Yards in their previous four. Granted, this team has never been overly productive rushing under Caldwell’s lead, but when they’ve been at their best they’ve done just enough on the ground to keep defenses honest; since 2014, the veteran Head Coach has gone 30-24 (.555), with his team’s Rushing Offense ranked at the bottom of the league in a number of categories including Rushing Attempts per Game (23.0), Rushing Yards per Game (85.0), and Yards per Carry (3.66). That lack of balance has probably had a lot to do with their frequent participation in close games, where to their credit, they’ve been largely successful; since 2014, no team has played in more games decided by seven Points or less (Thirty-One) than the Lions, who have enjoyed a 19-12 record (.613) in such affairs. Hopefully, this team will emerge from the Bye relatively healthy, particularly on the Offensive Line, where Management made a concerted effort to improve a group that had consistently struggled to control the Line of Scrimmage and protect Stafford, who has been sacked 149 times since 2014. Veterans such as Right Tackle TJ Lang (Back) and Guard Bobby Wagner (Ankle) were signed in Free Agency, though both have been dogged by injuries of late, leaving their Quarterback to be dropped a disturbing twenty-three times already, which translates to being sacked on 9.3% of his drop-backs, by far and away the highest figure of his career, and a full 3.4 percentage points higher than last year.