Steelers vs Lions: A tale of two halves

Gregory Shamus

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” ― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Never before has one passage from one classic novel captured the total essence of a single NFL football game as the quote above by Charles Dickens does for this Steelers victory against the Detroit Lions. Watching this game was like re-living Dickens' novel condensed into an emotionally grueling 60 minutes. It was divided into four chapters of such diversity that one minute I was laboring under the ponderous prose and dust bound futility of Elizabethan fiction, the next I was propelled from one action scene to another faster than Raul Endymion in Dan Simmons' Hyperion series.

For the Steelers, the "best of times" were the first and fourth quarters; their second and third quarters bordered on the "epoch of incredulity". For Mathew Stafford and the Lions, their "best times" was by far the second quarter; their "season of darkness" , everything else.

The Steelers obviously threw away their usual first quarter playbook; whether they realized it's been read more by the opposition than a John Grisham novel at the airport, or the pages were so dog-eared and smudged by overuse we may never know. Whatever the reason, the opening chapter of this game was unlike any other the Steelers have played this season.

The Steelers scored 14 points in the first quarter against the Lions; that's only 5 points less than they have scored in the first quarter in all of the previous 9 games combined. This was the first game the Steelers scored more than one touchdown in the quarter, and they scored two while possessing the ball for 2 minutes 44 seconds less than they've averaged in all the previous games. Prior to the Lion's game, here's how the Steelers have fared versus their opponents in the first quarter:

Q1_efficiency_medium

And here's the first quarter of the Lions' game:

Q1_vs_lions_efficiency_medium

For the first quarter, the box score looked like this:

1q_box_score_medium

But as with any good novel, you can't assume you know what's going to happen after just one chapter. In the second quarter it looked like the Steelers forgot that part of the plot line that had them scoring points, or at least keeping down the number of points the Lions scored. The Steelers won the time of possession battle in the second quarter, but that's all they did better than the Lions:

Second_q_efficiency_medium

The box score for the second quarter is as follows:

2q_box_score_medium

Even with the Steelers set to receive the ball to start the third quarter, it was hard to believe they could make enough adjustments during half time to slow down the Lions. In the entire second quarter, the Steelers had just four first downs to the Lions 11; the Steelers were 0 for 5 in third down conversions while the Lions were 2 for 4. The 267 yards the Steelers gave up to Stafford, when combined with the first quarter stats resulted in the first half tale reading almost like the slasher novel that was the Patriots game two weeks prior:

1st_half_box_score_medium

By half time of this game, as with many novels, it appears the foundation for the ending of the story had been set. In one quarter the Lions overcame a 14 point deficit to lead by seven and it appeared whatever the Steelers were trying on either offense or defense had been easily figured out by the Lions. Detroit's Calvin Johnson alone had six receptions for 179 yards and two touchdowns in the half and the Steelers rushing was pathetic.

The third quarter for both teams was like most middle novels in a trilogy; ponderously written to justify its existence and reading like a book full of set-up filler for the finale. The Steelers' offense couldn't seem to find any rhythm, but the defense went back to what worked in the first quarter, with CB Ike Taylor receiving help over top by S Will Allen and company to throw the Lions off of their second quarter pace. The Steelers did manage a field goal to pull within four, but neither team were going to win a Pulitzer with what they wrote for the quarter. The condensed version of the third quarter looks like this:

3q_box_score_medium

But the fourth quarter, oh what a dramatic storyline the Steelers wrote for the final chapter. The Curse of Bobby Layne may have officially ended the year the Detroit Lions went 0-16, but as far as the curse they carry when it comes to playing in Pittsburgh, it lives on; the Lions, who came into this game 6-3 and in first place by a game over the Chicago Bears (who beat the Ravens in OT, thank you very much to now move into a tie with the Lions) have not won in Pittsburgh since 1966, and it wasn't meant to be this Sunday. On their first series of the quarter, the Lions started on the Steelers' 22 yard line and after two rushes for 12 yards and a failed short pass to Megatron, the curse raised its ugly head again. The Lions lined up for a field goal, but tried to catch the apparent somnambulistic Steelers' defense napping with a fake. Instead, Steve McLendon and Cam Heyward pounced on the holder as he attempted to run behind the Lions' right guard and McLendon forced a fumble which the Steelers in a plot twist actually recovered.

The Steelers had the ball on their own three yard line, and for a moment it looked like another Haley Horror novel with the first two plays runs up the middle for a whopping one yard gain in total. Someone needs to tell Haley that authors like L. Ron Hubbard can get away with pumping out the same dreck novel after novel, but not in the game of football.

However, Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown for 16 yards and suddenly, just as they did in the first quarter, the Steelers seemingly changed the novel from which they based their plays. Leading up to the Lions' game, the Steelers' fourth quarter performance has read more like Stephen King's The Dead Zone than an exciting thriller, with Roethlisberger throwing a total of five interceptions to four touchdowns and accumulating a fourth quarter passer rating of 71.4. This game however against the Lions, both the Steelers offense and defense took a page out of John Brick's novel Jubilee and re-enacted Sherman's march to the sea; Roethlisberger would not be denied as he threw for 109 yards and two TDs and a passer rating of 140.7 while the Steelers defense practiced a scorched earth defense against Stafford, Johnson and the rest of the Lions' offense, allowing ZERO yards passing to the Lions, giving Stafford a passer rating of zero point zero for the quarter.

The box score for the fourth quarter finishes the tale:

4q_box_score_medium

The Detroit Lions who are ranked seventh in the league in points per game, sixth in total offense, and who laid a beating on the Steelers in the second quarter worse than what Tom Brady and the New England Patriots did just two weeks prior, were utterly dominated in the second half by a Steelers' defense coached by a man in Dick LeBeau who many in Steeler Nation have questioned whether he was able to design a viable scheme against potent offensive players like Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Stafford and others.

Because pictures are worth a thousand words, let this last picture spell out for you what this Steelers defense is capable of:

2nd_half_box_score_medium

The Steelers held the prolific Lions offense to just 87 total yards for two full quarters; what's even more amazing is that despite the combination of Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew, the Lions only gained 35 yards passing the entire second half.

What this picture doesn't show specifically is that Megatron, the Lions' pre-ordained HOF receiver was kept without a reception for the entire half. The tandem of Taylor and Allen, while not perfectly in synch, kept the Lions from gaining any traction or rhythm; heck, kept ‘em from hardly gaining any yards at all.

If you treated the second quarter as a book review blurb on the game, the casual reader would naturally assume the Lions would go on to embarrass the Steelers in their quest for respectability in the NFC North, assuming a standing in that division similar to that the Steelers once upon a time enjoyed in the AFC North. What was writ large this Sunday however was that the Steelers do have talent on this team; enough talent in fact to keep a team like the Lions, a team that now ranks fourth in the NFL in terms of offensive yards per game to a mere 35 in an entire half of football.

Now all the Steelers' coaching staff needs to do is outline six more storylines to turn this season around; that's 12 more sequels to the second half they wrote against the Lions. While there's no promise of the Steelers winning football's ultimate prize if they do, it will certainly make for one helluva compelling read through the last third of this season's book.

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