The general and uncompromising strangeness that has suffused the 2017 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was on full display early this week. On Monday, following Pittsburgh’s 29-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Martavis Bryant called in sick, seemingly reaffirming his dissatisfaction with his role in the offense. Bryant confirmed as much Tuesday, telling ESPN that he will play out the remaining years on his contract and skip town in 2018 if the Steelers do not increase his role in the offense or trade him. Concurrent to these events, rookie receiver Juju Smith-Schuster lost his bicycle, launched a national initiative to locate said bicycle, and curved Mia Khalifa on Twitter, uniting the city of Pittsburgh in a manner unseen since the Penguins parade this past summer.
To put it very bluntly, the Steelers have one receiver—a talented, 20-year-old rookie who orchestrates Dragon Ball Z- and hide-and-seek-themed celebrations and whose bicycle saga is the feel-good story of 2017—who is very easy to like, and one receiver—a similarly talented 25-year-old whose flashes of superstar potential have been mitigated by a pair of lengthy suspensions, one of which lasted for an entire season—who is becoming increasingly difficult to support.
Bryant’s concerns about his role in the offense are valid. He’s been targeted only 36 times this season, which has translated to an underwhelming stat line: 18 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown. Extrapolated to a 16-game schedule, that’s approximately 41 catches for 534 yards and two touchdowns, which is seven fewer catches, 60 fewer yards, and one fewer touchdown than no. 3 receiver Eli Rogers had in 13 games last season.
Bryant was supposed to be the missing piece that put the 2017 Steelers offense in the “greatest NFL offense of all time” conversation. Instead, he is statistically among the least-productive secondary receivers in the NFL. Of course, this endorsement must be taken with a grain of salt, due in large part to the fact that Bryant is a distant second to Antonio Brown on the depth chart. Pittsburgh’s commitment to the run game, Ben Roethlisberger’s early-season struggles, and Smith-Schuster’s emergence as a viable receiving threat have likewise impeded Bryant’s homecoming tour.
Nevertheless, Bryant has failed to produce, and he, much like every other receiver in NFL history, wants to play in an offense in which his skillset is not only valued—and his abilities have been valuable, by the way, as the mere threat of Martavis Bryant has surely played a role in Brown’s historical receiving output thus far—but also utilized.
Will the Steelers grant Bryant’s trade request? No, they probably will not, but it would be awfully interesting to see what the return on such a transaction would be. Will the team release him outright? No, because that’s irrefutably stupid. The Steelers might, however, boost Bryant’s usage rate moving forward, though we’ll have to wait to see, as Bryant has been ruled out of Sunday’s game against Detroit (presumably for his social media rant in which he affirmed his superiority and said “y’all can have Juju”). Let’s discuss this game:
Sans Bryant, the Steelers find themselves in an all-too-familiar spot: without a surefire no. 2 receiver. Smith-Schuster has been a welcome addition to the offense this season and could easily fill this role. So, too, could former second-round pick Justin Hunter, who is the closest thing the Steelers have to a replacement for Bryant. Pittsburgh could also target Brown 30 or 40 times or give Le’Veon Bell the opportunity to send an unsuspecting member of the Lions into a stiff arm-induced coma. Fortunately, the Steelers have options.
The Lions find themselves in a similar spot, though their dearth of receivers is attributable to injury, not off-field drama. No. 1 target Golden Tate could miss Sunday’s game due to a shoulder injury (which would suck, because Tate has played in like 80 consecutive games, which is nuts for a receiver), while Kenny Golladay is still nursing a hamstring injury. Golladay, a rookie, is on track to play, but hamstring injuries are notoriously pesky, and there’s no way to predict how he’ll respond. Also, the Lions are 3-3 and playing in a division without Aaron Rodgers, so Golladay could very well be on a snap count this weekend in order to keep him fresh for the long haul.
Talented players = Elite production?
The Lions, even without the services of Tate, still have a bunch of talented skill players, including Eric Ebron, Daniel Fells, T.J. Jones, Marvin Jones, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick. But, much like the Steelers, their offense has failed to post numbers consistent with their on-paper talent.
Matthew Stafford, who became the highest paid player in NFL history this past summer, has averaged 238 passing yards per game so far this season, which is the 17th-best total among starting quarterbacks and his lowest per-game output since his rookie season back in 2009. His touchdown/interception rate (12/4) is solid, but he’s completing just over 60 percent of his passes—which would be just dandy in 2011, but not in 2017, a time in which NFL passers are connecting on their passes at an unprecedented clip.
Such a damning criticism demands proper context. For starters, the Lions have been downright bad on first down, thereby shrinking the playbook and impeding their ability to convert long second- and third-down plays. The offensive line also deserves culpability for Stafford’s issues and, by extension, Detroit’s sluggish offensive performance over their past three games. Stafford can’t rightfully complete pinpoint throws if he’s sprawled on the turf like a flayed deer. Through six games, Stafford has taken 23 sacks—17 of those have come in Detroit’s past three games.
Sunday is not shaping up to be an ideal day to right that ship. The Steelers are among the league’s best pass defenses, both in terms of pressuring the quarterback (ranked No. 2 in sacks) and limiting yards (ranked No. 1 in passing yards allowed per game and passing yards allowed per play).
The neatest matchup: Detroit’s front five vs. Pittsburgh’s front seven
“Front seven” is a borderline colloquialism, at this point. The Steelers ruined Andy Dalton’s life (and pants) last weekend, sacking the Red Rocket four times despite routinely sending only three or four pass rushers at a time and dropping everyone else into coverage. That, my friends, is a winning formula, provided that it can be sustained.
To Detroit’s credit, it did its very best to avoid this fate. Last off-season, the Lions signed T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner in free agency and acquired former No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson via trade. The problem with the latter transaction is that Greg Robinson sucks at football, which has created a yawning aperture at debatably the most important slot on the line. Procuring Greg Robinson to serve as your $135 million investment’s blindside protector is like purchasing car insurance from The General to protect your Lamborghini.
The Steelers probably won’t have the opportunity to luxuriate in Robinson’s presence this Sunday. They might, however, face Brian Mihalik! Remember him? The same Brian Mihalik who spent training camp as cannon fodder for Pittsburgh’s defensive linemen and linebackers. That guy could be tasked with guarding the most expensive player the NFL has ever seen.
The second-neatest matchup: The Lions running backs vs. the Steelers linebackers
Detroit’s rushing attack has been pretty stagnant thus far, though Pittsburgh’s run defense has been less-than-formidable in its own right. It’s a shame that the Lions are under-utilizing their backfield, as they boast a pair of electric playmakers in Abdullah and Riddick, both of whom could present major logistical and schematic issues for the Steelers.
Pittsburgh’s defense had it’s best run-stopping game of the season in last week’s victory over the Bengals, but still permitted Joe Mixon to skate through the second level for a 25-yard run and allowed Cincinnati to average 4.2 yards per carry as a team.
Three random things:
- Stafford is, by my estimation, no worse than the third-best quarterback remaining on Pittsburgh’s schedule. If the secondary can do to him what they’ve done to every other quarterback they’ve faced so far, it will further underscore their legitimacy as the league’s best pass defense.
- The Steelers are 12-2 against the Lions since 1966, but Jim Caldwell is 15-8 following his teams’ bye weeks. Something’s gotta give!
- (Very random) Hot Take: if you play defense and attempt to tackle a quarterback who is obviously in the process of sliding, you should be suspended forever (looking at you, Kiko Alonso).
Prediction: Steelers 24, Lions 17
Here’s a weird situational stat: Ben Roethlisberger has averaged only 225 passing yards per game in his eight career starts in domed stadiums (with fixed roofs; strangely, his average balloons to almost 290 yards if the roof is retractable). The Steelers will, in all likelihood, make Le’Veon Bell the focal point of the offense and relegate Ben to somewhat of a game manager role, which should translate to a victory, but no scoreboard-exploding offensive fireworks.
Depending on your preferred sports book, the Steelers are favored by approximately three points. I know, betting on the Steelers to go on the road and not only win, but also cover, is borderline lunacy; however, given Detroit’s recent run of incompetence, it’s feeling cautiously optimistic this week. The O/U this week looks to be in the ballpark of 45—you’re a wild man if you take the over.