The Pittsburgh Steelers will roll into Motor City on Sunday to play their eighth game of the season and the last one before a welcome break for their bye-week. While they’re facing a Detroit Lions team wracked by untimely injuries in some key positions, the Steelers ought to approach this opponent with about the same caution one might use in dealing with a wounded animal. Just like the Cincinnati Bengals’ attitude coming into the game at Heinz Field last Sunday, the Lions would like nothing better than to be able to hang a Steelers scalp on their front door in time for Halloween. That’s why, while Steelers fans might need game programs to identify some of the Lions suited up on Sunday at Ford Field, it would be a huge mistake to underestimate them.
More than any other single quality, and particularly in an NFL of virtual parity in terms of athletic talent, consistency is what wins championships. In fact, one big reason why Steelers Nation almost universally detests the New England Patriots — besides the well-known liberties Belichick and company have taken with league rules — is precisely because of their cursed consistency from year to year and regardless of roster changes. Given the impressive talent that Pittsburgh has assembled in recent years, consistency on the gridiron had been the key element missing prior to the second half of the 2016 season and their first two playoff games, when the Black-and-gold put together an impressive 9-game winning streak. That streak seemed to suggest their previous inconsistency (losing earlier to the Eagles, Dolphins and Ravens) might have passed.
Because there was so much consistency during the second half of last season, that’s probably why the Steelers’ 3-2 start through this season’s first-five weeks was such a disappointment to fans. But after all, the Steelers have only two losses and, in their past two wins, they’ve got the look of a team which has put their ugly Bears-Jaguars chapter behind them. On Sunday night in Detroit, the Steelers have the opportunity to prove they’re all the way back—which leads us to this week’s Three Keys to Victory:
Key No. 1: Pressure Matthew Stafford throughout the game
With the Lions ranking a lowly 29th out of 32 NFL teams in rushing, and the Steelers’ top-ranked secondary likely being able to handle Detroit’s receivers, there’s no reason for the pass rush to hold back, particularly in view of the Lions’ patchwork offensive line. Stafford has been sacked so often (23 times in six games) that he’s shown a recent tendency to anticipate pressure even when it’s not there. That’s made him susceptible to costly errors, so Pittsburgh needs to keep him on the run and not allow him to get comfortable in the pocket.
Key No. 2: Establish the run to create passing opportunities
In the past, the Steelers too often have gone away from the ground game early in games when opponents stuff their running plays. But with Pittsburgh’s solid offensive line and the Lions now playing without run-stopper Haloti Ngata, the Black-and-gold certainly should be able to move the ball on the ground with the amazing Le’Veon Bell if they’re persistent. As we’ve seen in the past two victories, running the ball effectively makes everything else work better.
Key No. 3: Don’t get greedy on offense
The frustration many fans feel with regard to the Steelers’ offense frequently results from nothing more complex than a lack of patience on the part of Ben Roethlisberger and company. This offense is particularly inept on third downs in the range of 1-6 yards to go. More often than not, they’ll call longer-range passes instead of higher-percentage plays designed primarily to move the sticks. This lust for the quick strike clearly is a tendency of Big Ben because it has persisted over the years and regardless of offensive coordinators. It typically takes hold shortly after Steelers’ drives cross midfield, and it’s backfired in any number of games.
If the offense is content to take what the defense gives them, instead of trying the shock-and-awe approach, the Steelers will improve their chances to end up with more touchdowns and fewer sacks or turnovers that thwart scoring opportunities. Offensive patience just happens to be one of the most important differences between the Steelers and their AFC nemesis, the Patriots. New England runs a methodical offense designed to exploit weaknesses in the opponent’s defense, whereas Pittsburgh too often seems to think they can bomb any opponent out of the stadium.
But we’ve definitely seen a shift in this paradigm during the past two wins over the Chiefs and Bengals. Assuming that long-term health considerations represent one important factor Roethlisberger is weighing in his thoughts about possible retirement, nothing would be more effective in prolonging his career than embracing a grinding, ball-control offense. As evidence, consider Pittsburgh-killer Tom Brady who turned 40 this past August yet continues to excel and, apparently, still is having fun playing the game. While Ben isn’t likely to stay in the league that long, he could certainly extend his career via the changed approach we’ve seen taking shape.
With Halloween right around the corner, nothing curdles the blood of Steelers Nation so much as facing a heavily-bandaged, walking-dead group like the Detroit Lions in the haunted house of Martha Firestone Ford. As we’ve repeatedly learned over the years, the more ragged and ugly an opponent appears, the greater the likelihood of a mind-boggling upset that makes rabid Pittsburgh fans rush en masse towards the leaping ledge. That’s why Sunday night’s prime-time matchup at Ford Field primarily boils down to a psychological challenge. We’ll soon find out whether the Steelers can continue to exhibit the stout character we’ve seen during the past two games. On the other hand, we’ll discover whether the Detroit Lions are able to shake off the adversity that’s hounded them through so many NFL seasons.