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Steelers defense bails out a still-misfiring offense in 20-15 win over the Lions

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Perhaps in honor of Halloween, Pittsburgh’s offense shows up ugly in Detroit and stays in character throughout most of the game.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Plenty of Pittsburgh Steelers fans and media pundits were expecting Sunday night’s matchup with the Detroit Lions at Ford Field to mark the official debut of the Killer Bees and the rest of the Black-and-gold offense. But it didn’t take long for the Steelers’ offense to put that speculation to rest. Early in the first quarter on what looked like a game-opening touchdown drive, a wide-open Eli Rogers dropped a perfectly thrown pass in the end zone which should have given the Steelers an early 7-0 lead. Pittsburgh had to settle instead for a Chris Boswell field goal. Then, later in the opening quarter, Ben Roethlisberger killed a promising drive by overthrowing a pass to the double-covered Antonio Brown which was intercepted.

Offense still sputtering

In the second quarter, apparently to emphasize the fact that he wasn’t going to stop looking for Brown, Ben threw a 40-yard, jump-ball pass which—of course—No. 84 came down with at the Lions’ 5-yard line to set up the Steelers first touchdown on a Le’Veon Bell run. But speaking of Bell, he uncharacteristically fumbled the ball on a 3rd-and-1 play that killed a drive after it appeared he had made the first down. So the Steelers finished the first half with two turnovers to go along with a generally bipolar offense.

In the second half, the Steelers’ offense also managed only a single touchdown on a 97-yard catch-and-run up the middle of the field by JuJu Smith-Schuster. Boswell added a fortuitous, bank-shot field goal for a grand total of 10 second-half points. Not that Pittsburgh didn’t have ample opportunities, though. On a 1st-and-10 play from the Lions’ 24-yard line, Ben threw a pass beyond the reach of a wide open Darrius Heyward-Bey in the end zone. For the second time in the game, the Steelers had to settle for three points instead of scoring seven or eight.

But Roethlisberger wasn’t finished quite yet. Also in the second half, he overthrew Jesse James on a pass that would have been a crucial first down. Finally, in the fourth quarter, Smith-Schuster returned the favor by dropping a perfectly thrown pass to halt another promising drive. Once again, as we’ve seen throughout the first half of this season, Pittsburgh’s offense continued to misfire instead of salting the game away. That explains why it was impossible for Steelers fans to relax until the game clock had run down pretty close to the one-minute mark and Detroit was out of timeouts.

Bend-don’t-break Defense

It was only due to an outstanding effort by the Steelers’ defense that 20 points ultimately proved sufficient to defeat Matthew Stafford and the pesky Lions. Credit is certainly due to the Lions’ offense for the impressive chunks of yardage they were able to gain against the Steelers, particularly when working with their patched-up offensive line. Stafford completed 27 of 45 passes for 423 yards, but the Steelers’ defense limited Detroit to only 71 total yards rushing divided among four ball-carriers.

It was in the red zone, however, where the Steelers’ defense truly excelled and also where the game was won. Detroit had a total of 18 snaps in the red zone in the game without scoring a single touchdown. To appreciate the magnitude of this feat, consider that—coming into the game—Detroit was one of the higher-ranked teams in the NFL in red-zone offense.

While Pittsburgh’s offense had some bad luck on dropped passes that would have been TDs, the defense got a lucky break with 9:43 remaining in the game when Detroit’s leading receiver, Golden Tate, caught a 34-yard pass from Stafford at the Steelers’ 26-yard line, but lost his grip on the ball as he started to run. The fumble was recovered by Artie Burns.

As luck would have it

If anything, the temptation to hype the Steelers as Super Bowl favorites at this stage should be tempered by the knowledge that they were quite fortunate to escape from Detroit with their sixth win of the 2017 regular season. On the one hand, you can say Pittsburgh might have had a more convincing win if those two end-zone passes had been caught. But on the other hand, it’s equally obvious that without Tate’s fumble on the long pass, Ben’s perfect strike to Smith-Schuster on the 97-yard TD, or the TD-saving play by Sean Davis (swatting the ball from the grip of tight end Darren Fells with time running out in the second quarter), we’d now be cussing and discussing the Steelers’ lack of preparation and nasty habit of playing down to lesser competition.

So maybe we should mark this down as one of those games the Steelers won despite the fact that it might just as easily have slipped into the loss column. Perhaps the most positive outcome of this victory, though, besides Pittsburgh’s 6-2 record is that, despite largely failing to pressure Stafford or establish the run with any great success on Sunday night, the Steelers still won the football game.

But luck only carries you so far in any field of endeavor. So when I heard Big Ben at the post-game press conference remark that—while this certainly wasn’t the offense’s best effort, he expects things to turn around during the second half of the season—I had two conflicting reactions. Initially, I thought, “Oh great, maybe this means we’re finally going to see the offense that we all anticipated when the season began.” But after letting Ben’s words sink in for awhile longer, I thought, “Wait a minute buddy—you’ve already played half of the entire regular season but you’re still promising to get your act together before long?”

Of course, given the Steelers’ schedule from now through December, Ben is correct that his team will have plenty of time versus some fairly mediocre competition to work out the kinks. At the same time, though, most of those watching Sunday night’s game realize that the kind of Steelers offense we saw on display in Detroit isn’t going to be adequate when playoff time rolls around.