Eight times in the history of the NFL has a passer eclipsed the 400-yard passing threshold in a game without throwing a touchdown. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has done it twice.
The first time Stafford accomplished this was back in 2012. In that game—a 31-18 home loss to the Atlanta Falcons—Stafford actually set the NFL record for most single-game passing yards without a touchdown, an unfortunate distinction he holds to this day. He did it again on Sunday, this time in a 20-15 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Stafford’s final stat line—27 completions for 423 yards, yet no touchdowns and no interceptions—is one that demands further context. The field is only 100 yards long— how on earth does a guy amass a quarter-mile of passing yardage without finding pay dirt?
For one thing, Stafford’s Lions, now 3-4, were utterly inept in the red-zone, failing to score a touchdown in any of their five trips inside Pittsburgh’s 20-yard-line. The New York Giants, ranked 16th in the league in red-zone scoring, are converting 53 percent of their red-zone trips into touchdowns. That’s a mighty fine clip to use as our median. So, if you consider that the average NFL team will convert a little more half of its forays into the red-zone, that the Lions went 0-for-5 is a borderline statistical anomaly. That, or Pittsburgh’s defense is just really, really good under pressure.
Let’s ignore the fact that the Steelers and their second-ranked defense surrendered nearly 500 yards to the league’s 26th-best offense (before Sunday’s contest, anyway) and focus on the latter point. In addition to their zero percent red-zone touchdown percentage, the Lions were 2-for-12 on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth down. To have transformed from a sieve-like mesh on first and second downs to a monolithic force imbued with innate stopping power during pressure situations is, in the spirit of Halloween, absolutely spooky.
But that’s precisely what the Steelers did. As the field contracted, Stafford had less space with which to work, taking him out of his element.
Now, none of this is to say that permitting an opponent to accrue 400-plus passing yards isn’t concerning. It is. That the Steelers, who entered Sunday as by far the league’s best pass defense, allowed nearly three times as many air yards as usual is worthy of a cocked eyebrow. But Matthew Stafford boasts a zone-breaking skill set; namely, he can throw the football really, super hard, which allows him to squeeze balls through windows that they have no business squeezing through. Take, for instance, one of the numerous throws Stafford made towards the sideline in which he fit the ball neatly between the cornerback and safety. Stafford had, in my estimation, a handful of milliseconds to get the ball where it needed to be, and even then he had to make a perfect throw to do it. Stafford has been somewhat inconsistent over the course of his career, but the “good” Matthew Stafford is as good as almost any quarterback in the NFL.
Good Matthew Stafford showed up to handle snaps on first and second downs against the Steelers, which, to me, is why the zero touchdowns allowed by the Steelers is more telling than the 423 yards they allowed.
Let’s check in with the remainder of the team:
The hero that this city deserves - Stock up
JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose affable disposition and boisterous personality have made him arguably the most beloved figure on the current Pittsburgh sports landscape, had the best game of his career against the Lions, setting several records in the process.
First, Smith-Schuster, with four touchdowns on the season, has now scored more touchdowns before his 21st birthday than any player in NFL history (JuJu’s birthday isn’t until November 22, so he has some time to extend this record, too).
The second record that Smith-Schuster broke occurred on this 97-yard touchdown that no one expected.
This was the longest touchdown catch by a rookie ever. Solid stuff, this.
Smith-Schuster finished Sunday’s game with seven catches on 10 targets for 193 yards. Including the aforementioned touchdown, he likely would’ve crossed the 200-yard mark if he’d been able to keep his mitts on a catchable pass in the fourth quarter. Not satisfied with scoring what ultimately was the game-winning touchdown, JuJu caught a shovel pass on 3rd-and-2 late in the fourth quarter to seal Pittsburgh’s sixth victory of the season. With 24 receptions, 424 yards and four touchdowns this season, Smith-Schuster has supplemented his lovable off-field persona by becoming a volcanic on-field presence capable of handling the receiving workload in the rare event that Antonio Brown is held in check (if you want to call five catches for 70 yards “held in check”).
So, to recap JuJu’s week: He lost his bicycle, launched a national campaign to locate his bicycle, found his bicycle, attended a Penguins game, played hide-and-seek with children at a Penguins game, met Rita Ora at a Halloween concert, enjoyed a coming-out party on national television, and gained more than 100k new Twitter followers. It’s JuJu’s world, man.
The guy that everyone kind of forgot about - Stock down
Martavis Bryant, the anti-JuJu, spent Sunday’s game on the sidelines serving a de facto suspension for, ironically enough, posting some less-than-supportive words about Smith-Schuster on Instagram. Whenever the NBC camera panned Pittsburgh’s sidelines, it caught Bryant looking downright forlorn on more than one occasion. It’s hard to blame him.
There are really only two ways the whole “Bryant saga” can go moving forward. Ideally, Bryant will use JuJu’s breakout game as motivation to reemerge as a dynamic threat in Pittsburgh’s passing attack. Smith-Schuster ran plenty of his routes from the slot against Detroit, so Bryant should have no issues jumping back into his role on the outside.
Of course, being demoted and watching the younger, sprier, more likable version of yourself thrive on a national stage has gotta be at least a little bit discouraging. It’s possible, then, that Bryant remains a capable, but largely anonymous component in the Steelers’ offense.
There’s also a third outcome. The NFL trade deadline is Tuesday, and the Steelers are heading into their bye-week, affording them more than enough time to get a veteran player up-to-speed in the event Bryant is traded (and the Steelers would need to recoup a veteran starter; trading Bryant would make them worse this year, which they can’t afford to do given the uncertainty of Roethlisberger’s playing status beyond 2017). An unlikely outcome, to be sure, but one worth considering nonetheless.
The offensive line - Stock up
It’s now been two weeks since the Steelers have allowed a sack, and they’ve allowed just one in their past three games. It’s clear that this unit, which was among the league’s best in 2015 and 2016, has shaken off some of the early rust and re-established themselves at the vanguard of the NFL. Remarkably, Pittsburgh has yet to luxuriate in the services of a healthy Marcus Gilbert, so the offensive line could get even better in the weeks ahead.
The front seven - Stock up
That’s more like it! Sans Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers held the Lions rushing attack to 71 yards on 22 carries (11 of those yards came on a Matt Stafford scramble, so the front seven was even better against the run that the baseline statistics indicate).
Mistake-free football - Stock down
Eli Rogers dropped an easy touchdown. Ben threw another awful pick. He also missed some wide-open throws, including a surefire touchdown to Darrius Heyward-Bey. Le’Veon Bell coughed up a very rare fumble in the red-zone. For the second week in a row, Pittsburgh’s offense should’ve scored considerably more points than it did, but was undone by poor execution. And yet, they’re 2-0. Trust the result, not the methodology, I suppose.
Everything - Stock up
Tuitt and Gilbert are, without hyperbole, two of the best players at their positions in the NFL, so the fact that the Steelers are 6-2 without them is a positive indication of things to come. Further, Pittsburgh will face only one quarterback who’s objectively better than Stafford (Tom Brady, duh) and another who’s currently playing better than Stafford (Deshaun Watson, who might be the most electric player in the NFL right now). In truth, Pittsburgh’s secondary probably isn’t 140-yards-per-game good, but it certainly isn’t 400-yards-per-game bad, either. Even if they ultimately regress towards some unforeseeable mean by season’s end, it’s easy to imagine this unit still ranking among the top five teams in the NFL in pass defense.
More importantly, Ben Roethlisberger is starting to suck less (though the interception he threw against the Lions was...man, it was bad), which also bodes well for Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl chances.
The game ball - NBC
They played “JuJu on that Beat” as the “outro” track leading into a commercial break following Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown. That’s a power move.
New Weekly Feature - Celebration of the Week
Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Index
Ben missed some throws and had the bad interception, but his toss to JuJu on the record-setting touchdown was a dime and he called a ton of plays at the line in accordance with Detroit’s defensive tells. In addition, Ben, much like every person on the planet Earth, could barely contain his unmitigated cheerfulness when asked about Smith-Schuster in his post-game press conference. The retirement index is at a 0. Ben is gonna play for as long as JuJu is on the team.