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Detroit Lions limping into their Week 8 matchup with Steelers

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The Lions have been hit hard by key injuries this season—and that’s reflected in their 3-3 record.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately for loyal fans of the Detroit Lions, the team’s 2017 regular season has unfolded so far in a fashion that’s become only too familiar. The double-whammy of untimely injuries to key players--plus marquee players who haven’t lived up to expectations—has bitten the Lions especially hard as they near the season’s halfway point. Whereas normally you’d be looking for some key strengths to highlight as precautions for the Black-and-gold in preparation for their Sunday night showdown at Ford Field, the deeper you delve into the current state of the Lions, the uglier the picture gets.

For this reason, overconfidence might be the biggest obstacle the Steelers will face at kickoff in Motor City and, considering that the Steelers’ two losses have come at the hands of the Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars, it would be downright foolish to expect anything like an easy time for Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

Misfiring offense

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to overstate the trials and tribulations plaguing Detroit these days. Offensively, the Lions are ranked No. 30 in yards per play and No. 26 in yards per game. Quarterback Matthew Stafford plainly hasn’t been the quarterback that Detroit fans expected when the season kicked off. He currently ranks No. 20 in the NFL with a total quarterback rating of 48.5. But that’s actually pretty impressive considering that he’s been sacked 23 times in only six games (a 9.3-percent sack rate, earning him a tie for the league’s worst mark).

On the crucial units of offensive line and wide receivers, injuries have practically decimated the Lions. Taylor Decker, Detroit’s man-mountain left tackle and first-round draft pick in 2016, has missed the entire regular season so far, following shoulder surgery. What’s worse, Detroit has experienced a significant drop-off in play at this key position with Decker’s backup, Greg Robinson. Not only is Robinson currently listed as questionable after not participating in the Lions’ Tuesday practice, but the players behind him on Detroit’s depth chart are inexperienced, rusty, or both. Meanwhile, guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Rick Wagner also have been struggling with injuries, and it’s possible both might be unavailable for Sunday’s game.

Assuming that the Lions somehow put together a respectable offensive line this week—and Stafford actually has time to find his receivers on Sunday night (rather than peering out from the ear-hole of his helmet)—Matt might question exactly to whom he’s throwing the ball. The Lion’s No. 1 receiver, Golden Tate, is sidelined with a shoulder injury and will not be available. This moves the former Cincinnati Bengal Marvin Jones Jr. into the role of primary receiver—paired with rookie third-round draft pick Kenny Golladay who’s trying to rebound from a hamstring injury.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment on the Lions’ offense this season is tight end and 2014’s No. 1 draft pick Eric Ebron. Projected by recruiting mavens as a dominant offensive weapon, Ebron’s stats through six games are anything but special. Notching only 13 receptions for 102 yards and one TD, Ebron clearly hasn’t been much help to his harried quarterback when the wide receivers are covered.

Having made some costly errors that handed easy points to opponents, and generally being knocked around with regularity by the pass rush, Stafford recently has taken on the look of a gun-shy quarterback. With his receivers largely failing to get open in recent weeks, there’s speculation among the sports media that the Lions might be interested in striking a deal for the services of Martavis Bryant.

Defensive issues and a ray of hope

In their Week-5 loss to the Carolina Panthers, the Lions lost the services of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who’s out for the season with a torn bicep. Detroit’s defense ranks near the bottom of the NFL in yards surrendered per play but, on the bright side, Detroit has shown the ability to take the ball away, notching nine interceptions and nine forced fumbles in six games. Of the Lions’ 13 total sacks so far this season, eight of them belong to defensive tackle Anthony Zettel and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah—each player notching four sacks. Cornerback Darius Slay leads Detroit’s defense in interceptions with three, while his teammate Glover Quin has two.

The Lions currently rank No. 12 in total defense, No. 18 in passing defense and a very respectable No. 6 in rushing defense. But one of the defense’s nagging issues has been the fact that Detroit’s mediocre offense, plus some costly turnovers, have combined to give opponents easy points while allowing them to dominate time of possession. For example, in the Lions’ most recent, consecutive losses to Carolina and New Orleans, their opponents had a combined 15 minutes advantage in TOP.

“Truth Hurts” Department

If we faced only the cold, hard facts of the matter, and given the Lions’ multitude of personnel problems, there’s no way to give the nod to Detroit on Sunday night. But, of course, it’s the intangibles of pro football which invariably drive the Steelers’ faithful absolutely mad. In Week 8, those intangibles include the big stage of a nationally televised night game, the Lions’ extra motivation in playing before their home crowd and, of course, the familiar curse of a road game versus a consensus underdog. This alone is enough to make any red-blooded Steelers fan nauseous.

With a much-needed, two-week rest awaiting them afterwards, the Black-and-gold ought to be motivated strictly by the opportunity to reach the halfway point of their season at 6-2 and, in the process, perhaps putting further distance between themselves and their AFC North rivals. Certainly, there’s not much to hype in the Detroit Lions’ overall picture. If anything, their troubles should make Steelers Nation feel even better about where Pittsburgh stands today. And as long as this feeling of satisfaction doesn’t devolve into complacency, the Steelers should take another successful step towards their ultimate goal on Sunday night in Detroit.