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Steelers News: Did Matthew Stafford provide the blueprint for shredding the Steelers’ pass defense?

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The Pittsburgh Steelers were able to win in Week 8, but not without giving up a ton of yards through the air. Will Stafford be only the first of many to shred this defense?

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

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense entered Week 8 with the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense, but they certainly won’t enter Week 9 with the same ranking. Not after Matthew Stafford, and the Detroit Lions racked up over 400 yards passing on the secondary.

Pittsburgh’s defense was able to keep the Lions out of the end zone, but it doesn’t leave fans with much confidence, not when some pretty good quarterbacks await the defense after the bye-week. Oh yeah, including some bum named Tom Brady.

Is this just a bump in the road or a sign of things to come?

Time to check on the news surrounding the Black-and-gold outside the walls of BTSC:

Over the summer and through training camp, cornerback Joe Haden was preparing for another season in Cleveland, unaware of the good fortune headed his way from across the state line.

With the preseason winding down, he found himself sitting in Sashi Brown's office hearing two words that really didn't please him coming from the lips of the Cleveland Browns' executive vice president of football operations.

Pay cut.

“I wasn't going to take a pay cut and play for Cleveland,” he said.

It didn't take long for the Browns to release him and for Haden and the Steelers to agree on a three-year, $27 million contract. He said he could have stayed in Cleveland had he agreed to play for less money. But Haden was eager to play for a winning team after spending seven years in Cleveland, and he also was able to reunite with Florida teammates Marcus Gilbert and Maurkice Pouncey.

Through seven games, Haden was helping the Steelers lead the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed per game (145.2). But then Detroit and Matt Stafford happened on Sunday night.

Stafford threw for 423 yards, completing 27 of 45 passes without an interception. But also lacking from Stafford's stat line was a more important statistic: touchdown passes. The Lions were forced to settle for five field goals.

The Steelers won the game, 20-15, boosting their record to 6-2 and keeping them two games in front of the second-place Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North.

Haden said he likes the sound of 6-2. He hasn't played on a team that achieved that record since college.

Life is good, but still there's some explaining to do after the Lions nearly tripled the number of passing yards the Steelers were allowing on average.

“When we were in those zone coverages,” Haden said, “(Stafford) was able to squeeze the ball into those tight windows. A lot of quarterbacks wouldn't even try the passes he threw.”

He said Stafford and Aaron Rodgers are the best at fitting a pass into tight coverage.

Linebacker Ryan Shazier said no one should be surprised at Stafford's success.

“He's not getting paid $135 million for no reason,” Shazier said. “He can put the ball where he wants. Some throws he makes, 70 percent to 80 percent of the quarterbacks in the NFL can't make.”

Fortunately, score is kept in the NFL by points, not yards, and the Steelers have been successful in that department in most games. Among teams that played eight times, the Steelers allowed the fewest points (131).

Shazier said the Steelers felt disrespected when the Lions twice ignored a chip-shot field goal to try to score on fourth down.

“It gives us a little more fire and forces us to play harder,” he said. “Everybody here has a chip on their shoulder. We understand people don't really respect our defense the way we want to be respected. We carry that every time we're out on the field.”

No Steelers rookie might ever recapture the excitement, joy and fan delirium that swarmed around Franco Harris in 1972.

Yet JuJu Smith-Schuster is trying.

There have been a handful of Steelers rookies who were regarded as rare performers with personalities that infected fans and teammates, starting with Harris. Add Louis Lipps in 1984 with his electrifying receiving, punt returns, 11 touchdowns and the “Loooooo” chant at Three Rivers Stadium. Kordell Stewart captivated teammates and fans with his Slash role at receiver and quarterback, his No. 10 jersey becoming a top seller as he aided the Steelers’ Super Bowl run as a rookie in 1995.

No rookie quarterback ever did what Ben Roethlisberger accomplished as he went 13-0 as a starter in his rookie season in 2004.

And now there’s JuJu, the darling of Steelers fans everywhere who would love to buy him a drink, except he’s not yet old enough. The youngest player in the NFL, who turns 21 on November 22nd, he’s performed on and off the field like a future father-in-law’s dream.

From getting his student driver’s license to having his primary mode of transportation — his bicycle — stolen, followed by its triumphant return, to his record-breaking Sunday afternoon in Detroit, JuJu has the JuJu as the next break-through rookie performer and personality of the Steelers.

His 97-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday not only set a Steelers’ record and became the winning score in their 20-15 victory. His celebration afterwards fit his story perfectly. He ran over with a huge chain and bolted it around one of the stationary bikes on the team’s sideline. Steal that! It may have topped his hide-and-seek TD celebration a week earlier at Heinz Field.

There are many ingredients necessary to win a championship. The obvious are talented players and great coaching. There’s also a little bit of luck with regard to schedule and/or path to the championship.

Less obvious, though, is the “it” factor because “it” is so hard to quantify and identify. The “it” factor, though, seems to include intangibles like grit, mental toughness and the ability to handle pressure. It’s the ability of a team to win a game when there’s no logical reason it should have won.

That’s precisely what the Steelers showed Sunday night in their 20-15 win against the Lions. If you look at the statistics and watched the game, there’s no logical reason why the Steelers should have won. They were outplayed by the Lions and at times seemed powerless to stop them. The Steelers’ offense essentially made one huge play and didn’t do much else, and the defense was on its heels for the entire game.

But then again, the Steelers made every single play they needed to make when the game was on the line. That’s especially true of the defense, which kept the Lions out of the end zone the entire game. The Lions had nearly 500 yards of total offense, and Matthew Stafford threw for 423, but they couldn’t get those final few yards to finish drives.

A different Steelers player stepped up on just about every Lions’ play in the red zone. Detroit had to settle for five field goals and should have kicked two more but instead twice opted to go for it on fourth down. The Steelers bent all night long, but they never broke, and that shows a certain level of mental toughness.

The offense was sort of choppy all night. It never really got rolling, producing only 13 points through 42 minutes. At that point, the Steelers faced a 3rd-and-9 from their own 3-yard line. That was a critical moment in the game because, had they not converted the first down, they’d have punted the ball back to the Lions and given them excellent starting field position.

Most teams would probably have played it safe, running the ball or throwing a short pass or wide receiver screen. The Steelers didn’t do that, though, as Ben Roethlisberger dropped back and threw the ball downfield to JuJu Smith-Schuster. It was the perfect matchup for the Steelers, as Smith-Schuster was covered by a linebacker who couldn’t keep up with him, and he ran all the way to the end zone to give his team a 20-12 lead. It was a 97-yard pass play and, frankly, the play that changed the game.

The Steelers’ defense extended their streak of not allowing a touchdown to six quarters in fending off the Lions 20-15 on Sunday night at Ford Field, but that bend-don’t-break posture wasn’t new.

It’s just that it’s never been better: Five red-zone situations, zero touchdowns.

The primary goal of the day was to force Detroit’s offense to go one-dimensional by limiting the running backs, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, and that was achieved. Abdullah ran for 27 yards, Riddick for 21. That, of course, would turn the attention to Matthew Stafford, the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback, and that … really wasn’t achieved. Stafford completed 27 of 45 passes for 423 yards, the most by anyone against the Steelers all season. He made several solid reads and throws that moved the Lions down the field consistently throughout the game.

Part of Stafford’s efficiency was due to keeping the Steelers’ pass-rush from affecting him. The Lions came into the game having allowed 23 sacks in their six games this season, while the Steelers had the second-most sacks with 24. In this game, though, Stafford was sacked only twice for a total of 12 yards lost.