In the immortal words of Woody Harrelson in the classic film Zombieland, for the Pittsburgh Steelers, "It's time to nut up or shut up." No more excuses, and no more 0-4 months. This team is 3-2 since its bye week and playing much better football than it was in the first month of the season. But things don't get any easier this Sunday as the Steelers invite the 6-3 Detroit Lions to Pittsburgh.
Both of these teams are coming in from very different places. The Steelers are trying to claw their way back to respectability and relevance in the AFC North, while the Lions are perched on top of Pride Rock staring down at the rest of the reeling NFC North.
There was a point early in the year where the entire Steelers franchise was being called into question in terms of their future going forward. A win against a top team like the Lions, and 4-2 in six games would go a long way toward quieting the critics in the media.
When the Steelers Are on Offense
There is no real mystery to what the Steelers want to do. When they run the ball, they employ an extra offensive lineman, and when they want to throw it, they bring in an extra wide receiver.
This sort of predictability has worked with limited success this season; however, I can't see it working against the Lions. Reason being their defensive line, in particular their tackles are too good.
If the Steelers have a shot of moving the football with consistency, it's going to take a much greater level of imagination in their sets and play-calling. The one thing I don't want to see the Steelers do is try to force the action running the football. Sustaining drives will be important, because they can't let the Lions offense back on the field over and over again.
The missing piece of this offense in recent weeks has been tight end Heath Miller. This is a perfect week to see him back as a focus of the passing game, in particular off of play-action passing.
When the Steelers do choose to run, it has to be smart and conservative. Allow rookie running back Le'Veon Bell options and let him use that jump cut to get outside the tackles where he can operate in space. Honestly, the Steelers employ too many blockers at times, creating more congestion at the line of scrimmage.
Watch the Lions play, and it's apparent they are athletic and well coached. The Steelers are going to have to take what the defense gives them at times, and be patient. They can't take too many shots down the field too early and put themselves in a hole early.
When the Steelers Are on Defense
It would be great if all the Steelers had to do was double and triple cover wide receiver Calvin Johnson and call it a day. If he were the only weapon the Lions had, things would be fine. But the Lions have created a much more diverse offense with the inclusion of running back Reggie Bush.
Bush leads the team in rushing with 623 yards and is second on the team with 34 catches for 343 yards. If there is such a thing as an X-factor in this game it could be how the defensive attention on Bush affects the coverage on Johnson.
Previously in the season the Steelers have charged Ike Taylor in covering the opposing team's top wide receiver, with mixed results. Fellow starter William Gay isn't big enough to run with Johnson, so the Steelers need to be sure Taylor is the man, or nickel cornerback Cortez Allen. Allen did a nice job on New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronskowski earlier in the season.
Deep safety help will come in the form of Ryan Clark. Clark has struggled this year, and so I won't be shocked if the Steelers pull fellow safety Troy Polamalu out of the box and back and give a two-deep safety look. This means the task of stopping the run will be down one of its best players.
Quarterback pressure hasn't been something the Steelers have been able to count on this season. When you add in that the Lions have only given up 10 sacks on the season (as opposed to the Steelers who have allowed 36), it's clear if the Steelers choose to play pressure rather than coverage, there must be a change in strategy.
That change needs to be middle pressure. The Steelers need to blow open the A-gaps and send bodies right into the face of Stafford. Early in the season, the Steelers did a nice job using linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Jarvis Jones on middle pressures, which they must do again. Pair A-gap pressure up with physical press coverage on Johnson and the Steelers should be able to throw off the timing of the Lions offense.
A Little X's and O's
Looking at the Lions defense against the Chicago Bears last Sunday a play stood out to me as one the Steelers could emulate in multiple ways for good production. Let's take a look.
The Bears put wide receiver Brandon Marshall in the slot. At the snap, Marshall goes hard off the line of scrimmage, and the Bears fake the screen pass to the outside wide receiver. The Lions safety bites on the fake, leaving the Lions cornerback on an island with Marshall.
By the time the safety can recover, Marshall has inside position and makes the easy play. With the way the Steelers use the wide receiver screen game, this is a play they could certainly exploit on a fake. And they would be able to run it with multiple players as well. Something to keep an eye on for sure.
How Much This Game Matters
If I am the Steelers coaching staff, I spent significant time this week instilling in this group just how important this game is for them. The Lions are perched at the top of the conference, staring down at teams that are struggling. If there is an intangible in this game the Steelers could use to their advantage, it is their sense of urgency as opposed to potential complacency on the part of the Lions.
This tweet from the Steelers official Twitter account quoting Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was quite telling of the state of his state of mind:
Tomlin: It doesn't matter what's happening inside our division or the entire National Football League, we need to start stacking wins.— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 12, 2013
Excellence on Display
Fans of the passing game are going to get to see two of the very best in the game in Johnson and Brown. This tweet from NFL on ESPN gives some perspective:
I readily acknowledge that Johnson is the more talented player, but Brown has eased quite comfortably into his role among the top receivers in the NFL.
Quarterbacks on Display
No great wide receiver gets that way without someone to get them the football. In Roethlisberger and Stafford, these two teams have a pair of the best signal-callers in the league. Here's how they compare:
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Predictions and Implications
Last week, the home field paired with the disparity at quarterback gave the Steelers a significant advantage. This week, that quarterback gap is much closer, and to be quite honest, the matchups favor the Lions at several key positions.
That's not to say the Steelers cannot win, because they most certainly can. Controlled dives that finish in points will keep the Lions offense off the field, and that is what must happen. However, Detroit's ability to force turnovers and pressure the quarterback will be too much for the Steelers to overcome. The game will be exciting, and I hope it's close, but in the end, the Lions will be too much for them.
Going forward, how damaging a loss in this game will be depends on what the rest of the AFC North does. As the Steelers turn the corner and head down the stretch, dropping one here, if it means they rally in division, won't be the end of the world. However, you'll be able to see it from there.
All statistics provided by ESPN.com.