The Detroit Lions, who are leading the NFC North at a later point this season than any since 1999, have a golden opportunity in Pittsburgh on Sunday to take another big step toward winning the division and qualifying for the postseason.
In fact, it's a moment the 6-3 Lions can't afford to let slip away.
Detroit has won two straight games, including last Sunday's 21-19 win over the Chicago Bears, to catapult into first place in the NFC North. While the Lions hold just a one-game lead in the division, both the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears have hurting rosters and will start backup quarterbacks in Week 11.
If this is truly Detroit's division to lose—and the oddsmakers in Vegas seem to think so for the first time all season—Sunday represents a chance to put some further distance between the three teams.
The Lions have never won the NFC North (the divisions realigned in 2002), and their last division title was in 1993, back in the days of the NFC Central. To snap these streaks, games like Sunday's against the Steelers, who are just 3-6 this season, have to be wins.
Here's what the Lions must get done in Pittsburgh to leave the Steel City one step closer to winning the NFC North:
Get Reggie Bush Mismatches in the Passing Game
Much will be made about Detroit's need to to find All-World wide receiver Calvin Johnson. That's pretty much a given every single week, and the Lions typically have no shortage of ways to get him his targets and yards.
Against the Steelers, Bush may also play a leading role in the passing game.
The Lions have proven capable of making Bush an asset for quarterback Matthew Stafford, whether through dump-offs, screen passes or splitting Bush out wide as a receiver. So far in 2013, Bush has 34 catches and a career-best average of 10.1 yards per reception.
The Steelers' fourth-ranked pass defense will likely key on bracketing Johnson and forcing others to beat them. Bush would then be asked to pick up a big part of that tab, especially if he sees a majority of coverage against either linebackers or safeties. The Steelers simply don't have the speed or quickness at either position to handle the elusive back, leaving mismatches to be exploited in the back seven.
But Also Feed Bush and Joique Bell in the Run Game
Play this game last season, when the Lions were one of the most one-dimensional offenses in football, and the Steelers probably have their way on the defensive side. But not so fast in 2013.
The Lions still love to throw the football (ranked first in the NFL in passing attempts), but the running game has pulled its own weight this season, especially as of late. In back-to-back wins, Detroit has rushed for 143 and 145 yards, respectively. Bush is averaging almost 100 rushing yards, and Joique Bell has chipped in another 37 per game during that stretch.
Detroit will need to continue that effectiveness Sunday, as the Steelers enter Week 11 as the 29th-ranked run defense.
Stopping the run has been one of the key factors in determining whether Pittsburgh wins or loses this season: Opposing teams are averaging 147.5 rushing yards over the Steelers' six losses, and only 86.7 in their three wins. More specifically, when the Steelers have allowed less than 100 rushing yards this season, they are 3-0.
Hitting the arbitrary number of 100 rushing yards won't guarantee a win for the Lions, but it will go a long ways in moving the football against a suspect defense.
Keep the Steelers One Dimensional
Pittsburgh has finally discovered the start of an effective running game, finishing three of the last four games above the 100-yard mark. In fact, over their last two home games, the Steelers are averaging almost 140 rushing yards. Both ended in wins.
For the Lions, the easiest guide to a winning defensive performance is stopping the run and forcing the Steelers to throw at a high percentage. Keep in mind, Pittsburgh has a nearly 70-30 pass-to-run ratio in its six losses this season, but almost an even ratio in its three wins.
There are multiple ways to get the Steelers out of balance on offense.
The most simple, of course, is making life difficult in the run game, and recent weeks suggest the Lions will be tough to move against on the ground. Over the last three games, Detroit has allowed 52.3 rushing yards per contest and just 2.5 yards per carry. Both numbers rank in the top five in the NFL.
The Steelers have also had to resort to a heavy dose of the passing game after falling behind early in games. The Lions can really put the pressure on Roethlisberger by starting fast and getting ahead on the scoreboard.
Win the Turnover Battle
Few statistics are as important for road teams in the NFL as the turnover battle. Finish with a negative turnover differential away from home, and chances are low that a win on the scoreboard is the final result.
This idea rings true with the Lions in 2013.
The Lions have won the turnover battle four times this season. They are a perfect 4-0 in those games, including a 2-0 mark on the road. Detroit is just 1-2 in road games when the turnover differential is even or negative.
|Turnover Story: Lions vs. Steelers in 2013|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
The Steelers only reinforce the importance. Pittsburgh has lost the turnover battle six times in nine games this season, including three times at home. The Steelers are just 1-5 in those games, and 1-2 at home.
The numbers also say that the Lions should have little problem getting takeaways and avoiding giveaways against Pittsburgh. The Steelers have 18 giveaways this season, 27th most in the NFL, and just seven takeaways, the third least.